Melinda: Nominated by Her Colleagues at the Indiana University School of Nursing, Indianapolis, Melinda M. Swenson, PhD, NP-C, FNP, Was the Recipient of the 2001 NLN Award for Excellence in Teaching

Article excerpt

A certified Family Nurse Practitioner since 1980, she teaches nurse practitioner students and coordinates the Family Nurse Practitioner major, the largest of the school's MSN majors. Approximately 60 students are enrolled in the program. (Faculty Matters)

With Dr. Sharon L. Sims, her teaching partner, Melinda is responsible for five clinical courses at the end of the course of study: Advanced Assessment, Primary Health Care of Women, Primary Health Care of Adults, Primary Health Care of Children, and Primary Health Care of Families. These courses enroll about 20 students who move through the two years of the program as a cohort. She also advises several doctoral students who are interested in becoming nurse teachers and researchers.

As part of her academic responsibility, Melinda spends one day each week at the Indiana University Health Center, providing direct care to college students. This clinical day enables her to maintain national certification status, which is required for faculty members and clinical teachers in the department. It also helps her keep her perspective on the realities of health care and "maintain clinical credibility with my students."

Balancing the various aspects of the academic role presents a challenge for nursing faculty, who must engage in research, service, and interdisciplinary work, as well as teaching. For Melinda, teaching and research are inextricably connected. "I use narrative approaches to teaching and learning and interpretive approaches to research. For me, thoughtful and reflective teaching is a way of being and a way of knowing. Probably one of my best research strategies is to teach, because it is while teaching that I am most creative, most productive, and most curious."

Communication with others -- her teaching partner, students, and faculty colleagues -- is crucial to Melinda's approach to research. "Most of my best ideas come during conversations with others. Dialogue crystallizes thinking for me, helps me define the possibilities and realities of the situation, and enables me to define the issues and begin to write about them." The process of writing about teaching and research refines Melinda's thinking and often resolves itself in interdisciplinary, interprofessional collaborative work focused on the realities of teaching. She describes this process as "both a tension and a release."

A predominant theme in Melinda's teaching scholarship has been the development of curricula consistent with her focus on interpretive and hermeneutic research. In 1995, she and Dr. Sims co-developed an innovative, narrative-centered curriculum for a new major in the MSN degree program. Infused with ideas from Dr. Nancy Diekelmann's Narrative Pedagogy, this curriculum uses narratives to develop new strategies for teaching and create an interactive, collaborative, non-teacher-centered classroom environment. Melinda explains that their goal has been to promote in students "an appreciation for the stories that teach -- stories from our patients, from our colleagues, from other clinicians, and from teachers -- stories that students learn from and remember long after graduation."

Students' accounts of their experiences in clinical settings and preceptor practices stimulate active learning and provide an environment conducive to inductive thinking. and critical diagnostic reasoning. Their stories are the heart of every class session. Melinda and her colleagues no longer lecture and even avoid the seminar-discussion format. She explains that these familiar strategies fail to meet the rapidly changing nature of primary health care, adding that they also fail to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

Essential to this new FNP curriculum is the importance of interaction with the entire family, not just members of families. "For us, the family is the unit of care, not just the context for the care of individuals." Indeed, in this curriculum, patients are teachers, partners in learning, and generators of meanings about health and illness. …