Wakonse: Who do you want to be?

June 15, 2016
By Emily Zimmerman

Lake Michigan Sunset Enjoyed at the Wakonse Conference on Teaching

Learning has been a central part of my life for as long as a I can remember. As a youngster, I learned basic skills, like how to tie my shoes, the colors and alphabet, and how to share with my sister. As a student, I sat in countless classrooms with dozens of teachers and faculty members, learning theories, concepts, facts, and skills. I learned how I learn, and I began applying what I was learning to ask scientific research questions. As a graduate student, I continue to learn and grow as a research scientist, but I’m also experiencing learning in a new way: as an educator.

As a teaching assistant and aspiring faculty member, I’ve been privileged to worked with undergraduate and graduate students in lectures and discussions, in field, bench and modeling laboratories, and in one-on-one mentoring. While I’ve had years of learning experience as a student, my training and growth as a graduate student has focused primarily on learning as a research scientist rather than on learning as an educator. My experiences are similar to other aspiring and current faculty members. For many of the over 1.3 million faculty members across the country, training has focused extensively on their area of research expertise and little on developing their skills to teach students. Faculty members are routinely required to hold doctoral degrees in their field, but are often not required to receive any formal training on teaching, learning, or communicating with students. Accessing teaching materials, receiving training in teaching and mentoring, and developing a community of teaching peers often remain under-prioritized. Nonetheless, aspiring and current faculty members dedicate significant proportions of their professional lives to teaching, mentoring, and advising students.

The Wakonse Conference on College Teaching is an annual conference designed to address some of the teaching, mentoring, and advising gaps for aspiring and current faculty members. The conference draws approximately 100 faculty members, and takes place each May, on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. The overarching goal of the conference is to support, promote, and share the excitement and satisfaction of teaching – to inspire others and ourselves. The conference has four main objectives: (1) display and discuss teaching talents; (2) learn about themselves as teachers; (3) consider the tasks and issues of creative teaching; and (4) provide meaningful feedback to one another. This May, I was lucky enough to participate in the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching with four other doctoral students from Iowa State.

The conference is different from many of the professional- or research-oriented conference that graduate students and faculty members traditionally attend. Wakonse has far fewer participants, and is held at a summer camp on the shores of Lake Michigan. Consequently, conference participants are encouraged to wear casual clothes and athletic apparel. Conference organization is fluid, conference sessions (e.g., “Creating Community in the Classroom,” “Work Life Balance,” etc.) are organized more like round tables or discussion groups, and extensive time is dedicated to fostering a community among attendees. The hallmark of professional- or research-oriented conferences, the PowerPoint, is notably absent from this conference. In its place, there are lively and impassioned conversations, demonstrations, and activities designed to encourage faculty members to grow, learn, and evolve as educators. 

Wakonse covered a lot of material in a short four days, including things like how to evaluate students effectively, methods and strategies of being an efficient teacher, mentor, and advisor, and how to adapt to students’ learning approaches. These were concrete, tangible things that I had expected a conference like Wakonse to provide – but, the most useful thing I gained from Wakonse was unexpected.

Several of the Wakonse conference leaders are current faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In November 2015, heightened racial tensions over a pervasive university culture of racism cast the University of Missouri into the national spotlight. In the wake of events related to these tensions, the university community was thrust into period of insecurity. Threats of violence were made. People felt unsafe. Conference leaders shared intimate, personal struggles of how this experience altered their perception of their roles as educators. Amidst of backdrop of fear and inequity, the pragmatic hum of teaching seemed to fade, instead replaced with a louder, core voice asking: who do I want to be as an educator, and what do students need from me to be successful?

In building a community of aspiring and current faculty members, the conference cultivated a space that allowed participants to step back from the expected, pragmatic questions of teaching and address this question. Embarrassingly, this wasn’t a question that I’d thought much about – especially in the context of the experiences of my colleagues at the University of Missouri. But, the events that happened at the University of Missouri are not theirs alone; Iowa State, and many other campuses around the country, have experienced deep tensions related to discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.

These challenges require me to adapt as an educator. Certainly, I need to provide credible and field-appropriate skills, tools, and knowledge to students. I need to help students develop critical thinking skills, to apply the scientific method, and to grow as professionals, and I am committed to being an innovative, engaging, and passionate educator. But, my ability to do those things – to be the best educator I can be – is not just about those pragmatic outcomes. For me, these pragmatic outcomes cannot be addressed without first fostering, and demanding, a classroom community where all students feel respected, valued, supported, and safe. The educator that I want to be not only recognizes the deep, purposeful importance of scholarship and learning, but understands that real human needs of respect, value, support, and safety need to be met if students are going to be successful learners.

The author, Emily Zimmerman, with her Wakonse friends.

Wakonse provided me with pragmatic, applied approaches to many of the day-to-day challenges that faculty members and educators face. Those approaches will be useful as an aspiring faculty member. But most importantly, Wakonse provided me with an opportunity to identify the kind of educator I want to be, to recognize the values that govern my role as an educator, and to begin to think about the skills, tools, and strategies that will allow me to be the best educator I can be. 

The author, Emily Zimmerman (left) is a third-year doctoral student in the LESEM and PLUS Labs. Here she's pictured with fellow Iowa State graduate students and Dr. Joe Johnston, Director, Wakonse Foundation. Photo courtesy of Marissa Holst.  

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