Discovering the voice of gerontology: Faculty fellows explore disciplinarity to make pedagogical innovations

Discovering the voice of gerontology: Faculty fellows explore disciplinarity to make pedagogical innovations

by Angela Glotfelter

“I value the new language that I learned from the summer Fellows program,” says Professor Suzanne Kunkel. “Metacognition, rhetorical flexibility, rhetorical awareness—they named a lot of the things we've been talking about.”

Kunkel was part of the faculty team of three from gerontology who completed the Howe Faculty Writing Fellows program in Summer 2017.

After they graduated, I sat down to interview the three gerontology faculty fellows, who all expressed lasting impressions about disciplinarity and writing.

For example, another team member, Associate Professor Kate de Medeiros has been bringing the ideas they developed over the summer back to the classroom. “I'm really starting to think about not only why we do what we do,” she says, “but also how we communicate to students how we write in gerontology.”

“We're all just more aware of writing conventions in gerontology,” agrees Professor Jennifer Kinney. “Making things explicit that we weren't actively talking about. That's what I'm doing—making writing a lot more explicit.”

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Overall, the fellows have made some exciting pedagogical and curricular innovations that engage students in the work of gerontology.

“I do an activity that I call the ‘reverse genealogy,’" says de Medeiros, “where I give students the reference list of a paper and ask them to try to figure out what the paper was about.” As they closely examine the cited works, students make deductive guesses at the title and content of the article. “It was a tremendous success,” says de Medeiros about how students responded. “It was really cool.”

De Medeiros isn’t the only innovator in the department. Activities that ask students to read and carefully observe conventions and values in gerontological writing have become commonplace in the fellows’ pedagogies since completing the program.

For instance, Kinney is currently teaching the department’s graduate level introductory theory class. “I'm having students start with some contemporary articles,” Kinney explains, “hone in on one article, and then use the reference list from that contemporary article to work backwards to put together how a particular idea has developed over time within gerontology.”

Kinney has also invited colleagues to contribute to the effort of helping socialize graduate students into the ways of practicing and writing within the field. In fact, other gerontology faculty have visited her graduate course to talk about their own writing practices, successes, and struggles.

“We've had some interesting conversations with our colleagues about how we could change our proseminar to emphasize writing,” says Kinney. “We've spent a fair amount of time mapping out what that would look like. This fall, for the first two weekly meetings, we had faculty come in and talk about the process of writing and how they personally approach writing. That helped humanize it a lot.”

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The gerontology fellows hard at work during the summer program

This eagerness to “humanize” writing within gerontology—to reveal the often invisible practices, successes, and struggles of individual faculty members—is all part of the effort to teach students the kinds of disciplinary writing conventions that the fellows identified in the summer program.

“What resonates with students and what I've seen resonate with our colleagues are very practical things that they can use,” says Kunkel. “One of our colleagues in the discussion of writing talked about the fact that he uses a reverse outline. Students love that because it's a practical step you can take. One of the other things that a lot of people responded to positively was the idea that you should ask your students to tell you what they think they're supposed to be doing in the assignment.”

Many of the fellows’ pedagogical innovations have been in the vein of what they aptly call the gerontological voice, a concept they brainstormed and defined in the Faculty Fellows program. The gerontological voice is a way of writing that embodies the values of the field, including characteristics like demonstrating respectful authority of existing research and avoiding absolutes.

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“The summer gave me an opportunity to understand what the gerontological voice meant in a structured, important way,” Kinney says, reflecting on her experience.

De Medeiros is currently teaching an advanced theory class. She encourages her students to think actively about the gerontological voice by asking probing questions about authors and their perspectives. “I’ll ask my students, ‘Do you think this person is a gerontologist? How do you know?’ They're now becoming very skilled in honing in on things that would point to something that's outside of what we value in gerontology.”

The idea is that, if the values of the gerontological voice are made explicit, then students can better understand what it means to write like a gerontologist, moving into the ways of practicing and writing in the field, which is itself still young and developing.

“The field is absolutely ripe for this discussion,” adds Kunkel about the gerontological voice, “because our field is still relatively new. There's been a lot of: ‘Who am I as a gerontologist? What does that mean and how does that position me?’ This discussion about scholarship and knowledge creation in gerontology using the gerontological voice is a whole new level of discussion, and it’s much more sophisticated.”

The defining of the gerontological voice and its characteristics also made the fellows realize how much their writing values differed from those of the other groups in their Faculty Fellows cohort, who came from history and the Farmer School of Business. For instance, even though the gerontologists share Upham Hall with their colleagues in history, they discovered that what makes “good writing” in history may not be the same as in their own field.

“One of the things that I thought was great about the summer program,” Kunkel observes, “was being in the room together with historians and people from the Farmer School of Business. It was great to have other disciplines represented and to learn from them.”

“That was powerful,” agrees Kinney.

Comparing their own values to their colleagues’ made the gerontology faculty realize how important it was to talk about their own disciplinary writing characteristics with their students. “I'm really starting to think about not only why we do what we do,” says de Medeiros, “but also how we communicate to students how we write in gerontology.”

As the gerontology faculty fellows move forward, they continue to explore how they can innovate in their assignments, activities, and pedagogies to help their students develop their gerontological voices.

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As we conclude the interview, one thing that is on the fellows’ minds is the importance of having a structured time to talk with colleagues about their discipline’s values, which the Fellows program provided for them.

“I appreciate the structure of the program, having teams of people,” says Kunkel. “For me, I think this has legs because of the three of us who were involved.”

It was crucial for the fellows to enter the Howe Faculty Fellows program with a team of people who could collaborate well to approach and define the values of their discipline.

“One of the things I would like to reinforce is how important it was for us to have the right three people there doing this,” says Kunkel, looking to her colleagues with her at the table. “We have different perspectives and different backgrounds and do different kinds of research, but all of us have the same level of commitment to the process of thinking and writing and writing and thinking. That made all the difference in the world.”

The Howe Faculty Writing Fellows program gives faculty structured time to work together to learn about the Threshold Concepts of writing, name their own disciplinary values, and innovate pedagogically.

Applications for the Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 cohorts are now being accepted.

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De Medeiros (left), Kunkel (middle), and Kinney (right) proudly display their certificates from the Howe Faculty Writing fellows program