Of Faculty Inquiry Projects (FIPs), Curiosity, and Cats

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I would have loved to be a student at Yale in 1960 when historian and professor Edmund Morgan looked over his glasses at the assembled freshman class. “The world does not much like curiosity,” he began, citing the often-used expression, “Curiosity killed the cat.” He observed that curious children overwhelm their parents “with a string of unanswerable questions about what makes fire hot or why grass grows”—which makes me think of curious teens setting the carpet on fire while playing with the lava flow in their volcano science projects. Yet despite curiosity’s challenges—or perhaps because of them—Morgan came down on the side of inquiry, with this invitation: “Children whose curiosity survives parental discipline and who manage to grow up before they blow up are invited to join the Yale faculty.” In joining a university, they’d find themselves in a sanctuary for curiosity, a place “where the world’s hostility to curiosity can be defied…within whose walls any question can be asked.”

While curiosity is not listed in CI’s mission statement, it is visible throughout our website, which is peppered with phrases such as “Curiosity never retires” (OLLI), “Cultivating Curiosity” (SURF LLCs), and “The key to learning is curiosity” (PSY Program). Our faculty regularly harness curiosity as they develop and refine research questions.

Faculty Inquiry Projects (affectionately known as FIPs) are designed to capitalize on the power of curiosity to advance faculty development. This spring, for example, Julia “Jules” Balen has led a group that, in her words, “explores the various roles and types of power that play out in our classrooms.” They enjoyed rich conversations in which “we are exploring how we might productively shift the dynamics with the students we find most challenging or with our own, possibly stuck, teaching practices.” Morgan also recognized the power of this sort of deep exchange, for he saw communication as embedded in each scholar’s discipline, serving as “the proving ground” where we can hold up our research “findings against criticism.”  FIP members serve a less critical and more collaborative role as they discuss experiences, ask new questions, and test each other in trying out new approaches.

In another FIP this semester, Lindsey Trimble O’Connor invited faculty colleagues to explore their writing habits. With several meetings behind them, she writes, “Most folks in my FIP are going above and beyond in experimenting with new behaviors to help them meet their writing goals…The spirit of experimentation has really been remarkable.  I get the sense that they appreciate the data they are collecting about themselves and that it has been insightful for them.” Her FIP colleague Matthew Campbell took up the challenge to examine his daily routine and seek out 30 minutes a day to write. He reports, “The 30 min / day thing alone has been life changing.  Really, I was one of those who thought I could never get anything done jumping into my writing for only 30 min., and I am so productive with what I thought were useless scraps of time.  It’s been wonderful.”

Other FIPs this semester include Jeanne Grier’s group, which came together to examine equitable grading practices. After establishing a common language for assessment, they decided to start first by taking a look at course-wide grades. Jeanne writes that they will soon “begin to address individual assignments/graded events and create rubrics and clear criteria that will benefit students and the instructors.” How many of us intend to revisit our grading criteria or rethink our course-wide balance of grades, only to run out of time? FIPs offer regularly scheduled nudges from colleagues to help us make time for the questions, decisions, and actions that we value.

A side benefit of having faculty-designed, faculty-led inquiry projects is that they can pivot to focus on a range of issues that influence our lives as teacher-scholars. For example, Christy Teranishi Martinez’s group gathered around questions of work-life balance and the multiple worlds faculty inhabit. Christy writes that this small group has become “an incredible reciprocal mentoring group, where we are supporting and challenging each other to be the best we can be given the stressors we face in our daily lives.”

Stay tuned for a call for faculty facilitators who wish to lead the next round of FIPs for Academic Year 2018—19, including a new FIP focused on grant proposal writing—to be followed by a call to sign up for the specific project that catches your eye—and your curiosity.

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