Discussing University Teaching With Colleagues: Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting or Quality Circle?

“Alcoholism is not a disease, it’s a failing. You’ve turned it into a church. You worship the altar of self-pity. I come to these rooms for one reason, to remember what I don’t want to become… helpless, impotent, and weak.”
Donald Lydecker at an AA meeting in “Dark Angel”

At German universities there’s a trend to invest more effort in good teaching. Giving the usual attitude towards teaching, I guess any effort invested is progress. But anyway, among the different initiatives are formal certificates you can acquire if you take part in a fixed amount of courses and workshops. To be honest, I think it’s not only the potential improvement in the quality of teaching that draws some PhDs and Post-Docs, but the reduction in the teaching requirement for tenure that comes with such a certificate.

Personally, I like these courses and workshops. Even the bad ones were educational — you can learn a lot from bad examples. And most were actually good. One aspect I especially like is the interdisciplinary exchange. PhDs and Post-Docs from other disciplines often have a different take on teaching and it can really get you thinking. Whether it’s an exchange of experience or discussing problems and looking for potential solutions, I really like these discussions.

However, recently a colleague who also took part in a few of these workshops came to a different conclusion. He compared them to AA meetings — the stereotypical kind (see quote above). Some kind of encounter-group self-pity touchy-feel exchange. I don’t know whether he was just unlucky with the participants, or whether he found what he was expecting (self-fulfilling prophecies can be bitchy), but I was surprised by it.

Personally, I would regard these meetings not as AA meetings but more like Quality Circles. People meeting under (more or less) expert guidance to discuss work and seek for improvement. At least, I think that’s what they should be.

Hmm, I wonder, did you ever take part in discussions about teaching and ways to deal with teaching problems? And if so, what were your experiences?