Year 1, Seminar 1

Envisioning University Teaching 


Seminar description:

This seminar builds on the students’ experience of the “best and worst classroom” and their views regarding their “best and worst” professors. It makes use of an experiential approach for students to reflect on “What is a University?”, enabling them to creatively express and examine their notion of a university environment. This discussion is followed by the reflections of acclaimed American University professors on “Think­ing of Teaching as an Art Form”.



8:30 – 9:00 am   Registration, Breakfast, and ‘Best’/‘Worst’ Postings

Please post your responses to these 2 questions:

  • ‘Best’: Choose one word describing your best professor or best class that you have taken.
  • ‘Worst’: Choose one word describing your worst professor or worst class that you have taken.

9:00 – 9:30 am   Introductions and ‘Best and Worst Classroom’ Exercise


9:30 -10:30 am   An Experiential Approach: What is a University?

Alida Anderson, Associate Professor, School of Education, Teaching and Health

Laura Juliano, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology


  1. Objective (5 min): To examine our assumptions and frame the topic “What is a University?” to introduce concepts and facilitate dialogue
    • Group into teams of 6 students and go to each “station” in the classroom (set up with markers and re-stick newsprint sheets)
    • Each team:  Introduce yourselves, appoint moderator and note taker.
  1. Drawing Activity (10 minutes) Using the box (X) as the classroom:
    • Design a university setting (University Map) with your group
    • Post your “University Map” on the wall at your station.
    • Prepare brief (2-5 min) description; decide who will be describing which parts of the University Map (approximately 30s-1min each).
  1. Follow -up Discussion in Teams (30-40 minutes)
    • Listen to each group’s description (5 min each)
    • Compare/contrast information from groups during discussion
    • Make notes for reflection posts to BB forum



10:30-10:45 am   Coffee Break


10:45 -12:30 pm   Thinking of Teaching as an ‘Art Form’

Anthony E.Varona, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs teaches Contracts, Administrative Law, Media Law, and Introduction to Public Law, in addition to serving as associate dean for faculty and academic affairs. Before becoming associate dean, he was the director of the SJD Program. Prior to joining the WCL faculty in 2005, he was an associate professor of law at Pace Law School in New York. Before that, he served as general counsel and legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay civil rights organization. He built HRC’s legal department, directed its legislative and regulatory lawyering and appellate amicus work, launched national law fellow and pro bono attorney programs, and served as counsel to HRC’s board of directors and the organization’s corporate, educational, and media initiatives.


12:35- 1:00 pm   Closing

Please post your responses to the probes below to the BB forum entitled “What is a University?” Also, respond to at least one other student’s post in your responses.

1)     What assumptions about universities emerge from groups’ Maps?

2)     Are there significant differences in the “framing” of the groups’ Maps?

3)     Are there patterns/differences/overlaps in groups’ perspectives?

4)     Why is this information important to consider?


  • Announcements



Best and worst qualities describing professors or classes

Best and worst qualities describing professors or classes

University Maps

Group 1

Group 1


Group 2

Group 2


Group 3

Group 3


Group 4

Group 4


Group 5

Group 5



Please share your comments below.

19 thoughts on “Year 1, Seminar 1”

  1. Maps was an insightful exercise that allowed us as students to place values to what we see an important to making a successful university. What I found interesting was that many of the aspects we currently see at AU were represented in our Map. What we saw that was lacking were spaces that allowed for less fragmentation by students and increased cohesiveness. As students and specifically doctoral students, we share different social and physical circles that influence the way we conceptualize things. This workshop was important in helping put together that framework and allowing me as an individual to see the way I put the pieces together.

