Tending the Community of Practice garden

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_lightwise'>lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo</a>One of the most rewarding aspects of the research I’m doing for my doctorate is the opportunity to just sit down and talk with colleagues. I’m using interactive interviewing,* which means that I get to hang out with other teachers, talking (venting, ranting, musing, crying, laughing) about teaching. We’ve talked to each other about how we got started, what we think teaching is, how we deal with assessment, and even what our theme songs are (right now, I think this is mine. No Rick Roll, I promise).

I have just finished the final round of four interviews, with my nine participants (yay!! finished!!). I’ve met with each person one-on-one four times since last May; each time, we’ve talked for more than an hour, allowing ourselves to explore the tangents and spirals that naturally arise in our dialogue. The first time we talked, our theme was simple: how did we find ourselves in the classroom? In the second round, we talked about mentorship and metaphors for teaching and learning. In the fall, we met for a third time, to talk about assessment, evaluation, grading, and feedback.

In our final conversation, I asked my participants** to reflect on our process: did anything in particular resonate? Were there any 3-a.m.-wake-up epiphanies? Any moments in the classroom where our discussions echoed in your mind? What was the most valuable part of this process? Each person had different things to reflect on, or to elaborate upon, but what struck me was that every single one said that they just really loved talking about these things with me. One or two said that they’d spoken about teaching and learning with me more often in this past year than with anyone in their department. Most said that they’d really like to keep talking about teaching and learning, even if my research cycle is complete.

Earlier this month, I presented an overview of my research to my college department, and suggested that one of the take-aways from my research so far is that while we may not have Yoda-esque mentors as teachers, most of us experience what I’ve taken to calling mentoring moments. These moments share a few characteristics: they are typically peer-to-peer dialogues (although not exclusively); they are mutually beneficial (both parties get something from the dialogue); they may arise from a crisis but are not really designed to solve a problem – rather, they allow both people to explore ideas, share experiences, and brainstorm strategies, without trying to find the one-and-only way to deal with the crisis.

So, for example, I might engage in a discussion with my colleague Jane about our deadline policies, perhaps because one of us is dealing with a situation that has made us question our current policy. So, I’ll talk about what my policy is, and Jane will tell me about hers. We’ll naturally talk about how our policies differ – maybe Jane refuses to accept any submissions more than three days after the deadline, whereas I accept them but provide no feedback, or deduct 5% for each day late. Perhaps I’ll realize that my policy now is pretty different from what it was five years ago, and we’ll talk about what changed and why – maybe I’ve stopped deducting marks for late submissions because I reflected on that practice and came to the conclusion that I wanted the grade to reflect the work done, not the time management. Maybe it’s the other way around, and I’ve realized that I want students to learn how to manage time and workload, so my deadline policy now reflects that desire. Jane and I might talk for an hour or so, sipping tea, sharing stories of students who’ve tested our policy patience. In the end, maybe one or the other of us will adjust her policy; maybe neither of us will make any changes. No matter what, we both will feel more confident in our policy; in discussing, exploring, challenging, reflecting, we’ve come to understand better why our policy is what it is. We can better articulate the how and why of our policy.

So here’s what I’m thinking about now: these mentoring moments are so fruitful, yet, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, when our institution sets up a community of practice or a mentoring program – even if everyone’s really keen and excited – eventually it fizzles. The online forum for our department includes a space for dialogue – the most recent post in that section is from 2016. We talk about mentorship and community of practice, but it seems like things never really get off the ground.

I was discussing this fizzle phenomenon with a colleague today, and she said “and that’s when people just give up.” People stop attending the brown bag lunches, stop posting to the online forum, stop trying to track down their appointed mentor… but maybe, like a neglected plant, we need to do some pruning, some repotting, careful watering, and see if we can’t bring that plant back to life.

So, then, of course, the question is how. How do we revive a wilting community of practice? How do we keep conversations going? And how do we do all of this organically, so we don’t feel like we’re under some kind of administration-mandated obligation to pretend we’re talking to each other.


*Note: Interactive interviews go beyond the conventional researcher-participant construct to establish a collaborative relationship between the researcher and her participant (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). Unlike more traditional, ‘objective,’ interview techniques that ignore the emotional facet of the interview relationship itself (Ezzy, 2010), interactive interviewing uses autoethnography to recognize and reconstruct or redefine the relationship between researcher and participant. Ellis (1999) described her own experiences with interactive interviewing as an opportunity to engage in immediate responses to a participant’s story with her own lived experience. As the stories, experiences, and attitudes of the interviewer and interviewee flow into and through each other, the traditional boundaries and distances between the two participants are blurred or even erased (Fontana, 2002). [This section appears in the draft of my dissertation as well as in Finding Myself in Methodology (2017).

** OH MY GOD if someone can propose a few synonyms so I can stop writing “participant” over and over… the word has lost all meaning. Or rather, its connotation/denotation is starting to rankle – it feels very data-oriented to discuss “participants.” But I digress…

One thought on “Tending the Community of Practice garden

  1. Thanks for sharing this stimulating work you’re doing, Maggie! I think one answer to your closing question may have to do with good coffee and comfortable couches or even bean bag chairs, but I’m not sure exactly how….

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