Centers for Teaching and Learning: The New Landscape in Higher Education
By Mary C. Wright.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 296 pages, $39.95.

Reviewed by Lee Trepanier.

The most recent permanent fixtures on college campuses are Centers of Teaching and Learning (CTLs). While their missions may vary from college to college, they essentially exist to improve faculty teaching and student learning, whether through the incorporation of technology, the classroom integration of SoTL (the scholarship of teaching and learning), or advocating greater inclusion for both faculty and students. In Centers for Teaching and Learning, Mary C. Wright, associate provost for teaching and learning, among other titles, at Brown University, paints a broad picture of the educational landscape where CTLs reside and their goals, strategies, and mandates. 

Although it is difficult to determine the number of CTLs in the country, she estimates about 1,100 exist with 78% of doctorate institutions hosting them but only 15% of associate institutions (45% for masters; 25% for bachelors). On the one hand, this strikes one as strange since associate and baccalaureate institutions would seem to need CTLs the most since they are primarily teaching schools. On the other hand, the CTLs’ aim of producing scholarship on teaching and learning makes it more suitable for doctorate institutions. Other interesting bits about the presence of CTLs in higher education is that over a third of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions have a CTL, while faith-based institutions have relatively few. The region of New England has the highest percentage of institutions with a CTL (43%), while the rest of the country remains within a 20%-29% range.

One of the key purposes of these centers is student learning—often evaluated by quantitative learning outcomes—and student success—nebulously defined as a student’s good grades, progress towards graduation, and a holistic sense of fulfillment. This combination of data-driven metrics (grades, progress towards graduation, learning outcomes) and therapeutic self-esteem (holistic fulfillment) leaves out assessing the classical virtues of prudence, courage, or moderation. Yet one should not be surprised that the classical virtues are left out in CTLs, for, as Wright points out, these centers often support the institutional missions and strategic plans of their universities where the goals are financial sustainability, community engagement, and access for underrepresented groups.

In Wright’s analysis, CTLs employ four different tactics to achieve success: 1) hubs which bring people and resources together as learning communities; 2) incubators where programs are created to address a specific issue, e.g., faculty development, online technology; 3) temples where teaching is seen as scholarship and is recognized as such; and 4) sieves where evidence-based practices are implemented, e.g., assessment. Some of the results of these different tactics are workshops, certificates, online courses, embedded assessment, mentoring, teaching awards, and other such activities related to teaching and learning. While one admires these initiatives to improve the quality of teaching and learning on campus, the presence of CTLs raise a fundamental question about teaching and learning themselves: can teaching and learning be reduced to a single methodology or are they by nature resistant to it?

One of CTLs assumptions about teaching and learning is that it can be standardized and implemented uniformly across disciplines. For instance, in most universities, every course is assessed, in addition to the instructor’s own letter-grade evaluation. This assessment is sometimes known as the student evaluation when towards the end of the course students fill out a survey about what they learned and how well they learned it. In other cases, there is a content component that students must fill out to determine if they actually learned what they were supposed to. Regardless of the type and how it is administered, these assessments tend to be uniform across disciplines, albeit tweaks can be made here and there for specific courses. The underlying belief is that knowledge—whether in art, the humanities, the social sciences, STEM, or pre-professional fields—can all be evaluated in the same way.

On the one hand, one may be skeptical that learning music is the same as learning chemistry or accounting, thereby raising questions whether these standardized assessments can measure what they claim. On the other hand, even if they can, one wonders how useful these measurements will be, for at best they can only capture generalized approaches that fail to translate into the actual teaching and learning of specific content in the classroom, e.g., did the professor return your assignments in a timely manner? They do not measure learning the specifics of organic chemistry. While a professor’s classroom management is useful to know, it does not tell us anything about the content of what he or she taught in the class.

This belief in the standardization of knowledge in CTLs is not surprising when one discovers that its leaders are from the schools of education or social sciences. In both schools there has been a quantification of knowledge where if one can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter (or doesn’t exist). Hence, the absence of teaching and learning of things that resist measurement, like the classical virtues or the appreciation of beauty as found in the humanities. 

Nonetheless, CTLs play a pivotal role in American higher education, especially as graduate programs neglect one of the primary responsibilities of professors: teaching. Graduate programs’ emphasis on scholarship is important, but their abandonment of training graduate students to teach is inexcusable, particularly in an academic market where there are too many applicants for too few jobs. Very few graduates will wind up at a research institution; most will be at a teaching one. Thus, CTLs address a real need for supporting faculty to become better teachers, since graduate programs fail to do this. 

Yet one wonders what would transpire if CTLs were designed not to address teaching and learning as a generalized approach to knowledge but as a place that specifically tailors teaching and learning to particular content. For example, the topic of how best to teach American citizenship would invite faculty from History, Political Science, Economics, English, Sociology, and other disciplines where specific pedagogical theories and approaches could be discussed and shared. Conversations could move past pedagogy to the content itself and the scholarly debates about citizenship could occur. The result would be a meaningful community rooted in a shared intellectual vision as opposed to one strung together on what best online tool a professor should use in his or her Canvas course.

Centers for Teaching and Learning does a remarkable service in compiling the data about the current state of pedagogy in American higher education and offers practical advice on how to create and operate these centers. Yet one wonders if the underlying assumption of these centers is incomplete and thereby enables pedagogical theories and techniques that are ultimately unfulfilling. Instead of thinking of having more “hubs” or “incubators” as the future of American higher education, why not think of one where communities of content can emerge and lead our college campuses? Where virtue and beauty with all their particularities can exist alongside those disciplines that are universal in scope and standardized in knowledge? Until that transpires, universities will always fall short of the promises they made to their students of teaching them well. 

Lee Trepanier is Chair and Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is an author of numerous books and is the editor of the Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film. His Twitter handle is @lee_trepanier.

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