Faculty work as learning: Insights from theories of cognition

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<ul><li><p>Sociocultural and cultural-historical theories urge us tostudy the social relations and interactions of facultyembedded in local and particular contexts. They promisedeeper insights into the work of college and universityfaculty.</p><p>Faculty Work as Learning: Insightsfrom Theories of Cognition</p><p>Lisa R. Lattuca </p><p>Collaboration may be defined simply as an activity that involves individu-als working together toward some agreed-on end. While there are manykinds of faculty collaboration, I will ground this discussion by referring toa study in which I explored the work of thirty-eight college and universityfaculty members who were engaged in interdisciplinary teaching andresearch (Lattuca, 2001). Regardless of their discipline, their institution, ortheir purposes (for example, teaching an interdisciplinary course or answer-ing a research question), the majority of the faculty I interviewed talkedabout the learning required in their interdisciplinary collaborations. Theyoften remarked on how much time they needed to learn new subject mat-ter or new techniques critical to that work.</p><p>What did faculty learn from these forays into interdisciplinarity? Manydescribed how they overcame discipline-based differences in language byattaining varying levels of fluency in other disciplinary languages. Theylearned new ways of conceptualizing phenomena or enhanced their under-standings of new methods of inquiry. For some, new conceptualizations andmodes of inquiry expanded or complemented their existing practices orbeliefs and connected them with new scholarly communities. For a few,interdisciplinarity posed a considerable challenge to their discipline-basedbeliefs. In these cases, individuals reflected on the implications of what theyhad learned for their professional identities and epistemological commit-ments. These faculty members wondered if they still fit in their home dis-ciplines when their scholarship challenged its borders and conventions.</p><p>2</p><p>NEW DIRECTIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING, no. 102, Summer 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 13</p></li><li><p>14 INTERDISCIPLINARY FACULTY COLLABORATION</p><p>Other kinds of learning also occurred in interdisciplinary collabora-tions. Many faculty informants learned how to collaborate with individualsor groups of individuals with different ways of thinking about the same phe-nomena. Consider the case of a pair of faculty members team-teaching aninterdisciplinary course for the first time. In preparing for and teaching thecourse, they will, even if unintentionally, learn how the other thinks aboutwhat students know, how the course should be taught, what should beassessed, and what counts as success. They must come to some level of con-sensus on these kinds of questions in order to work together effectively. Thesame kinds of learning may occur in research or service collaborations asfaculty figure out their collaborators strengths and weaknesses, likes anddislikes, and how to divide work to capitalize or avoid these.</p><p>In interdisciplinary collaborations, faculty may be more aware of theirlearning because they cannot take much for granted; their collaborators donot necessarily share the same knowledge base, methodological training orpredilections, or even the same assumptions about knowledge itself. Theymay spend more time in discussion and reflection than collaborators whoshare a discipline in order to ensure that they agree on the essentialsorthat they can disagree but still accomplish their goals.</p><p>This discussion of faculty learning in interdisciplinary collaborationsis meant to confirm what many in higher education already know: facultymembers in general do not stop learning once they have earned a terminaldegree, but continue to learn throughout their academic careers. The inter-disciplinary collaborators in my study were inspired (or required) to under-take significant learning activities to pursue their work, but learning is notlimited to interdisciplinary collaborations or efforts. Discipline-based fac-ulty also must keep up with advances in their areas of expertise, and theircollaborative activities may be as likely to produce new learning as those ofinterdisciplinary collaborators.</p><p>Anna Neumann, a contributor to this volume, has been a leader inefforts to highlight the role of learning in faculty members lives. In a seriesof studies she has explored the role of learning in scholarly identity devel-opment, subject matter expertise, and teaching (Neumann, 1992, 1995,2000; Neumann and Peterson, 1997). Research on the role of learning infaculty members lives is critical because the success of faculty memberslearning experiences has real consequences for students, scholarly commu-nities, and the larger society that is informed by their work. If learning is aprerequisite to teaching, research, and service, then higher educationresearchers and practitioners would be wise to understand the factors andcontexts that promote and sustain faculty learning.