  2. In answering the question “what is a university”, the maps exercise allowed us to visualize and conceptualize our assumptions of university settings. Although the word “university” connotes “scholarly community”, all groups conceptualized the university as an environment in which academics is only a small component. This was most likely based on our assumption that a university is responsible for creating a healthy, safe, and social environment that is conducive to learning, which also allows for education to go beyond the classroom. Overall, the main differences in how we “framed” our maps had to do more with style than actual concepts. For example, we all included wellness/health centers and library resources, but presented and categorized them differently on our maps. In terms of essential overlapping perspectives, I will have to agree with James Wright’s comment that our maps visually indicated a sense of fragmentation within the university community. Even though we all had the underlying assumption that various resources are essential to a university setting, it was difficult for us to conceptualize how they interact to create one cohesive learning environment. Thus, this maps exercise demonstrated the obstacles in formulating a clear definition and image of the word “university”.

    1. I think you make a great point when you emphasize wellness/health centers in your response. Wellness/health centers are a key component of a successful university. It also seems to me that wellness/health centers can play a key role in addressing concerns about fragmentation at the university. If we want one aspect of the university to tie together all the other aspects, it makes sense to extend the role of wellness/health centers. Wellness/health centers are already responsible for ensuring student physical and emotional health. It seems that one way to address fragmentation concerns would be to expand the role of wellness/health centers and promote greater cooperation between wellness/health centers, student academic advisers, and student financial advisers.

  3. The groups’ maps show that many of us tend to think of the important characteristics of universities in clusters or categories. Some groups explicitly used subheadings and categories, while other groups sought to avoid this deconstruction so as to prevent isolation of each category or hub on campus and to instead promote interaction of all the various elements. Many groups had similar conceptions of support (academic, personal, resource-related) and areas to promote social interaction and constructive dialogue between students. This information is important to consider because many of us may be working at universities in the future and may even have a significant influence in their functioning and structuring. Being informed will not only contribute to productive influence but greater understanding of the environment students are working within.

  4. From looking at the group maps, it seems the groups shared two key assumptions. The first is that the focus of the university should be the students attending school there, as opposed to research goals or the desire to gain prestige. Group 5, by putting “Students” at the center of the map, perhaps expressed this assumption most explicitly. However, the maps reflect a focus on students in all cases. The second key assumption is that, to serve students effectively, the university needs to take a holistic approach, and address needs that are intellectual, financial, social and emotional in character. In terms of framing, I would argue the broader frame used by the groups was very similar. All groups looked at the university with an understanding that a holistic approach is needed to ensure student success. The differences between the maps, in my view, amount to differences in degree, not differences in kind. While all groups viewed the university in a holistic sense, different groups emphasized different parts of university life. For example, Group 2 emphasized the importance of abstract goals, such as well-being, while Group 1 focused more on concrete activities and locations. These maps are important to consider for two key reasons. First, the maps help us to understand more about diversity in the university setting. The different emphases in the maps reflect different experiences and different ideas on how to help students succeed. By understanding the different perspectives on university life, we better understand the different types of people who we find at universities. The second reason the maps are important is because they lead to solutions. By having a discussion of the goals of the university, we can evaluate various options and strategies and work together to find the most effective way to help students succeed. In closing, I would note that it is very encouraging that all the groups approached the exercise in a holistic sense. For students to succeed at a university, and more broadly for individuals to lead lives they are happy with, there are many different important factors involved. It is great to see that all the groups recognize the complex world we live in and that they did not exclude any one aspect of student success.

  5. There are significant differences in framing among all the group’s maps. As someone pointed out above, most groups clustered aspects of campus together. My personal favorite of these was the map which tried to connect the internal campus to the community. This is a very important point because academics are often accused of being out of touch with real world and living in an ivory tower. Another group touched on this need to break down barriers with their anti-silo approach. The takeaway of this lesson for me was the need to bridge gaps between academic departments within the university and between the university and the greater community.

