Bringing Pedagogy into the 21st Century: The GSAS Teaching Center and the Science of Teaching and Learning

Volume 4, Issue 1, Fall 2013

By Alexander Gelfand

One sunny day this past June, a clutch of doctoral students from various departments—Music, Sociology, Earth and Environmental Sciences—sat, stood, and circulated in a large room on the fifth floor of Barnard College’s Diana Center. The space was crammed with themed tables devoted to various digital tools: one bore a piece of paper with the word “SIMS,” for computer simulations, scrawled in black sharpie; another proclaimed “Blogs!” Many of the tables were littered with lists and diagrams and flow charts, and each one was equipped with an educational technologist from the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL). The students had all been appointed as teaching assistants or preceptors for the coming year, and the technologists were there to show them how to use the software to design and deliver assignments.

In other rooms, students munched on box lunches as presenters from CCNMTL and the GSAS Teaching Center—including Mark Phillipson, the Center’s interim director—demonstrated how to use the library’s online resources or set up a website where students could upload and annotate text and images for a class. All the while, informal groups of TAs lounged on comfy chairs in a common area framed by large windows, sipping bottled water and talking shop.

The setting was the second day of the Teagle Summer Institute, a three-day-long series of workshops and discussions devoted to pedagogy and technology. Now in its second year, the institute is part of a larger three-year program, the Preparing Doctoral Students for the 21st Century Initiative. Offered by the Teaching Center and CCNMTL under a grant from the Teagle Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of undergraduate learning in the arts and sciences, the initiative seeks to equip graduate students to teach in the new millennium and, by extension, to bring the quality of undergraduate learning at Columbia to an even higher level. And it is emblematic of the way in which the University is trying to rethink the role and function of the Teaching Center at a pivotal moment in higher education.

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Since they first began to appear in the 1960s, teaching centers have become increasingly common on American college and university campuses; more than two hundred schools now have some kind of center devoted to helping faculty and graduate students improve the quality of their teaching, including many of Columbia’s peer institutions. Yet Columbia itself came to the party relatively late.

According to Carlos J. Alonso, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Vice President for Graduate Education, the University first explored the possibility of creating a full-service teaching center that would cater to both faculty and graduate students in the 1990s. At the time, however, the cost seemed prohibitive, and so in 2006 the University established a more limited center, focused on the needs of graduate students. Helmed for two years on an interim basis by Jan Allen, then the associate dean for Ph.D. programs, the Teaching Center acquired its first permanent director in 2008, when Steven Mintz came on board.

Mintz wanted to move the Center in several directions at once. For one thing, he wanted it to address not only teaching but also research into learning—more formally known as scholarship on teaching and learning, or SOTL. SOTL emerged as an academic discipline less than a quarter-century ago with the publication of Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate by Ernest Boyer. Boyer, who was at the time president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, argued that instruction merited the same systematic study and professional recognition accorded to other areas of scholarly investigation, and his contention was quickly taken up as a rallying cry by others. Allison Pingree, director of professional pedagogy in the Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence Initiative at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, says that research in areas relating to SOTL is already beginning to count toward academic promotion and tenure.

To Mintz, a professional historian with a long list of publications to his credit, acquiring those scholarly bona fides was crucial. Otherwise, he suspected that a teaching center would never be taken seriously at a top-tier research institution like Columbia—the kind of institution where scholarship, not teaching, has historically been regarded as the real work of faculty and graduate students. Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard College and current president of the Teagle Foundation, recalls that when she was hired by the anthropology department at the University of Chicago in 1970, even talking about teaching with your colleagues “would have been the professional equivalent of a burp.” A generation later, when he was a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, Mark Phillipson recalls a similar silence surrounding the art of teaching—and the concomitant experience of walking into his first teaching section at ten o’clock one morning, writing his name and phone number on the board, and realizing that he had to “turn around, face the class, and do something.”

The Teaching Center’s emphasis on SOTL is a means of redressing precisely that lack of attention to how teachers do what they do and how they can do it more effectively. Cognitive psychologists like Columbia’s own Janet Metcalfe and Lois Putnam have for many years conducted research into learning and memory, and their findings can be directly translated into helpful teaching strategies. Metcalfe, for example, points to three or four basic techniques that virtually any teacher can use to improve learning outcomes, such as spacing practice sessions out to help learners retain new concepts and requiring students to generate their own answers (even if they are wrong, the process is ultimately more effective than simply giving them the correct answers to begin with). “The empirical findings are very solid,” Metcalfe says. “And it works beautifully.”

Some months ago, Metcalfe addressed the staff at CCNMTL, and the results were apparent at the Teagle Summer Institute when Michael Cennamo, an educational technologist who is working toward his doctorate in education at Teachers College, gave a brief talk titled “Presentation and Metacognition.” Cennamo outlined the specific psychological reasons why so many PowerPoint presentations fail, including the fact that people find it difficult to process information when it is delivered both orally and textually. He and his colleague Adrienne Garber, also an Ed.D. candidate at Teachers College, then presented a series of digital tools that can be used to deliver more effective presentations by exploiting the ways in which our minds process data.