</p><p>Studies often point to faculty development opportunities as key mech-anisms for maintaining faculty productivity and satisfaction, but asNeumann (2000) noted, they rarely position professions as potentialsources of their own professional development (p. 2). My own research oninterdisciplinary teaching and research has clearly revealed the self-directed</p></li><li><p>FACULTY WORK AS LEARNING 15</p><p>nature of faculty learning. Regardless of discipline, faculty described a sim-ilar process: they identified a topic they wanted to study, acknowledgedthat they did not have the necessary knowledge or methodological toolsfor the exploration they wanted to pursue, and eventually ascertained howthey would go about answering the question they had posed. This descrip-tion portrays learning as an individual activity. And often, in the earlystages of conceptualizing a new project, faculty members appeared to beworking alone. They read books and journals, used library and Internetresources, and occasionally attended a conference on the topic theywanted to learn more about. Yet however solitary these activities seem,they are nonetheless a form of social interaction: as faculty engage partic-ular bodies of knowledge and methods of inquiry, they are using a set ofcultural tools that have distinct social histories and uses. Rather thanlearning alone, they are learning in the company of those who have gonebefore them.</p><p>Here I see a great advantage in exploring interdisciplinary teaching andresearch as a form of faculty work: it forces us to think about the origins of the academics cultural tools. The need to study interdisciplinarity pressesthe researcher to consider how the particular practices and tools of distinc-tive disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) communities shape faculty membersunderstandings of their work.</p><p>Disciplinary communities of practice are but one of the contexts thatinfluence faculty work. Institutional values and norms may also shape theways in which faculty work, although the salience of these institutionalfactors may vary depending on the type of institution (Austin, 2003).Consider, for example, how the research university ethos persuades fac-ulty to value research activity over teaching and how these prioritiesmight be reversed in a small liberal arts college. Social, economic, politi-cal, and cultural contexts also leave their mark on what individuals thinkabout and how they think about it; recent explorations of race and gen-der have changed the nature of inquiry in fields like womens and ethnicstudies, and have expanded the range of problems considered worthstudying in the disciplines.</p><p>Our focus on interdisciplinary collaboration also makes clear that whilelearning is never really done in isolation, some kinds of faculty work aremore overtly social in nature. They also provide an opportunity to studylearning in situ, and the subsequent chapters reveal the processes that fac-ulty craft in order to work together.</p><p>Once we include the role of the social and cultural (whether at the levelof the classroom, the collaborative team, the academic department, thenational context, or sociohistorical time), we come closer to describingunderstanding learning holistically. This is the important contribution madeby sociocultural theories of learning, which highlight the intersubjective,social, cultural, and historical dimensions of what we learn, how we learnit, and why we learn it.</p></li><li><p>16 INTERDISCIPLINARY FACULTY COLLABORATION</p><p>Learning as a Social and Cultural Activity</p><p>Educators are accustomed to thinking about cognition as an individualactivity that occurs in one head at a time. This approach suggests that waysof thinking and learning are largely independent of, and unaffected by, themultilayered environments in which they occur and that cognition andlearning are everywhere the same. Sociocultural theories challenge theseassumptions and underscore the ways in which social interactions andsocial contexts shape learning.</p><p>A number of theories highlight the social and contextualized nature oflearning (Lave, 1988; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Forman, Minick, and Stone,1993; Rogoff, 1990; Greeno, 1997). Whether they are referred to as situatedcognition, situated learning, activity theory, sociocultural, or cultural-historical theories, these proposals all rest on the claim that learning can-not be understood apart from its historical, cultural, and institutionalcontexts. (I use the shorthand term sociocultural theory to represent all ofthe perspectives just listed.) Because these theories cast learning as a fun-damentally social and cultural activity, they contrast, often sharply, withbehavioral and cognitive models that portray learning as an individual activ-ity and as an artifact that can be easily separated from the contexts in whichit takes place.