Innovative Teaching: Some Reflections on its Pitfalls & Promises

The term “innovation” is often bandied about in UK HE, frequently from on high. It carries with it a whiff of business speak and bureaucracy—certainly, if so-called tech bros ran the university, they’d be calling on us to “always innovate!” in the way Frederic Jameson once exhorted us to “always historicize!” In the business world, the term carries with it a sense of catering to an unarticulated need—Apple realizing we needed smart phones before we did, say—or, more generally, (and here I’m quoting from the online Business Dictionary instead of the OED) “the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which customers will pay.”

In the context of teaching American Studies in the UK, I think it’s worth remarking that “innovation” isn’t the key word most often used in US HE to describe what I think we mean when we use that term here. Centers devoted to Teaching and Learning in the US—of which there are many—most often include “Teaching Excellence” in their titles, and frame their emphasis on teaching as a practice and an explicitly collaborative experience that works best when teachers and students reflect on the process. These centers suggest they work to foster “best practices” rather than “innovation”—and tend to focus on active learning, inclusive teaching, digital pedagogy and real-world experiences (all of which, I’d argue, would fall under the category of teaching innovation in the UK).

We are also often asked in the US to make sense of our teaching in light of our own “teaching philosophy”—which admittedly allows for thinking of our teaching practice as deeply idiosyncratic, dare I say even a tad ruggedly individualistic, but also frames the strategies we employ and the experiments we try out in the classroom as intrinsically motivated rather than forced upon us from on high. To give just one example, Boston College’s Center for Teaching Excellence suggests on its website that it “strive[s] to help faculty find joy and meaning in their teaching throughout their careers and to celebrate instructors’ efforts “ever to excel” in the classroom,” whereas the HEA tends to talk solely along the lines of “the need for greater innovation in HE teaching.” (A phrasing which might carry with it, too, the sense of its value for customers, rather than the joy that might be found in trying out new approaches in our classrooms.)

Given these varying takes on terminology, I think it worth spelling out that I take “teaching innovation” to be anything that we do in the classroom—activities, forms of assessments, group work, digital tools—that we haven’t tried before which aims to encourage collaborative learning, more inclusive teaching spaces, and opportunities for testing new skills or reaching new audiences (to name just a few possible objectives).

Also, a word on what it isn’t: teaching innovation, to my mind, doesn’t require us to re-invent the wheel. I think we can and should borrow from the best practices of our colleagues within and outside our departments and that a key part of sustaining our teaching as a practice is having the opportunity to discuss what we and others are doing in the classroom and why, ideally in informal settings that don’t center on the formal assessment of our colleagues’ teaching.

I also think it’s worth underscoring that the nature and structure of UK HE can provide particular sorts of hurdles—or perceived hurdles—to precisely the teaching innovation it most enjoins us to engage in. Integrating new forms of assessment into our modules can provoke pushback from externals and students, as well as from colleagues uncomfortable with the idea of a lack of uniformity—or perceived commensurability—across a given department’s modules. For this reason, many of the seemingly unorthodox forms of assessment or group work we might want to introduce in the UK would be considered fairly standard in the US HE context, where there is more autonomy in course design and generally less emphasis placed on parity and uniformity across the curriculum.

Occupy Everything Digital Archive Example

When I arrived at the University of Manchester in the autumn of 2013, the standard assessment structure for a final-year humanities seminar was a mid-term essay and an end-of-term exam. I adopted this structure for the first iteration of Occupy Everything, my third-year seminar on radical memory in the US from Occupy Wall Street to the Haitian Revolution, shaking things up only slightly by including a then hardly-heard-of participation component, initially comprising 10% of the final mark. Said participation mark encompassed not just engaged attendance but also contributions to a collective digital repository of archival materials related to our each week’s readings housed on the online annotation and bookmarking site Diigo,[1] online annotations they made to a nineteenth-century anarchist biography, The Life of Albert Parsons, which we read together by way of the free digital collaborative reading platform called Social Book,[2] and, finally, peer feedback on their colleagues’ in-class presentations. (I imagine it will come as little surprise that my first class of students made a convincing case that such involved participation should warrant a higher percentage of their final marks, and the participation mark was duly raised to 15% for future classes.)

Occupy Everything Online Annotation Seminar Reading

The following year, the support of my programme director and a Social Responsibility in the Curriculum grant allowed me to make two further key tweaks to the module: I scrapped the final exam in favor of an end-of-term group-authored podcast or short film assessment that provides a critical introduction to one of our otherwise neglected course texts aimed at a broad public audience, and introduced Skype visits from guest speakers from artists and scholars working on radical memory, such as Declan Clarke, who curated Cornerhouse’s 2013 “Anguish and Enthusiasm: What to Do with Revolution Once You’ve Got It” exhibition. And, dear reader, I’ve never looked back. Although there are always a couple final year students who come to the first class each term and email later that day to say they have opted to take a module with a more heterodox assessment structure instead, the feedback from the students who choose to stick with my seminar has been consistently glowing—notably, not for what I’ve brought to the class, but what the unorthodox assessment structure has allowed them to add to it. They often describe my module as “far more demanding” than others they have taken, but suggest, as one student put it, “this has not been a problem – in fact, all of the students have risen to the challenge, which I think makes this a huge positive” and that what they most loved about the experience was that I had made “the class feel like a communal project.” Which, to me, encapsulates why I’m committed to the concept of teaching innovation, whatever the terms we use to describe it.




About Michelle Coghlan

J. Michelle Coghlan is Senior Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Manchester, where she teaches modules on American literature to 1900, radical memory, and US food matters. Her first book, Sensational Internationalism, won the 2017 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize, and she recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Food.
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