Teaching Café

by James Mixon, Department of History

Ask most any faculty member, and they will tell you in one way or another that they care deeply about their teaching. Most will also tell you that they are always looking for or thinking of ways to improve and to address many of the common problems we all face. In my experience, most of these kinds of conversations happen incidentally or informally. We might go to the occasional workshop, but most of our thinking about teaching occurs in occasional conversations with colleagues, and most of our innovation occurs in private. And why not? To many, teaching is a deeply personal, even intimate affair, and in some instances, we guard our teaching successes, failures, creativity, and crashes like the secrets of our personal life.

And all of that is to say nothing of the common aversion to the perceived abuses of “top-down” models of higher administration! To talk of “best practices,” assessment, and accountability sounds too much like neo-liberal corporation speak. Administrators should have enough trust to leave good faculty alone, the thinking goes, and they will each do their own thing as good teachers.

Faculty at the teaching happy hour

As a result, for the most part, there is little collective, campus-wide commitment to intentional, sustained development of teaching among faculty. The true incentives are geared toward research, and our sharing ideas about improving and addressing common problems are left where they always have been—to the occasional conversation or faculty workshop.

Elizabeth Cohn, Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University has found one effective way around the impasse. At the most recent Teaching Professor conference (in Atlanta in June), she spoke on her experience in leading what she calls the “Teaching Café ” at her institution.

The Teaching Café idea is relatively simple: an annual workshop organized by, led by, and dedicated to faculty, and faculty only—no deans or other administrators allowed! Beginning with a simple faculty survey to identify common interests and concerns, Dr. Cohn invited faculty in her college to discuss them. Over lunch, faculty facilitators led discussions at tables of 6-8 faculty, with each table dedicated to a specific topic: “Effective Lecturing,” covering fundamentals but also how best to assess whether students are getting anything from lecture”; another table discussed “Laptops, Tablets, and Phones,” and the vexing issue of whether technology is “a learning tool or a distraction from learning.” Other topics included how to incorporate games and gaming to serve pedagogical ends, how to handle “difficult conversations” in the classroom, and how best to “get students to do the reading.”

The advantage of the Teaching Café format is its flexibility and organic adaptability. For each Café, there is no expectation of outcomes, and no incentives, other than a fully voluntary commitment to engage in sustained conversation about specific practical concerns. The result is a set of conversations that can range from the immediate and practical to the deeply contested and philosophical, and a set of conversations that is shaped by and reflects the unique contexts of each department, discipline, or campus.

The only fundamentals required for a successful café, Dr. Cohn suggested, are two: First, fundamental commitments to faculty leadership and participation, including the tremendous amount of logistical preparation involved in organizing each café annually; and second, a commitment to both record the results of each table conversation in detail and then to distill those conversations in ways that can be shared with faculty who were unable to attend.

Dr. Cohn emphasized that the Teaching Café is not meant to be a substitute either for a proper Faculty Learning Community or a proper Teaching and Learning Center (in the former, a cohort of faculty meet several times annually to discuss readings focused on a specific topic; the latter is a properly endowed, permanent institutional unit dedicated to teaching and learning). The Teaching Café, instead, is meant to foster broad, faculty-led conversations focused on immediate needs and concerns.

In A&S here at UA, it seems we have the faculty and the commitment to launch our own local version of a successful “Teaching Café.” And of course, we have an ideal way to share the results of our conversations…The Teaching Hub!


James Mixon is an associate professor in the Department of History. He recently participated in the 2018 Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, GA.