When I was a graduate student at the University of Georgia in the late 1990s, a Hollywood movie, Road Trip, was filmed in part on campus. It caused a lot of buzz, not least for the fact that there was a call for “extras.” I passed on this opportunity—perhaps it might have been my big break, but considering the movie, I somehow doubt that. It was of the comedy adventure/disaster genre akin to The Hangover, only without the tiger in the bathroom. The same person directed both films, actually.
This past May I went on a road trip with three colleagues to a teaching conference at Central Michigan University. Let me put your mind at ease; there were no juvenile antics suitable for the movies. However, we still had a good time on the road, especially on the return trip, which turned out to be a learning experience.
The learning started with the “Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning,” hosted by CMU. The venue, refreshments, and “swag” were all top-notch. The best part of the day was the plenary session. The speaker was William Buskist, a professor of psychology and a faculty fellow at Auburn University’s center for teaching and learning. He presented on the topic of instructor-student “rapport” in the classroom and its role in effective teaching and learning. The four of us road-trippers came away agreeing that this plenary alone would have made the trip worthwhile. (I’ll soon post another blog about his presentation.)
When we left late in the afternoon for the two-hour return trip to Grand Rapids, we were all a bit quiet getting into the car. It’d been a long day—we’d left home at sunrise and spent hours at intensive sessions. Information and ideas were lodged in our brain, waiting to be processed. In short, one might not expect a vibrant discussion to follow. Yet it did.
In a sense, the setting was ideal. It wasn’t like we were on a tour bus; there were four of us, in close proximity, which made it easy to converse. Escape was also impossible. It wasn’t like we could slip away to a hotel room or coffee shop, as we often do at conferences. In short, we were a “captive audience.”
Of course, the conversation started with thoughts on the conference. However, it soon turned to our pedagogy interests, both individually and collectively. Personally, I found the presentation on rapport inspiring; for me, it helped contextualize and inform a pedagogical interest I’ve long had. I came away with a clear sense of having a more definable research objective, which I shared with the other passengers. The subsequent exchange both affirmed and refined my thinking. The others had different “take-aways.” One, who has only recently started teaching at the college level, noted that her experience led her to realize that she could present at such a conference, and got her thinking about potential topics. This led to a discussion about one of her skills, which is “reading” students in the classroom setting. We talked about how this might not only be a good conference topic, but a very useful skill to share with faculty at our institution in a development venue. This led to some musings about institutional interests in teaching; one was that we might host a one-day conference for Grand Rapids-area institutions with common interests and characteristics. Amidst this were sprinkled thoughts about our institution, personal professional development, and life as a whole. We emerged from the car after two hours with some real ideas for going forward as educators, and with a better understanding of each other.
Thinking back on it, I realized how valuable those two hours were. The time certainly resulted in a stronger sense of collegiality. We got to know more about each other, and we now have a “shared history.” Yet it was, above all, a time for learning. We were able to process what we had learned at the conference through reflection, sharing, and discussion. The common interests and differing perspectives produced a lot of synergy. This process led to a lot of new insights and ideas about teaching. It was a good example of what we mean about learning from others outside the “classroom,” or in this case, the conference.
This is not the first time I’ve had an insightful exchange outside of a conference; I’m sure most of you have also had them. This time, however, I got out of the car thinking about where to go from there with the experience. Too often, such conversations have faded with time. Yet the road trip really drove home to me the need to not forget the discussions, the insights, the ideas. I resolved to write something about it; this blog is one part of this commitment. See, I have plenty of notes from conference sessions, but none that I can find from the “after hours” exchanges I’ve had over the years. If we really believe that learning can occur outside the classroom, wouldn’t the same be true of conferences? More importantly, shouldn’t that be reflected in substantive ways, such as writing down and following up on what we learned? In short, let’s take advantage of the road trips…and don’t worry, you won’t likely end up finding a tiger in a bathroom.