Campus News

UK Profs Invited to Decode Disciplines

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 16, 2011) – University of Kentucky history professor Kathi Kern loves the 19th century women's rights movement in America, and she loves teaching students about it. Her challenge is teaching it so that students really learn it.

While great teaching can be defined in many ways, educational leaders don't necessarily reflect on what it means to “think” like an anthropologist, a physicist, an economist, a nurse, or whatever academic discipline is being taught. Teaching is a challenge, Kern asserts, similar to working out a difficult equation, interpreting ancient manuscripts or diagnosing a tricky medical case.

The University of Kentucky has invited Indiana University history Professor David Pace to campus to help tackle the challenge of teaching. His question — professors have become specialized in examining their own areas of research, but can they translate those modes of thinking into teaching introductory courses?  It is a question Pace asked 10 years ago, and since that time, Indiana has devoted resources to examining his inquiries through The History Learning Project.

For the last decade the Indiana University Freshman Learning Project has taken faculty through a two-week seminar designed to help the participants find new ways to increase learning in their undergraduate courses. This “decoding the disciplines” process allows professionals in departments from across the university to develop ways to identify the kinds of operations that are required for success in their fields and to more effectively initiate students into these ways of thinking.

Pace will lead a Decoding the Disciplines workshop for faculty from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, March 28, in the Lexmark Public Room of UK's Main Building.  Pace will share the results of the decade-long, faculty-driven project at Indiana, while leading UK faculty through the process of “decoding” their own disciplines.

Decoding the Disciplines has been praised for making transparent the ways in which faculty “think” as practitioners of their academic disciplines.

Ideally timed with UK’s new GenEd initiative, Decoding the Disciplines will generate opportunities for faculty to work collaboratively to create innovative introductory courses that will help to recruit students into the majors.  And that's where UK's new Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) comes in.

"We're here to help faculty improve as teachers," said Kern, who is also the director of CELT. "We're not a part of the tenure process, and all consultations are private. UK's faculty are our clients."

Pace's Decoding the Disciplines workshop is similar to what a faculty member might go through during a session with Kern and her team of faculty developers: Bill Burke, Kathryn Cunningham and David Sacks.  "First, we have faculty identify obstacles to learning in their classrooms," Kern said. "Most professors know the point that it happens. They just don't know how to fix it."

After acknowledging the difficulty, faculty will explore strategies to solve such problems and to design an assignment that simulates this process for students.

"We want our faculty to use the skills that they use every day on the scholarship side of their jobs to create an assignment that draws students into the scholar’s way of thinking," Kern said. "We know that everyone is busy, but this is an opportunity to take time out and do something creative."

Kern became interested in Pace's work 10 years ago. "Many of us assume we can teach the same way we were taught, but here was a history professor saying something different," she said. "It was clear to me. Teachers have to study how people teach."

Kern provides an example from Pace's preliminary research: students were asked to read over medieval documents and describe the audience that these documents were intended for.  "Students didn’t know how to come up with the answer," she said. "In this case, historians were not unveiling how an historian thinks."

Kern did some decoding in her History 405 class this semester, translating her own discipline and renovating her syllabus.  Kern worked with Kate Black, a Special Collections librarian at UK, to give her students access to the university's Special Collections. Instead of listening to a traditional lecture on women reformers in the Progressive Era, students worked in small groups, delving into archival primary sources on Kentucky women reformers and then created a PowerPoint presentation for the class on their research.

"Students were moved, excited and empowered," said Kern. "They developed a new respect for how historians think through the assignment and pride in their own work."

"So often in history classes we only look at the results of historians’ research, but this project allowed me to see firsthand where research begins, and it was very beneficial," said one of Kern's students in a survey at the culmination of the project. "I felt like I was teaching myself and was able to make my own assumptions, which was refreshing."

Kern hopes to have a greater influence on teaching as a whole through her role at the CELT. "I want to make an impact outside of the classroom," she said. But a one-time workshop doesn’t change practice. Two follow-up workshops will be held in April and early May to share project outcomes. Kern hopes to gain buy-in from her UK colleagues from all disciplines.

"Why can't UK be one of the most innovative teaching institutions in the country?" Kern asked. "In large research universities, so many people think that 'you're just a number.' We don't have to be that way, and we aren't."

Faculty are encouraged to register as teams of two for the March 28 workshop, which has limited availability. Individual applications will also be accepted. Please contact by noon March 25, to register. For more information, see CELT's website, which will launch next week: