Learning Communities: The Golden Ticket to Teaching Centers for Graduate Students

a beach with large boulders in the foreground, a yellow sun rising in the distance. There are light clouds in the sky.

With just a week or so away to the beginning of the academic school year, graduate students are probably receiving (perhaps too many) emails inviting them to events from their teaching and learning centers. Day-long teaching orientations and one-hour workshops. Leading discussions, assignment design, accessibility, and using the learning management system. The firehouse of teaching tips and campus instructional procedures.  

I understand if you’re groaning about attending. I groan, too, about attending mandatory university trainings. It’s a lot of time in another building and your schedule is already crammed and you’re hungry and you need to get a local bank account. And also, instructional consultants share your goals in creating positive classroom experiences for you and your students.  These are spaces where we hope you take away a couple new, simple-to-implement tools for your teaching and gain a sense of confidence, competence, self-efficacy, and agency.

In writing this post, I’m encouraging graduate students to look deeper into the offerings at their CTL. And I’m offering some resources to graduate student developers pondering how to facilitate making community space for graduate students.

But wait, there’s more!!

In her 2017 presidential address to conference attendees for the Professional and Organizational Development Network, Dr. Mary Wright asked us to consider how our work in teaching centers was represented in the following metaphors: sieve, incubator, temple, and hub (based on the similarly titled article):

  • Sieve: we summarize, synthesize, and offer the highlights of a wealth of education-related research from many disciplines. I would say orientations and workshops generally function as sieves.
  • Incubator: we are a space where new ideas for teaching and learning are generated, explored, and improved upon.
  • Temple: we are a place for quiet reflection and renewal away from the grind of everyday academic life.
  • Hub: we bring together people from across campus, within the community, across nation-state borders to share and learn together. 

The metaphor provides a contrast to the misperception that teaching centers are for remediation and “fixing” bad teachers. They are places for college-level instructors to grow intellectually, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. 

For most people, orientations are likely their first and last interaction with the teaching center. A subset of people take advantage of a consultation or three to talk through a specific teaching challenge, draft a new approach, reflect, and revise. I contend that the learning community is the Golden Ticket™ to your teaching center. If your CTL has one for graduate students specifically, it’s where the really great CTL stuff is. 

In the graduate student instructor learning communities I’ve facilitated, about eight-fifteen graduate students across disciplines met once per month over the academic year. Drawing upon shared readings, we worked on a collaborative project to address a shared barrier to their teaching development. We also engaged in dissemination and advocacy from the project both on and off campus.

Learning communities as radical spaces

A woman with brown hair and a black face mask in the foreground. Behind here are two gigantic, inflatable flamingos.
Me and the inflatable flamingos. I love the absurdity in the mundane.

Learning communities aren’t transactions around teaching knowledge (“I deliver, you receive”). They function as sieves, incubators, temples, and hubs. And I see them as places for people to be emotionally, socially, psychologically, and intellectually supported as they grow in their self-knowledge, develop intention around putting their gifts in service. I also see them as places to co-construct the community we need with each other at that moment. 

I draw upon deliberate approaches in my facilitation of learning communities (hey, this is sounding like a teaching statement!!). I’ve listed a (very incomplete) overview of both principles and related resources that inform my practice.

  • Praxis: We engage in reading, reflection, and action. It doesn’t matter what or how much we read or talk, we need to act on that collective wisdom (see Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
  • Testimonias, counter-storytelling, and counter-narratives: We make space for the people and stories that are marginalized, we bear witness to and believe people’s experiences, and we take collective responsibility for what members need of each other. We begin with time for a check in. How are we really doing? What is presenting a barrier to your full presence today? What’s something that brings you gladness and joy today? How can our community support you today? (see Solarzano & Yosso, 2002).
  • Transgressive, non-normative, and disruptive: We scrutinize the default and uninterrogated institutional and cultural norms, we ask why it is that way and how it truly works for each of us, and we encourage each other as we push against those norms (see Drane et al., 2019).
  • Trauma- and recovery-informed and developmentally appropriate: We are mindful of how our pasts inform our present, we acknowledge the harmful impacts, we co-regulate emotions, and we support a person’s sense of safety, remembrance, and community as they make changes and new commitments (see Mays Imad’s work, Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self, Thema Bryant’s Homecoming, and Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery).
  • Change, grief, mourning, and meaning-making: As members grow into new self-concepts and interpersonal roles, we support them as they let go of behaviors and self-scripts that don’t work for them anymore. We show patience and encouragement around the missteps and dipping-of-toes, we serve as mirrors to members’ true selves as human beings (not “human doings”), and we help them integrate healthy, productive lessons into their developing selves with integrity to their values and commitments (see David Kessler’s Finding Meaning, Elizabeth Lesser’s Broken Open, and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands). 
  • Communities of care and politics of pleasure: We guide, protect, encourage, and nurture each other as we hold space for love, vulnerability, and courage (see Dr. Judith Jordan’s Valuing Vulnerability: New Definitions of Courage, adrienne marie brown’s work on pleasure activism, and Chen et al.’s Caring for Communities of Practice).
  • Liberation, abolitionist, anti-oppression, restorative justice, politics of consent, and right of refusal: Permission and agreement are sought clearly and freely. There is no coercion, intimidation, harm, or self-abandonment; you have the authority, agency and autonomy to say no. Ultimately, we are in process toward liberation from external control and oppression (see “Building Your Abolitionist Toolbox”).

When so many other things outside the community haven’t felt good or right, these co-created communities have been sites for solace, healing, growth, and joy.

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