TITLE: An Audience of One AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 21, 2006 5:58 PM DESC: ----- BODY: What if they through a talk and no one came? I went to a talk on teaching here today and was the only member of the audience. The speaker came, of course, and the organizer of the talk, too. But then there was just me. The speaker honored me by giving his talk anyway. During the session, a fourth person arrived, and he was half-audience and half-expert. The talk was on Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID), a technique that helps faculty receive information on how well a course is going. The technique resembles the writers' workshop used in the creative writing world and the software patterns community. In the course of a class period, a moderator -- a person with no connection to the students or course, and preferably not in a power relationship with the instructor -- poses three or four questions to the students and then works with them via group discussion to arrive at a consensus about what is working in the course and what could stand improvement. The moderator requires certain skills at guiding discussion and framing the points of consensus. The author -- the instructor -- is not present to hear the discussions; instead, the moderator meets with the instructor soon after the diagnosis to present the feedback and to discuss the course. Much like a PLoP workshop group, instructors often serve in round-robin as moderators of SGIDs for one another. SGIDs are usually done during the semester, after students have enough time to know the course and instructor but early enough that the professor can use the information to improve the course content, structure, delivery, etc. Many instructors might think of this as useful only for "bad teachers" who need to get better. But I think that even the best instructors can get better. Getting feedback and using it to inform one's practice seems like a good idea for any instructor. The colleague who gave this presentation, a math professor, is widely recognized as one of the best teachers at my institution, and he has used SGIDs in his own courses. I can imagine having a SGID done in one of my courses, and I can also imagine offering this tool as a possibility to a faculty member who came to me looking for ways to improve their teaching. I can even imagine using the tool to diagnose a particular instance of a course -- not because I think that there is something intrinsically wrong in my approach, but because the particular mix of me, the course, and the student body in the course don't seem to be working. The similarity between the SGID and a writer's workshop seemed strong. I'm thinking about how one might augment the process I was shown using ideas from PLoP workshops, such as the summary the workshop group does before moving on to "things we like" and "ways we think the author could improve the work". Also much like the PLoP experience, this process requires that a teacher take the risk to have students discuss their work openly in front of a third party and be willing to listen to feedback and fold it back into the work. Many writers are uncomfortable with this idea, and I know that many, many university professors are uncomfortable with this idea. But getting better usually requires an element of risk, if only by allowing honest discussion to take place. I'm glad I was the one person who showed up for the talk. I learned from the presentation, of course, but the discussion that took place afterward, in which the half-and-half latecomer described his teaching career and the role an SGID had in helping him earn tenure, was even more illuminating. He was a good storyteller. By the way, there is still plenty of time to register for PLoP 2006, which is collocated in Portland this year with OOPSLA. I'm looking forward to both conferences, though I'm sad that I won't be able to run at Allerton Park before, during, and after PLoP! -----