    1. Like Meghan, I also appreciate the idea of bridging the gap between the university and the larger community, both that which the university is housed in as well as society at large. It is important for students, especially undergraduates, to acquire experiences that facilitate the development of skills and self-awareness that are necessary for preparing for what happens after college or graduate school, or outside of the “ivory tower.” Nowadays, with the continuing trend of more people going to college after graduating high school, I think an overarching yet fundamental aspect of a university is to encourage its students to “think outside of the classroom.” Engaging in activities outside of campus (e.g., internships, volunteer positions) will not only complement what they are learning in their classes but it will also expose them to diversity of perspectives and enable them to make well-informed career-related decisions.

  6. Something that stands out to me looking at these campus maps as a whole is a reflection of the values of a diverse sample, something which I think a university ought to strive to represent. While I think, for the most part, all of the groups included the basic infrastructure of a “typical” university, I found it interesting the ways in which various people advocated for additional sections on the campus (e.g., inter-faith center). I particularly appreciated the groups that included specific values that they found to be important to the essence of a university (e.g., prior knowledge). The take-home message for me in this exercise was to “think outside of the box” and acknowledge the importance of a university’s organization both in supporting the values of its individual members as well as cultivating an environment and culture that is representative of shared values.

    1. I completely agree with you Kristina. I feel that a university should reflect the values of its diverse population. I think that universities benefit immensely from a diverse student and faculty population and I feel that the values, lessons, beliefs, thought processes of individual members generates great ideas. I think that all universities should support student and faculty groups that engage in positive interactions.

    2. The idea of thinking outside the box and taking a look at the bigger (whole) picture was something that I took from this activity as well. I really like what you said about the importance of supporting the students’ values while also working to cultivate an environment and culture that represents shared values. I think that those are important things to consider when working to provide an environment conducive to learning and growth.

  7. I felt that this exercise, explaining “what is a university?”, really exemplified the multitude of components that determine the success of a university. However, before we even started the exercise I believe that there were some basic assumptions about a university that determined our Maps. Some of these assumptions are that a university must be: an environment that promotes education and facilitates learning, safe and supportive, equal and nondiscriminatory. During the activity, there was a general homogeneity in our answers, in that groups 1, 2, 3, and 5 focus upon building the environment of the universities infrastructure in order for students to succeed in the classroom and feel a sense of belongingness to the university. Group 4 also focused upon creating an environment that promoted student welfare and was conducive to student success; however they were the only group to mention a support system for professors that enabled a scholarly environment. When creating the Map I definitely overlooked this aspect of a university, which is arguably the most important aspect of a university. How can you have a great university without great professors? I believe all of this information is incredibly relevant to us and aspiring professors everywhere because it really gives us a great picture of a proper foundation to a successful university.

  8. It was interesting to get to see the different maps for each of the groups and to discuss the various components of the maps. Some of the groups focused their maps around the physical structures and services provided by those structures on a campus while others focused their maps around services available or different components of campus life or a combination of the two approaches. While the way that the maps were “framed” may have differed across groups, as we presented and discussed our maps it was clear that there were overlaps as well and that there are some things that we all see as important components making up a university. It was an interesting opportunity to discuss the various things that make up a university and to consider ideas that may not have previously been held. This information is important to consider as we are all currently an active part of what makes up a university and may continue to be part of these types of communities as we pursue our academic careers.

    1. Definitely agree Lauren, the groups chose to present the information in different ways but there is something fascinating about the way in which our ideal universities overlapped. This has some implications for when we enter the field that I think it’s important to consider at the current stage of our education.

  9. Looking at the maps, most of us understood the idea of the university as a structure. As some mentioned above, the student has been the focus as we thought of our ideal university and I think this is an appropriate approach. Group 3 seems to be the outlier among all the maps presented above. It focused more on the relationships and values, while others focused more on organization and support of the student. I think the key element that overlaps in groups’ perspectives is that all elements are interconnected and all pieces of a university need to communicate, work together and depend on each other. It is important to think how educators, students, staff and the leadership define the university because each of these agents can formulate different goals and have different demands and expectations. By understanding the needs of all the different parties and the way they are thinking/conceptualizing the role of the university, enables us to be better educators and resolve potential problems.

