Sabbatical report: The first three weeks

Sabbatical report: The first three weeks

Four weeks ago, I started off on a professional adventure that has been in the works for almost two years: My sabbatical. In case you didn't know, I received tenure at Grand Valley State University back in the spring, and I am spending this academic year as a scholar-in-residence at Steelcase here in Grand Rapids. This blog post describes in broad terms what I'm doing. The sabbatical, as I said, is now underway, and everywhere I mention it, it generates a lot of curiosity. This is the first of many "reports from the field" where I hope to document and describe what's going on.

What's all this about?

I've been asked some variation on the question, "So what does a scholar-in-residence do?", probably dozens of times both here at Steelcase and elsewhere since I started. Here's my take, starting with first principles:

In oversimplified terms, Steelcase is a furniture company. They make furniture and other architectural products that focus on "the workplace" broadly interpreted, including specialized products for corporate workspaces, health care workspaces, and --- importantly --- academic workspaces. The latter includes classrooms, libraries, faculty offices, and so on. The part of the company that focuses on education is known as Steelcase EDU.

But it's also important to realize that Steelcase, specifically Steelcase EDU, is not just "a furniture company". In reality it's more like a design firm that studies the market (in my case, schools and colleges), tries to understand the precise needs of the people in that market (teachers and students), and then designs and manufactures products that solve the problems that these people encounter. Whereas some companies do this sort of design for education using software --- Desmos comes to mind as an example in the math world --- Steelcase focuses on physical items like desks, chairs, and whiteboards.

When we talk about teaching and learning, we often gravitate toward technology and pedagogy, and sometimes we talk about the interaction between these two. But there's a third element that plays just as important of a role, and that's space. Space matters, and it's a mistake to forget this. Have you ever tried using active learning techniques in a class with stadium seating with chairs bolted to the floor? Or, have you tried to use technology-enhanced pedagogy in class in a room that has only four electrical outlets?

In fact, the "built environment" projects a message to both teachers and students about just what kinds of learning experiences are expected. When you and your students walk into that room with the bolt-on chairs, what does this say about the expectations for the learning that will take place in that room? When you look at this room --- a Steelcase-designed classroom --- what kind of message does it send?

steelcase classroom

This design process involves a significant amount of research: quantitative research into the effects of pedagogy, technology, and space on student perceptions and academic improvement; qualitative research into the needs of teachers and students; market research into emerging trends for learning spaces; and more. This is where I come in. As a scholar-in-residence:

  • I am serving as an in-house resource for information on research in teaching and learning. Thanks largely to the research I had to do for my book, I'm in touch with the basic research literature and I can contribute "what the research says" to some of the design questions that Steelcase deals with.
  • I am also participating in some ongoing research projects Steelcase is conducting. For example, I am working with a couple of people to interview teachers and administrators to discover barriers to adopting active learning practices and ways to improve the performance of teachers who are using Steelcase active learning classrooms.
  • I am serving as a person who takes what's known about research in teaching and learning and makes it relevant to a bunch of different populations. For example I gave a talk on active learning to the Workspace Futures group a couple of weeks ago. Then the next week I gave the same talk to a group of sales representatives, who have very specific needs for the information ("How can I increase my sales to academic customers?") that are very different from the Workspace Futures group. In each case my job is to digest the research and present it in a way that's accessible and helpful. Eventually this role will extend to faculty in K12 and higher education, sort of like my workshops that I often give.

So basically, Steelcase EDU has a lot of very smart people working on design challenges that matter greatly to the future of teaching and learning. But none[1] of these smart people are educators themselves. So that's my role, to be the bridge between the design work being done, and the in-the-trenches classroom work and the academic research that people in academia do.

I am trying/hoping to get a lot out of this experience myself. I am using this sabbatical as an excuse to take a deep dive into research on teaching and learning, almost like the first year of a graduate program. I am also trying to learn as much as I can about the culture of a corporation like Steelcase, which is 105 years old but functions very much like a startup, with a well deserved reputation for innovation and creativity. What I can I learn that I can transplant back into higher education when I return a year from now?

What's happened so far?

I am at Steelcase three days a week --- Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday from 8:30-4:30. My official "first day on the job" was September 5.

