How might we create a culture that actually esteems effective teaching? The value of such a thing ought to be clear, if only because it would blunt some of the frequent public criticisms of universities for a too-narrow focus on research. But creating a teaching culture hasn’t proved so easy. It’s not that campuses don’t harbor great teachers—even the most research-intensive universities do. But those professors usually tend their personal classroom gardens on their own. They don’t labor as members of a community—or culture—that rewards their teaching and propagates their best ideas about it.
The challenge of how to make good teaching into a communal value has been the subject of the Teagle Foundation’s academic philanthropy for some years now. Last month the foundation convened a meeting, “Community of Scholars, Community of Teachers,” to showcase the efforts of some of its grantees. Professors and administrators described what they had done to create “teaching-positive” environments in the liberal arts at their institutions.
Every one of the grant programs centered on the teaching of undergraduates by graduate students. That’s not surprising. Graduate students do an enormous amount of that work at most universities, so they’re necessary members of any university’s teaching community. But the programs on display at different institutions employ graduate students differently, and at different levels.
Cornell University is working from the bottom up. The university’s teaching center recruited graduate students (in both the humanities and the sciences) for a new fellowship program that leads to a certificate. Fellows studied technology, assessment, and related topics, and did independent research on teaching.
Graduate-student fellows embraced the training enthusiastically, said Richard C. Kiely, Cornell’s director of engaged learning and research. Once they did, the center used them as a bridge to bring in faculty members via their departments. The effort—Kiely calls it “a social movement”—continues, with ever-larger cohorts each year. In this way, graduate students lay the foundation for widening changes in attitude and practice toward teaching at a research university.
Other Teagle-supported programs work from the top down. Stanford University, for example, used its grant money in 2010 to set up a collaborative-teaching project that annually paired eight senior professors with graduate-student teachers. The two-person teams, all drawn from humanities departments, each devised and taught an undergraduate course together.
The eight teams—new ones are named each year—come together several times each quarter to discuss their experience and assigned readings on teaching and learning. The emphasis is on horizontal partnership: The professor and the graduate student are supposed to work together as equals, as nearly as possible, despite their vertical differences in rank and status. The program has been a success, so much so that the Stanford administration seems poised to pick up the cost of the program after the Teagle grant runs out.
Russell A. Berman, a professor of German who presented the Stanford initiative, urged that we stop “assuming that graduate education is a series of seminars, and move toward a model of collaborative teaching.” That vision gains further persuasive force from the shrinking of some Ph.D. programs. Fewer graduate students may mean fewer seminars, but smaller student cohorts also offer more opportunities for creative partnerships, pedagogical and otherwise.