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Trust is the Cornerstone: Joe Salem and the New Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation 

April 22, 2022 | Gregory Teachout

In her note on organizational alignment last October, Provost Woodruff articulated a vision for the library as the center of campus and the physical home for Spartan scholarship. This vision included Joe Salem, dean of MSU Libraries, taking on a lead role in teaching and learning efforts as interim associate provost for teaching and learning innovation.  

That position puts Salem at the head of the newly created Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation at MSU, to be located in the Main Library.  

Salem is confident that the provost’s vision will bring a level of connection to the educator community on campus that was previously unknown. But he also knows the road ahead, like any path of institutional change, is uncertain, and that can make people apprehensive.  

Since teaching is such a personal vocation, and so many efforts around teaching and learning already exist at MSU, Salem understands why there might be trepidation mixed with the excitement surrounding the Center. He is also convinced that the more people know about his team’s approach and perspective, the more that uncertainty will morph into enthusiasm for what is possible.  

“I think it’s important to be transparent about challenges, always, and address how people might be feeling directly. It’s part of our approach to building good partnerships,” says Salem. 


A Democratic Approach 

“I like to work democratically in any context,” says Salem. “The community owns the library and its resources. The Center is similar in that regard. But I think a pretty clear vision is emerging through community and partner engagement. Seeking input in this way reflects the provost’s values, too.” 

The seeking of input at every level is not just a value, but intrinsic to the work of good design research.  

“We have to ask people about their teaching and learning pain points. We have the leadership and expertise in the Center, or we can recruit it,” says Salem. “We have the ecosystem in the Center, in the libraries, and in this network. But if this model is going to be helpful to people, having them be a part of it at every step of the way is important to all of us.”  


Design Provenance  

This “design thinking” approach may be familiar to anyone who worked with the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, which functioned as a kind of design consultancy at MSU over the last few years. Many experts in learning experience design, curriculum design, and user experience from the former Hub have joined the Center. Salem is excited to fold their design expertise into the Center’s ecosystem.  

“All of the current Center staff are former Hub employees,” says Salem. “We want to be clear that it’s not just the Hub rebranded. The Hub had a role in learning and technology, but where we’re headed is a much more sustained service portfolio engaging all kinds of educators, broadly defined, on campus.” 

Whereas the Hub operated as a form of incubator, where projects came from partners and, after completion, were handed back to those partners, the Center aims to create its own projects and support others continuously.  

“The Hub operated in more of a startup model, and our model will be a sustainability model,” says Salem. “Making these comparisons is not to denigrate what the Hub did, but just so people who interacted with the Hub understand the difference. The interactions with the Center will really focus on sustained relationships. That said, we’ve been really explicit as we’re designing this together that project work will still be something the Center will do. The Hub experience is in the DNA of the people now working in the Center.” 


Affiliates Model 

The Center’s democratic approach goes beyond its design philosophy. It directly informs the model Salem’s team plans to use when working on new teaching and learning projects.  

“We want to work on a networked model,” says Salem. “I think there was some concern at the outset that this was some kind of centralization effort. We have no interest in that at all. We want to activate that model and have formal partnerships with the people already working in this area.”  

Salem is explicit in his attempt to put people at ease in terms of jurisdictional overlap. Some units and colleges have put vast resources into teaching and learning development; the Center will look to tap into that structure, activate it, and make sure all involved feel good about the partnership.  

To understand the specifics, Salem invokes a hypothetical scenario where someone is doing an assessment project and comes to the Center for assistance. 

“When this is fully realized, we would have a really good idea of what the overall teaching and learning network looks like on campus,” he says. “If someone came to the Center interested in doing some kind of assessment project, we might not have all the assessment expertise we need in this scenario, but we know the network on campus so well that we could recommend a few people across campus to work with.” 

These experts may not be in a single unit or college, explains Salem, but the Center can serve a connective function in this case, and help form a diverse group ready to consult on assessment. 

Salem is explicit that such groups must be formed with sensitivity to the time and workload involved. He acknowledges that some people might be concerned about “unfunded partnerships,” which can begin as goodwill gestures but balloon into serious commitments.  

“This is why we are putting time into how to approach what we’re calling an ‘affiliates model.’ So we’re looking for formal partnerships, in some cases. If we formalize partnerships, and make sure the cost/benefit makes sense for everyone, I think that will alleviate fear regarding unfunded partnerships.  

“When we think of what a fully-realized vision looks like, we would want all the colleges and units involved to be comfortable with a certain amount of their time having been either bought out or allocated to this kind of activity.” 


A Matter of Trust 

Salem knows that much of the Center’s mission is predicated on building a trusting, collegial relationship across campus. He is adamant that the Center is composed of people able to cultivate beneficial, productive relationships with project partners, even if it takes time. 

“Trust building is so important,” says Salem. “Just like we can’t boil the ocean in terms of teaching and learning, we can’t do that on trust building. We needed to have this semester to do things like the summit and a staff retreat so we can work very democratically. And there are people who have not had the chance to work with us this semester, and we will have to build trust with them. It’s an ongoing challenge, but we’ll overcome it.”  

On the Center’s side is what Salem sees as a strong commitment at MSU to teaching and learning. He is optimistic that the passion and expertise amongst MSU’s educators will be activated through the network the Center is building. As people work with the Center, word of mouth about its approach and usefulness will travel.  

“The Center is populated with truly excellent colleagues,” says Salem. “And MSU is populated by people who aspire to be great teachers. Some people have different priorities, but I think everyone wants to be a good teacher. I go to all the faculty governance meetings now, and much of the discussion is around the classroom,” he says. “I find most of the faculty wanting to be flexible and student-focused. Even in the pandemic, when one could have an easily understandable response about worrying about oneself, I hear a lot of empathy, concern and student equity and success.”  

Salem says he is excited to keep the Spartan community in the loop as the Center’s vision becomes more concrete, and welcomes input from colleagues across campus.