Reflections of the Notion of “3M Currency”

Reflections of the Notion of “3M Currency”

Lee Gass
1999 3M Teaching Fellow

t became increasingly clear as I aged that the wages of strong commitment to teaching in research universities is second class citizenship and second class income, compounded for life. It feels horrible to say it this way, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that teaching is sinful in academe.

As a sinner with strange educational values, I was relatively isolated from my peers. I was isolated even in the small-scale world of the first-year biology program, because until much later, it was difficult for us to converse about intellectual growth. We had little shared language to speak about teaching and learning, and we assumed different things about how learning occurs and how best to foster it. More than once I was asked to leave committee meetings for repeatedly asking difficult questions about pedagogy that were considered to be (and were) disruptive.

In that environment it was difficult to speak of anything but subject-matter content, and content was the last thing I thought we needed to discuss. For most of my peers, it was intuitively obvious and therefore unquestioned that teaching involved a one-way flow of information from professor to students, that students were and should be passive recipients of that information, and that assessment of learning required only the provision of opportunities to recall it. I didn’t believe it, and I did less lecturing than anyone expected me to. But my students learned well and enjoyed themselves, and I felt successful even while I was criticized strongly for the way I taught.

Many interesting things happened in my courses in the first sixteen years, including wonderful collaborations with teaching assistants, but my pedagogical isolation continued. In fact, every time peers evaluated my teaching for promotion, tenure, or local teaching awards, at least one evaluator criticized my teaching strongly. One of them, a teaching award winner, even asked me in front of my students to explain why I had wasted his time, since he had come to evaluate my teaching, not my students’ ability to work with each other in groups.

When I won a local teaching award, my Dean asked me to be reconsidered for promotion. But a few minutes’ discussion revealed that our Faculty was not yet ready to recognize my accomplishments in the practice of pedagogy (as opposed to publication about practice) and I refused. A couple of months later, I learned I had won a 3M Teaching Fellowship. Soon, my Provost called me to his office to convince me to be reconsidered for promotion. His argument that the university needed a “poster boy” for reform of promotion and tenure procedures was difficult to refuse, especially since he did understand my real strengths and promised to support me fully from above if necessary.

The next year was intense and public, partly because a colleague from another department made some very disparaging, very public statements about undergraduate education to which I had no real choice but to respond. Our comments eventually reached a major local newspaper. That article included both the conflict between research and education that our comments represented, and the related story of my non-progress tl1rough the promotion and tenure procedure. This embarrassing process did lead to my promotion, and it did result in substantive changes in promotion and tenure procedures.

Undoubtedly, my 3M Teaching Fellowship played a key role in that transformation. I have reflected a great deal on the notion of ” 3M Currency.” What was a vague, abstract notion has evolved into a powerful framework for intentional, transformative action in my work in education. I am responsible for the compounding of its value.

One of the returns on my investment was the CASE/CSAE Canadian Professor of the Year award in 2002. In effect, the second national award greatly increased the interest rate on my 3M Currency and revealed many opportunities to influence faculty development and institutional change at home and in many other places that I could not have imagined even a few years earlier.

I have no doubt that the 3M Teaching Fellowships Program and other ways of recognizing quality in teaching are social investments of a very high order.