  • Week 1 (Sept 5--8): The first week was mostly "new employee orientation" where I was in a cohort of new employees[2] getting tours of the facilities, learning about the history of the company, and so on. Nothing to write home about (which is why there were no blog posts).
  • Week 2 (Sept 11--15): During week 2, we hosted a research symposium on learning spaces co-sponsored by the University of Melbourne, with researchers and practitioners from all over coming to speak and connect. I was interlocutor for one of the conference sessions and participated in a roundtable discussion on research in learning spaces. That week was insanely busy getting ready for the symposium. I'll have another blog post forthcoming on this, which will appear at Steelcase's official blog first.
  • Week 3 (Sept 18--22): During this week I began to get more settled into my scholar-in-residence role. The main thing I did during this week was sit down with about 6-8 different people in Steelcase EDU and the Workspace Futures group to talk with them for 20-30 minutes, to get to know them and their work and how I could be of use to them. This group included sales leaders, interior designers, market researchers, managers --- so it's been fascinating to talk with smart people from drastically different professional walks than my own.

This week, I am getting out of the corporate compound here on 44th street and traveling to two local K12 schools to observe classes being taught in active learning classrooms. In the time I have left over, like now, I am writing blog posts (this one, and another for Steelcase's blog mentioned above) and doing lots and lots of reading.

One quick observation: Workspaces

I have learned so much in the last three weeks that my brain is simply exhausted at the end of each day, and my poor notebook that I bought for sabbatical stuff is filling up fast. I'll have much more to say about the experience as I go, but I want to just mention one big difference that I've encountered, and that's the difference in the physical workspace environment.

I work in a building known as the Learning and Innovation Center. It's a former factory that's been converted into a multipurpose space including work areas. It shouldn't be surprising that at Steelcase there should be lots of different workspaces, all designed for different purposes. My default workspace is a standing desk that I share with another person, that sits in an open area with other desks; larger table areas with monitors attached; glass walled meeting rooms that seat 8 people; similar rooms that seat 4, or 2, or even 1; couches; marvelous Brody worklounge stations, which I love and want to have in my house; and more.

My workstation

Outside this area is a large cafe with coffee and snacks, several classrooms of various sizes, treadmill desks tucked away into corners, furniture showrooms where we are allowed to work, nooks and crannies with desks and tables put into them... the variety is endless and there are thousands of square feet of it.

Right now as I write this, our general manager and the administrative assistant are directly behind me discussing his upcoming travel plans; off to my right two people are plugged into a monitor going over sales data; and the interior designers also off to the right are discussing a design. I am working immersed in an environment inhabited by smart people from radically different backgrounds (professionally and personally) and collaboration can happen at any moment. (If I need privacy and quiet, I can go elsewhere, and this isn't frowned upon.) Nobody has an "office" except the CEO, and his "office" is a plexiglass-and-plywood bubble, maybe 50 square feet, that sits out in plain sight of everybody in the leadership area of the building. Everyone else either has a sort of default workspace (like my desk) or is mobile. I can be mobile if I choose. But the default is to be around people in one form or another.

It seems to me that this is the complete opposite of the academic work environment. The main design principle of faculty office space seems to be isolation. At GVSU I have an office that is only for me, is designed to be closed off, has no window facing into the building, and is not even on the same hallway as most of my math colleagues. Most of my students don't where this office is, and the ones who know are often inhibited from visiting because it's so separate. I occasionally have hallway conversations with my colleagues, but there are some of my colleagues who I literally do not even see outside of faculty meetings once a month. Collaboration with people outside my department almost never happens and takes strenuous scheduling and cat-herding to make it happen.

I get that sometimes we faculty need privacy, but should this really be the default? Shouldn't we have collaboration in mind first and make affordances for privacy, rather than the other way around?

To be continued

I'll be posting pretty frequently here with updates. If you have a specific question that you're interested in having answered, let me know and I'll get to it. Also, I'll be producing content for Steelcase's blog and that will get reposted here once it's up there. So far it's been a fascinating experience and I'm looking forward to telling you more about it.

  1. There is one person, Marisa Sergnese, whose job is to travel from place to place and work with educators who have installed active learning classrooms to train them and help them get oriented. Marisa is a former educator and she is very, very good at what she does. I will be shadowing her later on to see what a really good workshop looks like and to see what tricks and techniques I can pick up. ↩︎

  2. I am technically not an employee of Steelcase but more like a contractor. Steelcase is paying Grand Valley State University half my annual salary, GVSU puts in the other half, and then I get a paycheck from GVSU just like normal. I do have some Steelcase employee perks but nothing in the way of retirement, benefits, etc. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.