How and Why Was the Teaching Academy Created?

Jim Taylor in a Zoom call with purple shirt, glasses, and white hair.By Jim Taylor, founding member. Presented Nov 9, 2023 at the Teaching Academy 30th Anniversary Reunion, held in Tripp Commons, Memorial Union). For more on Jim, see also this 2002 article: Professor erases stigma of being a good teacher.

(link to video)

Thanks to all of you for allowing me to speak to you this afternoon by Zoom. I am an independent living resident at Oakwood, and I try to avoid larger groups so I do not bring COVID into our facility. There are some vulnerable residents here.

I was thrilled to be asked to share how the Teaching Academy was formed 30 years ago and send special thanks to all of you who have kept it alive for so long. What I will share are my personal memories from 30 years ago. I must tell you, however, that when someone asks me what year something happened, I always answer 1984! They don’t know, and I don’t remember! So, the dates may be a bit off, but I remember well the events leading up to the creation of the Academy.

It probably started with conversations with David Ward when he was Provost for Chancellor Donna Shalala. I was on the University Committee from 1987 to 1991 and David was concerned about teaching at Madison. The other colleges in the University System were claiming to the Legislature that only Research was being done at Madison and that all the Teaching was being done on the other campuses. David asked, “Do we have any measure of the quality of teaching here”? I, frankly, told him no. When I was on the Physical Sciences Division Committee from 1977-1980, we reviewed the qualifications for tenure and there was no evaluation of the teaching except for the student comments on a set of questions given at the end of the semester. At that time, those results were not considered in the discussions concerning tenure. Several departments had outstanding faculty lecturers who filled the lecture rooms, but no quality measurements were involved.

In 1991, David Ward became Chancellor, and he asked me to chair a committee with the charge: “Create a summary report entitled: Teaching Quality, Evaluation, and Rewards for the Madison campus. To ensure that the committee represented the whole campus, there were 20 members! Those 20 were selected because they knew their departments or divisions well and would speak freely about what they observed. 

It was impossible to get all 20 members to meet at any one time, so I created two separate meeting times with the same agenda for both times. Faculty could come when they were free, and I provided notes on a summary of items discussed and any conclusions made. It worked! This was the most stressful but enjoyable committee I ever had at UW-Madison! We divided the report into those three sections and followed the factual report with recommendations to improve what we found.

The 1993 “Teaching Quality, Evaluation, and Rewards” report came to the following brief conclusions:

  1. Across the campus and in many departments, there was great teaching of high quality, but there were few to no opportunities to talk about what was done in the classrooms. In addition, the teaching was up-to-date because in many cases, the teaching included the most recent facts and conclusions from current research rather than only from the textbooks used at other campuses. In some respects, we found “silos of good teaching”with thick walls separating the good teachers from sharing with other departments.
  2. The only common written evaluations were responses to the questions on the Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) forms that were only offered in the last 10 minutes of the last class of the semester. The SET questions were not uniform across the campus or across divisions and they were given too late in the semester to detect and correct any student concerns. Those scores and comments were published by the Student Association And distributed to other students without checking for accuracy by the faculty or academic staff who were in charge of the course. This generated anger and isolation between faculty and students and a negative review did not seem to result in any improvement in the evaluation score from semester to semester. Some departments had mentors but only for new faculty.
  3. There were only two teaching rewards for the whole of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In contrast to monetary rewards for research, many came with an increase in the salary base. None of the teaching awards had this feature.
  4. Finally, there was no organized way for great teachers to share their ideas and experiences with other faculty. 

From this Evaluation of the status of Teaching, the Committee then sought to make some recommendations.

  • First, there should be mechanisms to evaluate and recognize faculty and teaching staff for their quality teaching and create ways to allow them to discuss and share their experiences and findings. 
  • Second, the literature on teaching evaluations worldwide should be examined to determine more inclusive and rigorous ways to evaluate teaching with questionnaires and peers as we do research. The end result of good teaching is improved learning, and measurements of ways to improve learning should be sought and shared on Madison campus.
  • Third, a recognition model that raises the prestige of teaching and provides a mechanism for sharing ideas is to create a Teaching Academy patterned after the National Academies where a small number in the range of 5-10% of the faculty would be nominated by their peers, assemble at regular meetings to discuss, and share teaching efforts that work and respond to student learning. As a standing body, the Academy would also respond to University Administration on specific issues impacting teaching efforts and would be free to propose new ideas for adoption that may further advance teaching and learning. In addition, they should be compensated for their efforts at improving the teaching environment on campus.

This report was released in early 1993 and was discussed widely by the Faculty Senate. The report was approved but the Senate asked for further details before implementation. 

A Steering Committee was formed in 1993 and a formal proposal for the formation of the Teaching Academy was approved by the Faculty Senate in late 1993. This proposal specifically did not include graduate students but did include Academic Teaching Staff.

As one of the founding members of the Teaching Academy, it gives me pleasure to see graduate students now included as Associate Members.

​In conclusion and for questions for the future:

  • Do you think the Teaching Academy adequately provides useful measures of Learning?
  • Has Peer Review been implemented to improve the teaching of individuals?
  • Have there been discussions of the power of a “dynamic syllabus” that might provide an impact on studying and learning?
  • How do the discussions of the Academy reach the broader faculty and teaching academic staff?
  • How do you measure the benefits to Associate Members for their association with the Academy?
  • Have there been implementations of cooperative learning?
  • What do you believe has been the impact on teaching and learning from your time here at UW-Madison?