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Teaching Impact

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Thomas Bryer

This is the first of an occasional column series. As such, I write this first column to introduce myself so that readers can understand the context from which I am writing and consider my voice credible on the subject. The second purpose of this first column is to introduce the subject—teaching impact.

Let me start with an introduction to who I am. It is a curious question, at once deeply personal and wholly philosophical.

Who am I? At my home institution, the University of Central Florida, public advocate Ralph Nader visited the campus several years ago. As a fan of his work, I was eager to hear him speak.

Dressed like a cash-strapped graduate student who had not shaved in several days and not like a member of the faculty, I slipped into the packed auditorium about two minutes before the start of his talk and somehow managed a seat in the third row, dead center. Part way into his talk, he called for a volunteer and, before awaiting hands to rise, called on me.

I stood, and he asked: “Who are you?”
“Tom Bryer,” I responded.
“Who else are you?” he asked.
“I’m a professor of public administration here at UCF.”
“You are?” he asked. “Um, OK, who else are you?”

I knew enough of his work and ideals to see where he was going. Without missing a beat, I answered, “an active citizen.” Perhaps I ruined his point – which was that most people come up with all manner of responses to the question of who they are before coming around to “citizen.” They are a certain age, a certain race, a parent, a spouse, somebody’s child, an employee, a sports fanatic, a theatre lover, et cetera.

What would it look like, Nader asked, if we thought of ourselves as citizens above all else?

This is who I am. It is a bridge between my personal and professional lives. I am a citizen who is guided by the saying: “Public service is rent for our time on earth.” This is my guide to teaching; to teaching in an impactful way and to teaching in a manner designed to impact community.

Before I introduce the column substance in more detail, let me add just a few words beyond “citizen” to describe my bona fides for writing this column. None of these credentials are as important as the label “citizen,” but they hopefully communicate my credibility. I am an associate professor and director of a research center, an award winner for my teaching, including an award for my scholarship of teaching and learning and I am the current chair of the ASPA Section on Public Administration Education. The focus of this column is discussed, at least in part, in a new book called Higher Education beyond Job Creation: University, Citizenship and Community, published with Lexington Books.

Indeed, I will unpack some themes from the book in this column over the next few months. The purpose of this is draw you into important philosophical, theoretical and practical debates about the role of higher education and what we, as a profession of community practitioners and professional educators, can do in partnership to achieve impact both in the classroom and by integrating the classroom with the community. Onward then to teaching impact.

The title of the column has a dual meaning. On one hand, I am asking questions about how we impact our students through different and various pedagogical approaches and innovations. I am also asking questions about how we impact the communities around our higher education institutions through teaching. My focus is impact on students and impact on community.

How to define impact? This may be as personal and philosophical or even ideological a question as “who am I?” Debate about the role of higher education can certainly lead to something of an identity crisis within the walls and offices of university professors and administrators. This is not a new identity crisis, but it is perhaps more pronounced today. Observers of higher education 50 years ago wrote about U.S. multiversities as opposed to universities: we are institutions with potentially conflicting sets of obligations that in turn suggest different core identities that will shape how we define our impact(s).

Each identity, or narrative of higher education, has its advocates. Unfortunately, advocates writing in the literature of higher education have tended to disparage narratives that are not their own. Thus we have multiversities, with some elements of institutions focused on serving as an economic catalyst and job creator, others focusing on knowledge creation and dissemination, others on skills development and finally those focusing on the cultivation of active and ethical citizens. Setting these narratives or identities in opposition to each other, or at least not in coordination with each other, is harmful to all identities. It is better to ask what they have in common.

My answer is they are all aligned with a bigger goal, or set of goals. First is the goal of strengthening communities. Through job creation, knowledge dissemination, skill development and citizen cultivation, we can prepare our students and citizens in our communities to be active and self-sufficient contributing members of society. More importantly, we can prepare students and community members to pursue the good life by giving them the tools for economic self-sufficiency, the knowledge for meaningful political engagement and the confidence to build relationships with their neighbors in furtherance of communitywide objectives.

Teaching impact is about impact in these four areas, our ability to strengthen communities and our ability to help students and others in community pursue the good life. This is higher education beyond job creation, but it does not dismiss job creation as an important metric so long as it is put into a broader context that gives equal weight to lower-paying public service jobs as higher paying STEM related jobs.

I will be writing three more columns in 2014—in July, September and December. In July, I will unpack the question of measuring impact in more detail. Measuring what we do is part of our culture now. I will suggest practices and proposals for measuring impact at the student level, program level and institution level.

In September, I will provide brief case examples of impactful teaching, again defining impact as for the student and for the community. Though I have many examples to draw from, I invite readers to email me with some of your own cases so that I might highlight them in the column.

Finally, in December, I will offer a “pitch” to program directors, department chairs, deans and provosts for recognizing scholarship of teaching and learning activity as valid and valuable scholarly activity. In my conversations with faculty across the United States, it is apparent that many professors, particularly tenure-track assistant professors, feel that taking time to write about pedagogy and the impact of pedagogical innovation is risky at best and career suicide at worst. Further, there is fear about conducting intensive service learning or community engaged teaching classes for the same reasons. Part of the mission of the ASPA Section on Public Administration Education this year is to provide tools for faculty members and their administrators to propel high quality scholarship of teaching and learning activity. The December column will be the pitch, as I would present it.

I welcome your thoughts and feedback and hope this column will start a dialogue about teaching impact.


Author: Thomas A. Bryer is director of the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management and associate professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida. He is the chair of the ASPA Section on Public Administration Education and is the author of Higher Education beyond Job Creation: Universities, Citizenship and Community (Lexington Books). Contact him at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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