</p><p>Sociocultural theories have their intellectual origins in the sociohistor-ical school of psychology developed by Lev Vygotsky and his colleagues.Vygotsky argued that in order to understand the individual, one must firstunderstand the social context in which the individual exists (Wertsch, 1985).A complete explanation of learning therefore requires examination of theindividuals own mental processes and the relevant social settings. This mul-tidimensional analytical approach laid the groundwork for a dialecticalmodel of learning in which individual and context interact in critical ways.</p><p>By shifting the unit of analysis from the individual to the socioculturalsetting in which learning is embedded, theorists and researchers focus onthe structures and interrelations within communities of practice. The resultis a multifocal approach in which the individual and the context must bestudied simultaneously.</p><p>Linkages Between Sociocultural and Cultural-Historical Theories</p><p>Both sociocultural theorists and activity theorists conceptualize humanbehavior and cognition as embedded in collectively organized, artifact-mediated systems. Mediating artifacts are the cultural tools and signs thatallow us to communicate with one another. The texts that we read and thelanguages that we use to express ourselves, including mathematical and com-puter languages, as well as maps, diagrams, and works of art, are all exam-ples of cultural tools. Tools and signs are described as mediating artifacts</p></li><li><p>FACULTY WORK AS LEARNING 17</p><p>because they come between us and our objects, thus mediating our experi-ence of the world (Wertsch, Del Rio, and Alvarez, 1995).</p><p>Cultural tools (also referred to as mediational means) shape the waysin which we interact with the world. These tools are developed and used byindividuals and groups for different purposes, that is, they are the productsof sociocultural evolution. We appropriate them so that we may participatein the particular social practices of our local communities and global soci-ety. These tools shape our actions but can also be adapted for unique pur-poses. For example, an academic discipline is an example of a cultural tool.Like other cultural tools, disciplines and fields frame the thinking and intel-lectual activity of individuals who are trained to use (or who decide toadopt) them.</p><p>Cultural tools do not merely facilitate actions that would ordinarilyoccur; they can alter the entire flow and structure of mental functions(Wertsch, Del Rio, and Alvarez, 1995, p. 23). Such a transformation allowsnew forms of mediated action to occur. One example of disciplinary trans-formation can be found in the often repeated definition of interdiscipli-narity as borrowing (Klein, 1990): a scholar appropriates (borrows) thecultural tools of another discipline in order to study a phenomenon thatcould not be studied as well using the tools of her home discipline. Butmore than borrowing is in play. Wertsch (1985) and other socioculturaltheorists would argue that adoption transforms the borrowed disciplinaryconcepts, perspectives, or methods so that they may be used in the serviceof learning in a different field or discipline. Transformation occurs as thetools are put to new uses and, often, as they are purposefully altered foruse in the new field.</p><p>Most sociocultural theorists view mediation broadly, often focusing onthe critical role that others, particularly the more skilled members of a com-munity of practice, play in mediating the learning of others. The classroomteacher is a prime example of the skilled mediator, but others may also servethis purpose. Apprenticeship is a vehicle for socializing new members of acommunity. Wertsch, Del Rio, and Alvarez (1995) contend that socializa-tion can be viewed largely in terms of how learners appropriate the exist-ing strategies of others and hence reproduce an existing cognitive and socialorder (p. 16). By working together, the apprentice and the more skilledother develop increasing intersubjectivity (p. 16). Apprentices, of course,do not become carbon copies of their tutors or mentors, and apprenticeshipshould not be misconstrued purely as a process of reproduction. Learningin sociocultural theories is inherently constructivist and the learner is theagent who actively makes sense of the world.</p><p>How do effective learning and social practices emerge in a new com-munity of practice? Is there a central form of participation that can beappropriated in such a situation? Can sociocultural and cultural-historicaltheories help us define when a group of individuals becomes a communityof practice?</p></li><li><p>Sociocultural and cultural-historical theories offer assistance in answer-ing these questions by insisting that researchers take a historical perspec-tive on social practices. This perspective helps us see why certain socialpractices come to the fore in a new activity. A historical perspective alsoimplies a developmental perspective (Engestrm, 1999a). We can exploresocial practices, mediating artifacts, and the objects of our practices in termsof how they develop and change. We can explore moments of internaliza-tion of social practices when individuals learn and appropriate the habits ofthinking and doing that characterize a community of practice (cu...</p></li></ul>


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