Wendell Hassan Marsh, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, attended a similar workshop at the Teaching Center last year. Marsh is hardly a novice when it comes to either digital technology or teaching—a former journalist, he’s well acquainted with new media, and he taught English to refugees while in Egypt on a Fulbright—but he says that the strategies he learned “kind of changed the way I present things in general now.” They also kept him coming back to the Center for more training.

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The digital side of the workshop that Marsh attended, of the presentation that Cennamo and Garber gave, and of the entire Teagle Summer Institute, points to another development at the Teaching Center: its growing emphasis on educational technology. Phillipson is well suited to manage that change: before being appointed interim director of the Center, he spent six years as a senior program specialist in the faculty support unit at CCNMTL; as an assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of English at Columbia, he has made extensive use of wikis, the popular web apps that allow people to collectively create and annotate online content. As a teacher, Phillipson has found that such tools bolster students’ sense of participation, and can even influence the direction of a course through the generation of new ideas and avenues to explore—an effect that can have a transformative impact on overall student engagement.

The word “transformative”—along with its close cousins “revolutionary,” “game-changing,” and “disruptive”—has often been used to describe the role of technology in higher education. Much of the hubbub has in recent years come in response to the phenomenon of massive open online courses, or MOOCs: strictly digital combinations of text, images, and video delivered to vast numbers of people over the web. Because they are free and available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection, MOOCs have been heralded as a means of making higher education accessible to almost everyone. Some proponents even believe that they might represent a cure for what economist and former Princeton president William Bowen calls the “cost disease” of higher education, which manifests in ballooning tuition costs and skyrocketing student debt. And they’re spreading like wildfire: Columbia currently offers a number of MOOCs in subjects ranging from virology to economics through Coursera, a Silicon Valley startup that at last count had more than nine million enrollments from students scattered across nearly two hundred countries.

The speed with which MOOCs have proliferated—many of Columbia’s peer institutions have introduced their own courses, while Harvard and MIT have partnered to create the MOOC provider edX—has also raised concerns about the future of the technology. Some fear that turning toward a fully online model might further imperil academic jobs at a time when tenured positions are already dwindling, while others believe that it will inevitably dilute the educational experience. In a recent piece for the online magazine The New Inquiry, Aaron Bady, a Ph.D. candidate in African literature at the University of California, Berkeley, assailed MOOCs for being a pedagogically shallow means of content delivery that will benefit only the most self-directed students, and he also contended that the rush to adopt them has more to do with serving corporate interests than educational ones. (In an earlier post to the blog Inside Higher Education, Bady described MOOCs as “only better than nothing.”) Because of these conflicting views, and perhaps because of the fundamental uncertainty that surrounds a phenomenon that is still in its infancy, the subject of MOOCs tends, as Mark Phillipson says, to get people “very excited, and very scared.”

The changes underway at the Teaching Center could help assuage at least some of those fears. For example, more technologically oriented offerings ought to help teachers bring the same quality of instruction that Columbia students have come to expect in the classroom to the digital realm as well—whether that is in the context of a MOOC or of a course that mixes face-to-face and online elements.

Holly Myers, a Teagle Summer Institute participant and doctoral candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages who was preparing to lead a section in first-year Russian, was visibly thrilled to be sitting next to Michael Cennamo as he demonstrated an application called VoiceThread on his laptop. VoiceThread allows students to create online conversations around material they have uploaded to the web, and Myers could already see her undergraduate students videotaping their own Russian-language skits, uploading the videos to their class website, and commenting on one another’s work. She was especially excited because, prior to attending the Institute, she hadn’t even realized that such a thing was possible—or that someone like Cennamo might be around to show her how to do it.

“I had some vague notion of an office somewhere in Butler if I had questions about CourseWorks,” she said, referring to the University’s online course management system. “I had no notion that there was this vast network of professionals who were available to help make things more engaging for students.”

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The idea of a “vast network of professionals” hints at yet another role that a reimagined Teaching Center could potentially play, as a place for graduate students to get a sense of the possibilities that lie beyond academia and to find the support they will need to capitalize on them.

The fear that MOOCs and other digital technologies will render some tenure-track positions obsolete is accentuated by the very real tightening of the academic job market, which has sent increasing numbers of graduate students into so-called alt-ac—short for “alternative academic”—careers that include staff and administrative positions at colleges and universities, not to mention careers that have nothing to do with academia whatsoever. Not surprisingly, this can be difficult terrain to negotiate. Many graduate students are uncomfortable discussing alt-ac or nonacademic options with their faculty advisers, either because they feel ashamed of abandoning a traditional academic career or because they are afraid that betraying even the slightest lack of commitment could have catastrophic results. And many faculty advisers don’t know enough about the world beyond academia to be of much help. This is why Steven Mintz originally envisioned the Teaching Center as a “safe place” for Teaching Fellows to explore alternative career paths, and why Mark Phillipson says that the University would be failing graduate students if it did not help them confront the realities of the job market—whether by assisting in the creation of the kinds of robust professional portfolios they’ll need to land their first faculty positions or by preparing them for life outside the ivory tower.