  10. I agree with Suzanne that assumptions about universities emerging from maps usually reveal a mind-structure that categorizes and organizes thoughts into distinct spaces divided by abstract or concrete boundaries. Most of us thought about “places” such as a “classroom” where individuals can either physically or virtually go to. Group #3 tried to overcome this spatial conceptualization by presenting a “map” full of nodes and relations. I think it is a great way to think about universities: what kind of relations do we have and want? Universities are not only “places” for learning but also for living, socializing, growing and failing. I believe it is important to think about universities as communities, in which social relation play a crucial role.

  11. Our group’s map (Group #3’s map) of the university makes clear the difficulty in designing a space that facilitates transdisciplinary integration and exchange. There is certainly more to establishing conversation between departments than physical proximity; however, I do believe that the incorporation of communal spaces into the overall plan of an institution is a crucial starting point for forming those connections.

    It appears that while each group has a distinct vision of what particular aspects of a university deserve prioritization, we all seem to agree that the successful assimilation of these qualities into a cohesive whole is instrumental in the organization of an environment suitable for learning and intellectual collaboration.

    I agree with Mr. DeLorenzo’s comment that understanding what values matter most in the coneption of a scholarly community enables us to “evaluate various options and strategies and work together to find the most effective way to help students succeed.” Ultimately, improving dialogue between faculty across departments will allow us to devise more effective pedagogical methodologies to benefit students, which I believe should be the guiding aim for each of us as educators.

  12. During our last session I was struck by the centralized and institutional nature of the environments many of us perceive and expect education to take place in – ignoring the importance of how learning happens increasingly online, asynchronously and in social spaces mediated by the Internet. Learning and knowledge-buildling has become peer-to-peer based, self-guided, customized to everyone’s needs, mixing both traditional models of learning and new models such as MOOCs, meetups, YouTube videos, livestreaming, Skype calls, collaborative document creation, remixing to name a few. Learning spaces and communities need not be so time and institution-bound, unless the community deems it so. Like democracies, the frameworks for learning should be as flexible, transparent, rigorous, dynamic, iterative and responsive to the changing needs of that population and the context they inhabit. The less we create silos and opt for more converging “mesh” spaces of learning from differenet disciplines, the smarter we all become, and, ultimately, the more efficient we are in solving problems in a much more networked and relevant manner.

  13. In the activity, it seems that many groups believed that the university’s job is not only to foster academic growth but also to promote an overall sense of well-being for the student, through programs that support mental and physical health, interfaith beliefs, financial needs, cultural development, etc. As Joseph noted, the university should be concerned about holistic development, although groups had different ideas about how this goal can be achieved. Another common thread between groups was the idea of the university as a community, not separate departments. Groups talked about ways to facilitate interdisciplinary cohesion, either through physical shared space or forums for interaction. I think this concept may be even more important to consider as graduate students and future faculty members. I felt much more a part of my whole university as an undergraduate, while now I feel much more like a member of my specific department. Although it may seem more important for undergraduates to pervade different departments in order to become more well-rounded students and for graduate students to focus on developing their expertise in one area, I think it is also important to remember and consider how different fields can inform each other’s research and conceptualizations of major theoretical questions, and so I find this question of how to integrate departments into a unified community to be particularly pertinent.

  14. Many assumptions emerge from the group maps, and one is that there is an “ideal” university in theory, and that it differs substantially from a lot of what we see in practice. Although groups may have framed this differently (i.e. the tunnel system in #3) I think the overall message was remarkably similar. Universities need to be comprehensive and diverse enough to offer a supportive learning environment to a wide variety of students. Systems need to be built in to both support/allow for learning and to advance the student’s knowledge along the way. As we are contemplating an entry into academia, all of these factors are relevant to consider when it comes to looking for a job in the future (can we work for a university that may not provide the things that we find important?) as well as providing the best experience for future students (how can our own beliefs about the necessary parts of a university guide best teaching practice in the microcosm of the classroom?)

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