Preparing Future Faculty: Teaching the Academic Life
Column Editor's Note: Academics have long been concerned by the fact that research universities often produce topflight scholars who cannot, however, translate their scholarship into effective classroom instruction. The reports in this month's column reflect the effort of the history department at the University of Minnesota to enhance the teaching abilities of their graduates as part of a "Preparing Future Faculty" project, which currently consists of 15 clusters of colleges and faculty around the nation.
The Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program grew out of the frustrations and experience of numerous scholars deeply committed to improving graduate student education in a way that would also benefit undergraduate students. These scholars recognized that graduate teaching assistants would be the most important teachers for many first- and second-year students at large research universities. The episodic and tentative efforts on individual campuses to improve graduate student training soon began to coalesce into an effort to create organizational support for training future faculty on the national level.
The PFF program, originally called the Teaching Opportunity Program for Doctoral Students (TOPDS), now numbers 15 programs nationwide, which are centered on research universities that operate as the hub of a cluster of neighboring higher education institutions. The national organization is sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools and is made possible by the generous support of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Each of these PFF entities offers a wide variety of professional development activities ranging from workshops on active learning theory and methods to graduate-level courses on improving undergraduate education and graduate training in both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary forms. In addition, PFF programs prepare aspiring faculty for a variety of faculty roles and give them an appreciation for those challenges and responsibilities that faculty face in addition to research activity. While each program functions independently, the wide range of alternative approaches to preparing graduate students to be future faculty members has made PFF a clearinghouse of models for improving the pedagogical climate on our campuses.
The University of Minnesota's PFF program is the hub of a cluster of 17 institutions, which includes research II universities, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and comprehensive universities, located from western Wisconsin to the eastern Dakotas. It offers course work and mentoring opportunities for nearly 250 graduate students per year in an interdisciplinary format. An additional 100 graduate students take discipline-specific theory and methods courses that are organized in consultation with PFF staff. The three PFF courses offered directly through the graduate school are "Teaching in Higher Education," "Practicum for Instructors in Higher Education," and "Professional Communication Skills."
While some institutions require that graduate students hired as teaching assistants have effective pedagogical training prior to entering the classroom, University of Minnesota teaching assistants have received varying degrees of training, ranging from the cursory "these are the policies of the university" to intensive departmental workshops given at the beginning of the year. The university's history department, for example, supplements the workshops sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning Services with its own series of discipline-specific workshops, which range from three days to two weeks in length. Graduate students who seek additional training, however, must take pedagogy courses, such as those offered by PFF, in addition to their regular course load.
Learning to Teach, Teaching to Mentor
Most of the course participants get their first exposure to active learning theory and methods in the introductory PFF course, "Teaching in Higher Education." In addition to introducing students to recent pedagogical theory, the course also allows them to gain practical experience in using these theories before a supportive group of their peers. Students are required to engage in three practice teaching sessions before a small group of peers in which each student presents a mini-lesson to the other group members for 10–20 minutes, which is then critiqued by the other students. In twos or threes, students are also responsible for conducting a 50-minute co-facilitation session on an aspect of a particular week's topic to the other members of the class. The practice components of the course complement the theoretical issues that are discussed throughout the course and students are encouraged to meld theory with practice by writing up to five papers reflecting on their pedagogical choices and strategies. By the end of the course, students will not only have a firm grounding in educational theory but will also understand the importance of being reflective educators as well.
Having completed the theory and methods course, students are then eligible to continue their pedagogical training by taking the course "Practicum for Instructors in Higher Education." The central feature of this course is to assist students in creating a mentor relationship with faculty at any of the member institutions of Minnesota's PFF cluster; at present, over 200 mentors from the various surrounding institutions have agreed to assist students during the past four years. Initially, the TOPDS program facilitated finding both an internal mentor, a faculty member from the participant's own department, and an external mentor, one from another higher education institution.
The change of emphasis from a small program offering extensive training to a few participants to one that offered a slightly more limited experience to a much larger group of participants required that the mentoring experience be limited to one "official" mentor from any of the PFF-affiliated institutions. However, the participants are encouraged to find a mentor in addition to their adviser within their own departments if possible. The mentor agrees to provide the student with three teaching opportunities at the mentor's institution, two of which the mentor observes while the third is observed and videotaped by a teaching consultant from the PFF program. The videotape is given to each course participant who is then able to review his or her performance from the perspective of an observer. All three teaching opportunities are preceded by a meeting in which the course participant and observer discuss the lesson plan and activities for the session, followed a few days later by a discussion of what the observer and participant experienced during the class session.
The mentor is also expected to expose the student to the rich array of faculty roles and responsibilities outside of the classroom in addition to the classroom experience. These may include student advising, committee meetings, or even an opportunity to observe a search committee in operation. Experienced faculty are also invited to discuss with course participants their experiences living the academic life from the trepidation and excitement they felt during their first year at an institution to the ways in which each faculty member balances not only the demands of teaching, research, and service within their professional careers but also how they balance their professional careers with their need for a personal life. Since community colleges represent an increasingly large segment of institutions hiring new faculty, students are also required to interview a community college student in order to get a better sense of the opportunities and rewards that teaching at community colleges provide.
As their final assignment, students, whether on the job market or not, prepare an application for a position in their field complete with cover letter, curriculum vitae, teaching philosophy statement, and two pieces documenting their teaching practice with accompanying reflection. The reflective pieces focus on why a specific lesson plan was successful or not and what the participant's pedagogical reasoning was in constructing a course outline or assignment and whether the created material achieved those ends. The goal of these and other reflective writing pieces is to help the course participant to "identify and scrutinize the assumptions that undergird" how they, as teachers, fulfill their role.3 Upon completion of both the methods course and the practicum, students earn a letter of completion that demonstrates their continued commitment to improving their pedagogical skills. Since the PFF program has a national reputation for promoting faculty excellence, these letters are viewed favorably by hiring committees.
A Powerful Proponent for Change
Arising from the tentative efforts of concerned faculty and administrators to better prepare graduate students for the fullness of the academic life, PFF has grown into a powerful proponent for change within the higher education community. Through the various clusters of higher education institutions, PFF has organized workshops and courses on a variety of teaching techniques that have proven very effective in preparing future faculty for the challenges and joys of the classroom.
PFF has facilitated an increased interaction between graduate students and committed faculty, which has better prepared the students for their future role as faculty members both within and outside the classroom. These mentoring experiences have also served to revitalize the passion for teaching and the courage to adopt different methods to reach increasingly diverse student population for the faculty mentors themselves. PFF has also been effective in more diffuse ways as well as both faculty mentors and future faculty engage their peers in conversations about teaching and the interconnectedness of teaching, research, and service to the larger community.
In the few short years that PFF has been in existence, the number of higher education institutions that have benefited from PFF programs, workshops, courses, and mentoring experiences has grown from a small handful to a total easily numbering in the hundreds. Each year, new PFF graduates are being added to the over 1,000 relatively new faculty members who consider their experiences in the program pivotal in launching their careers.
In the following reflections, we offer three first hand reports from the front lines of the PFF program.
PFF: Transforming the History Classroom
It was midway through the quarter. The midterm examinations had been returned and they were about as I had expected—the 70 University of Minnesota students in my Native American history course had performed adequately. Normally this result would not have caused me any trouble. I had taught the course numerous times as a lecturer and I knew that not all students would perform as well on examinations or other assignments as I had hoped. There would be a few surprises, of course, positive or negative. I had put in a lot of time crafting cohesive, occasionally eloquent, lectures that moved some of my students to a broader understanding of the subject matter. This was not a normal quarter, however; I had just been hired as a teaching consultant with the Preparing Future Faculty program, part of the university's Center for Teaching and Learning Services. As a teaching consultant, I was also teaching a graduate seminar on active learning theory and methods to an interdisciplinary group of 20 graduate students.
Although I was an experienced teacher, having served the history department since fall 1990 as a teaching assistant and lecturer, I had never before immersed myself in the literature on active learning methods and theory, so I was desperately trying to stay one or two articles ahead of the other novices, my putative students. What I read and the insights brought out in the readings through my reflective discussions with the course participants resonated deep within me. The authors argued that rather than focus only on what we, as educators, presented to our students, we should shift our attention to what we wanted our students to absorb. Rather than simply presenting what we believed was important about our courses—using the only technique that we had ever experienced as undergraduates—the authors argued that using a variety of teaching techniques aided all students regardless of learning style. These scholars argued that if we focused on what was important about our subject (and field) rather than on making sure we cover as much as is humanly possible in a 10- or 15-week course, our students would be less disposed to think that history is the simple memorization of fact. Instead, they would come to regard history as a critical and creative process of imagining a plausible past, based on facts, that would help us understand our present and enhance our future. Based on the reflective dialogue I was engaged in with my graduate students, and with the support of my undergraduate students, I felt empowered to radically redesign my course, using interactive lectures where appropriate but also using a variety of other techniques—think-pair-share, collaborative and cooperative techniques, expanded use of video film and slides, case studies, role playing, and discussion. I hoped that by adapting active learning theory and methods to the realities of my undergraduate course in American Indian history from 1830 to the present, I would serve my discipline better by enabling my students to internalize what I felt they needed to know about the subject we were studying.
Using the active learning techniques to transform my American Indian history course was more successful than I had dared hope. Instead of simply dispensing information to my students, I engaged them in a dialogue with my subject. The excitement level in the class and the sophistication of our discussions greatly increased. Fridays, which had been the least attended day of the week, quickly became the most attended, as I organized both large- and small-group discussions of the issues the course raised. Rather than being told to absorb information, my 70 students were actively engaged in acquiring the information in a way that made sense to them, in a way that they would retain beyond the end of the course.
The reader/grader for the course, a graduate student who not only had extensive experience in grading similar courses taught by other professors but had taught the course herself, was very impressed by the high quality of the students' work. One student wrote on her examination, "I did not even need to study, I had internalized everything!"
I am presently teaching "American Indian History to 1830" to more than 120 students using many of the same techniques, including interactive lecturing, that I had used with such trepidation in the middle of my previous course; because of the learning I experienced teaching the PFF courses, I look forward eagerly to this new challenge.
—David Rayson, PhD
teaching consultant, Preparing Future Faculty,
Center for Teaching and Learning Services, University of Minnesota
The Mentoring Experience
Looking back on my experience of mentoring half a dozen advanced graduate students prompts me to ask how I got into it, what I got out of it, and what most impressed me about the process.
Mentoring was something that crept up on me gradually, or perhaps I should say that it was a role I slipped into by stages. A product of different times, I often question my own fitness to advise anyone preparing to teach today. Certainly I did not begin my teaching career with any background in pedagogy. I was painfully shy in childhood and still had a fear of speaking to a group when I was in graduate school (and I suppose one is not drawn to premodern Chinese history by a desire for the limelight). Thanks to generous government fellowships I managed to get a PhD and a tenure-track appointment (in 1968) without ever having served as a teaching assistant or stood in front of a class. Thrown into the classroom without preparation or supervision, my teaching style was dictated by the three "I"s: the imperative to survive, imitation of what I had observed in my teachers, and invention when all else failed.
In time, I found a new identity in the classroom and came to enjoy the delivery of tightly organized lectures laced with anecdotes, slides, and a limited amount of discussion, mostly of the question-and-answer variety. Interest in pedagogy came slowly. Thanks to involvement in comparative courses, administration of an area studies department, and the creation of a world history curriculum, I co-taught courses with more than a dozen colleagues in my own and other departments. My inhibitions declined with these experiences and with age: by the time I was in my 50s I heard students say that I was "laid back" in the classroom. I was far from satisfied, however, and started to look for ways to improve the effectiveness of seminars, for me the most challenging class format.
Opportunities to learn about teaching came in two related streams in the 1980s and 1990s. The first arose in connection with the development of women's studies on our campus. Under the leadership of Professor Toni McNaron and others, workshops were offered for faculty who wanted to enhance the consideration of gender issues in their courses. I jumped at the opportunity. One summer I was lucky enough to be part of a short faculty course on race, class, and gender taught by Professor Rose Brewer, a sociologist from the department of African and African American studies. The following summer I conducted a workshop for eight teaching assistants to design strategies and select materials for treatment of race, class, and gender issues in a new world history survey course. More recently I have been associated with a "Ways of Reading" project designed to enhance consideration of gender issues in undergraduate courses and a follow-up workshop to develop electronic enhancements for the same courses. The other impetus came directly from the central administration of the University of Minnesota. The president, Nils Hasselmo, presided over teaching workshops for selected faculty (again, I was privileged to participate) to encourage use of active learning practices in the classroom. The goal was to make learning more effective but also to create a sense of community: to encourage students to form friendships in their classes by learning interactively. It was through initiatives such as these that an old dog began to struggle with new tricks in his third and fourth decades of teaching.
I write this to suggest that I came to the PFF program more as novice in the new pedagogy than as an expert. Part of the attraction for me was the chance to learn something new and to change my own teaching. Incentives were also a factor. Mentors were offered first $500 and later $300 in research or travel support for each time they participated in the program. Without this very modest inducement, I would have found it hard to respond to multiple requests.
So far, I have mentored half a dozen students under the PFF program and its predecessor TOPDS. One was my own advisee, the rest came from areas other than my own: African, European, Latin American, and U.S. history. It worked best, I found, when the mentee's field was farthest from my own. That lessened the temptation to deal with the subject content of the teaching and made it easier to concentrate on the techniques used.
The duties required of me were ones I could easily fulfill. Teaching techniques were covered in another part of the program; my role was that of facilitator—to help the mentees to think about how to use the techniques and how to understand their roles as teachers more generally. I met with the mentees as they planned classes, observed the execution of the plans, and then met with them again afterward for a critique. I also talked with them about strategies to use in teaching and about what it was like to be a member of a faculty. Where appropriate, I took them to committee meetings, department meetings, and the faculty club to provide glimpses of my daily routine.
Each of the graduate students I mentored had a distinctive approach to teaching different from my own. It was this difference and the variety of their teaching styles that taught me the most. I learned something new from working with each one of them and I became much more aware of the limitations of my own teaching. Drawing them out about their goals and the reasons why they did what they did forced me to articulate why I do things the way I do. Often, I was required to examine practices and assumptions that I had taken for granted. I think this made me a better mentor and maybe a better teacher.
I quickly discovered the power of cooperative learning in my own classroom when I had trouble quieting a large, 250-student lecture class. At first I was perplexed; then I realized that we had organized the students to sit in the lecture hall together with the members of their recitation sections. They knew each other and they were talking! Some of that talk was about the content of the course. A sense of community improved learning: attendance, enthusiasm, and participation all increased. I knew that my experience working with and learning from PFF course participants had converted me when I began preaching: I found myself organizing the history department's fall training course for teaching assistants.
professor of Chinese history
University of Minnesota
A Graduate Student's Perspective
The guiding principle behind the PFF course work at the University of Minnesota is active learning—that students learn best by engaging with the materials and with their peers, rather than by being lectured to. This fits squarely within recent pedagogical understanding. What makes participation in PFF valuable in my own teaching is that the design of our program provides an institutional space to learn, to try, and to get feedback on various ways to teach.
This plays out in two ways within the PFF class that graduate students take. First, the instructors in these graduate-level classes model different ways of presenting information. One week information is presented to us in an interactive lecture format; the next we may work through the materials in guided small groups. This allows us to think about these modes of presenting information from the perspective of a student—how did we react to the requirements placed upon us? How comfortable were we with what we had to do? Perhaps most important at the level of thinking about how we would teach, how much did we retain? In what ways was the style used effective?
Second, these reflections engage our attention, rather than remain simply of academic interest, because we are soon going to have to try them out for ourselves. From within the multidisciplinary body of graduate students taking the class at one time, we sign up for micro-teaching groups that run parallel to our participation in the course but meet separately. Within these groups, we each design and teach a series of 15–20-minute sessions using various active learning strategies as the term progresses, also acting as one another's students. As you might expect, this component builds a camaraderie between us. (And, yes, that also fits within active learning—to allow students a chance to get to know one another better by participating in a shared learning endeavor.) Beyond that, it provides a community of colleagues with whom we can share feedback and build on insights about teaching and learning over the course of the term.
As I had more time to reflect, I became aware of another benefit I gained from my group. When teaching history to undergraduates, especially within survey courses, we want to find a way to make history accessible to students for whom this may be their only experience with a history class—the "nonmajors," if I can apply that term to a group that will largely not yet have declared a major. We really hope to make the study of history engaging and interesting enough to help some of those students decide to take more history courses, perhaps even to declare majors or minors in history. My micro-teaching group consisted of graduate students in business, mechanical engineering, speech communication, and forestry. Certainly, they provided me with an excellent opportunity to practice methods of presenting primary sources and other information to intelligent folks who had no particular expertise in history, and perhaps no great interest either. Equally helpful was the low-stress nature of my audience; while I was pleased to be working as a teaching assistant for a U.S. history survey course while taking the PFF class and beginning to integrate these strategies into my own teaching, my micro-teaching group gave me a place to experiment and refine before I tried things on my discussion section students.
The University of Minnesota's program provides another formalized method for getting feedback on teaching that extends beyond the confines of the PFF classroom and our fellow students. Each student participant arranges to work with a faculty member as a mentor, one whose teaching philosophy and style they respect. While there are requirements for the number of times the mentor needs to observe the student's teaching and provide feedback, this is only the beginning. What is helpful about this aspect of the program is that it removes a possible reluctance on a student's part to ask a busy faculty member to observe his or her teaching. Instead of feeling like an imposition, the observation and feedback is one aspect of a larger agenda they both share, to develop teaching skills. I worked for three years as an instructor within the university's Program in Composition, and asked my mentor to observe me within those classes. One benefit of this, I think, is that composition is not his area of research expertise. Therefore, we could concentrate on the shared experience of how to be effective in a classroom, separate from the content of the class observed. In that context, he acknowledged his intention to incorporate into his teaching something I had done with my class. While very gratifying to me, this example highlights how both mentor and student, through their ongoing relationship, are focused on improving teaching.
It also can be intimidating to teach in front of an experienced faculty member. Having a sense of shared goals by formalizing the mentor-student relationship helps to minimize a sense of vulnerability on the student's part. The net result of getting feedback on teaching from peers and from faculty mentors is to prepare students to be comfortable giving and receiving feedback on teaching, hopefully throughout our careers as teachers. Teaching is more art than science, and a continuing willingness to share knowledge, strategies, successes, and failures from the classroom can benefit not only my students and me, but I hope my future colleagues as well. Participating in the PFF program while pursuing my PhD definitely started a process I intend to carry into my role as a professor.
Another component of the University of Minnesota's PFF program incorporates the student's future role not just as a teacher, but as a faculty colleague. Through the program, a student can participate in a mentor relationship with a faculty member at a non-research institution. This makes good sense, since a majority of those earning a PhD will work not at research institutions but at four-year colleges or universities, or at community colleges. PhD students, though, may have only attended research institutions during their undergraduate and graduate careers. Such is the case of my educational experience. Even if students earned their bachelor's degrees at a liberal arts college, they may not have gained any insight into what being a professor entails outside of the classroom. This is where this portion of our PFF program serves a useful purpose.
My year-long mentor relationship with a history professor at a nearby liberal arts college gave me a great opportunity to get some idea of the various roles he performed. He got permission to bring me along to various committee meetings, and those experiences and our conversations helped me to gain some idea of the place of professors in faculty governance of a smaller institution. I also learned about how professors participate in running their own department, about expectations for publication, and (though it won't transfer directly to another institution) a bit about research support at a non-research institution.
Even in this experience, teaching was anything but absent. We discussed the differences between the types of students, students' expectations, and faculty expectations of students at our two different institutions. In addition, he gave me the chance to teach one of his classes for a day—another opportunity for observation and feedback on teaching, besides the chance to experience students' expectations quite directly!
One of the most enlightening elements of our discussions of faculty responsibilities came when we discussed his work as an adviser to the students—not just in engaging with their academic thought, but in helping to negotiate their registration and distribution requirements. In the large bureaucracy that most research institutions are, the second function is often separated from the first, and carried out by advisers in specialized offices. I was surprised to find them both part of a professor's job at his college. I would rather have been surprised now than later, when my first student stops by to ask me if she has enough P.E. credits.
Overall, I am very pleased that the University of Minnesota began its PFF program while I was here. The experience I gained will continue to make me a better teacher, and a better colleague when it comes to teaching issues. By starting with some understanding of the roles required of professors in both research and non-research schools, I will be better prepared as a new faculty colleague in either setting. I expect to be as overwhelmed as any other new professor, but I hope the experience I gained in PFF will help me to more quickly overcome the anxiety of the new and begin to contribute as a teacher and a colleague.
PhD candidate, modern U.S. history
University of Minnesota
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.