Phillipson is therefore introducing sequences of workshops that graduate students can complete in order to receive a formal certification. Bill Rando, director of the Yale Teaching Center, which awards a certificate of college teaching preparation to graduate students who complete a comprehensive training program, says that many graduates of tier-one research universities who  are lucky enough to land academic positions will likely find themselves working at liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally emphasized teaching over research, or at state schools, which have come under increasing pressure to demonstrate their efficient use of taxpayer dollars with evidence of effective teaching. Under those circumstances, proof of participation in teacher-training activities can only help.

In addition to what Phillipson refers to as the “quiet mentoring” that already takes place as graduate students are exposed to alt-ac professionals such as Cennamo and Garber, the Graduate School is also launching an initiative to explicitly address alternative career options. Beginning with the spring 2014 semester, advanced doctoral students will have the opportunity to intern in some twenty administrative offices across the University, where they can get a glimpse of the day-to-day operations of a modern research university. As Dean Alonso notes, that exposure can serve as “useful preparation for a career in academia, either within the professoriate or in academic administration.”

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Opportunities for mentoring of all kinds ought to increase as the result of another shift, as well. Until recently, the Teaching Center focused almost exclusively on providing teaching and professional development services to graduate students. That is now changing, however, as faculty from across the University are being invited to take advantage of its resources. In addition to providing faculty with the same support already enjoyed by their Teaching Fellows, this will expand interaction and communication among all of those who make up the Columbia teaching community, tenured and otherwise. And that ought to be good for everyone.

Rando, who has over the past five years steered the Yale Teaching Center through a similar transition from a student-centered organization to one that also serves faculty, says that opening the doors to all comers makes many things possible. In addition to providing TAs with increased access to senior faculty, mixing populations also enables more two-way exchanges between graduate students—many of whom have been roaming the halls for years and have considerable insight into the culture of the University—and junior faculty who have only recently ceased being graduate students themselves. Such exchanges can help freshly minted assistant professors navigate the environment where they hope to build their careers, while providing grad students with a better understanding of what their own roles as teachers and scholars will be once they, too, move on to their first professional posts.

Those higher up in the institutional hierarchy stand to benefit as well. Harvard’s Allison Pingree points out that digital technology can provide an avenue for renewal to senior faculty who want to refresh their teaching with a shot of something new and innovative.

And faculty at all levels of seniority profit when they have the chance to mingle with colleagues from other disciplines. Universities, Rando says, tend to be siloed along departmental lines: physicists hang out with physicists, English profs with English profs, and never the twain shall meet. While this may be natural, it is not particularly healthy. If those physicists never develop a genuine appreciation for what those English profs do (and vice versa), they will never develop a sense of shared purpose—a situation that can eventually breed mistrust. Moreover, drawing together faculty from different departments gives them the opportunity to share their respective insights into teaching and to discuss the common challenge of reaching students. This, Rando says, is one of the most powerful aspects of a teaching center: done right, it can become a University-wide faculty center.

The new and improved Teaching Center will also benefit from its new and improved digs: a sleek, digitally enhanced space in Butler Library known as Studio@Butler. Everything in it—the tables, the whiteboards, the digital projectors—is on wheels and can be easily configured for a variety of uses: graduate-student workshops and faculty seminars, one-on-one consultations on teaching strategies and departmental discussions of curricular planning, maybe even improvised study halls for students taking MOOCs—a physical complement, as it were, to the online classroom—and a laboratory where faculty and staff can gauge student reaction to the digital environment.

Phillipson also sees Studio@Butler as a response to the desire expressed by many graduate students for a “third space” on campus: a refuge beyond the orbit of one’s department and immediate social circle, where graduate students from across the University can come to find informal support and a sense of community. You could see the outlines of such a space emerging at the Teagle Summer Institute, as participants from different disciplines temporarily coalesced into small, informal groups where they commiserated over the difficulty of balancing teaching and research, talked about their job prospects, and bonded with one another regardless of their respective departmental affiliations or areas of expertise.

Not incidentally, the Teaching Center shares Studio@Butler with the Digital Humanities Center, which offers technological and research support to faculty and students who work in the humanities  and history. Phillipson hopes that this cohabitation will blur the line between teaching and research in productive ways. The entire Columbia community would gain something, for example, if more TAs and professors were to discover the scholarship of teaching and learning, or if they came to regard their own teaching as something that warranted the same rigorous procedures of inquiry they employ when conducting their scholarly investigations. “Why teach on hunches and guesses,” Phillipson asks, “when you don’t treat your own scholarship that way?”

That question gets at the heart of the Teaching Center’s mission and purpose. It may be many things to many people—support center, digital training ground, professional development office, communal gathering place—but all of those roles and functions are undergirded by a fundamental  commitment to helping faculty and students become as serious about their teaching as they are about their research.

“It’s often an uphill battle to get people to commit to teaching in the ways in which they are committed to scholarship,” Phillipson says. “So it’s good to trouble the line between the two.”