February 10, 2012 — As she visits alumni around the country, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan said they invariably tell her that the connections they made with their professors while on Grounds influence their desire to stay connected to the University.
"In terms of what we value in teaching, I don't think we can take that relational aspect out of the equation," she said Thursday during a well-attended panel discussion on teaching.
The discussion examined the many parts of the equation that express the value of teaching at U.Va. Sullivan's fellow panelists, including Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon; Cristina Della Coletta, associate dean for humanities and the arts in the College of Arts & Sciences; and Commonwealth Professor of Psychology Dennis Proffitt, spoke before a full house of about 100 faculty members in the Garrett Hall Commons.
The Teaching Resource Center, which hosted the event, presented the panel discussion as part of its University Academy of Teaching, launched last fall. Director Marva Barnett said having the president and provost interested in the event was a first in her experience of almost 30 years at U.Va.
"The panelists' rich experiences with both facilitating learning in their courses and supporting a university culture that prizes excellent teaching provoked many wise observations and keen questions from the audience," Barnett said.
The lively, hour-long question-and-answer session following the panelists' opening remarks yielded discussions about best practices of teaching and trends in learning. Faculty members shared their schools' and departments' mentoring programs, hiring and promotion activities that emphasize teaching, possible assessment methods and uses of course evaluations.
"Why do some people teach well?" Proffitt asked. Besides talent and training, they have an intrinsic desire to find satisfaction and professionalism in what they do and are interested in their students' learning, he said.
Although external incentives – such as training for professional development, useful measures and rewards – are important, they don't take the place of the academic community's encouraging the desire to be a successful teacher, Proffitt said. That should begin with a clear emphasis on teaching as part of the University culture.
Coming from a small liberal arts college to U.Va. in 1979, Proffitt said he was glad to recognize the same emphasis on the value of teaching that he had previously experienced. Since then, Proffitt has chaired the psychology department, won teaching awards and been chosen as one of the inaugural members of the center's Academy of Teaching.
As another activity that promotes good teaching and faculty development, mentoring has grown into an institutional practice. Della Coletta said when she was a graduate student at U.Va., earning her master's degree in Italian in the late 1980s, there was no mentoring program at all. Now the Teaching Resource Center offers several different mentoring programs, and some departments and schools have their own.
She mentioned a new type of mentoring program that will be created in the Institute of the Humanities & Global Cultures, a new College initiative led by English professor Michael Levenson and supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
A cross-disciplinary seminar on teaching will draw graduate students from the broad net of humanities fields to explore teaching techniques, their experiences and what they're learning with the guidance of faculty mentors.
An added benefit of mentoring is that it's "a two-way street," Della Coletta said. "It's really a dialogue," she said.
Simon said learning from mentees can be a worthwhile experience for senior faculty, and Barnett agreed, noting the center had received many testimonials from faculty mentors saying just that.
Della Coletta said she sees higher education and teaching at a threshold: between traditional subjects and interdisciplinarity, innovation and obstacles, experience and mentorship, past and future.
The past encompasses what senior professors have learned about teaching, and the future will release more and more college graduates into a different world from the one the senior faculty grew up with.
When he was growing up, Simon said he looked to his professors as role models, but today's students don't see their professors as the sole sources of knowledge; they can look online for a wealth of information.
Simon, who became provost in September and hasn't yet taught at U.Va., said faculty members must cultivate ways to keep up with change and shift their perspectives: instead of thinking about how to deliver knowledge, they should be thinking about how best to facilitate learning.
He and Proffitt said including community engagement as part of courses provides a good avenue for involving students. Sullivan also mentioned the trend of increasing undergraduate research with faculty mentors, not just having students repeat the same classic experiments.
The panel and audience discussed how to identify the intrinsic desire to teach in faculty job searches, in an environment where the process varies from school to school, department to department. One faculty member suggested candidates be asked to teach a class as part of the process, and Della Coletta said the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, of which she is a member, does just that. A Darden School of Business faculty member said when they interview a prospective colleague, they observe a candidate meeting with students for an informal conversation.
In response to an audience member's question about the usefulness of course evaluations, Proffitt and Della Coletta said teachers must take students' evaluations seriously and not just rely on an online process. They must let students know their feedback is important and take time to have conversations about it, Della Coletta and several faculty members said.
As a department chair, Proffitt said he suggests faculty read their course evaluations, put them aside and stew about them if need be, and then go back and read them again without being too defensive. He reads all the evaluations and discusses them with each faculty member, he said, and they follow up if necessary.
Simon asked about other ways to assess teaching. "The question is, how do we tie assessment to learning?" he asked.
Sullivan said when she was vice provost at the University of Texas, she oversaw a revision of its tenure guidelines that included adding a peer review of teaching. At U.Va., some departments and schools include classroom observations as a regular part of review, but it's not standardized, Barnett said.
"Many good practices for valuing and developing good teaching are in use at U.Va., but they could be better known," Barnett said after the event. Faculty showed "apparent interest in institutionalizing or standardizing useful processes," she said.
"Having a Web repository of effective practices for developing and assessing teaching would make them easily accessible and might well lead to documenting their effectiveness and expanding the variety," she added.
Simon, Academy of Teaching members and the TRC staff will work on next steps to continue promoting the value of teaching, Barnett said.
Sullivan acknowledged teaching as "the premier enterprise" of the undergraduate experience at U.Va.
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Candidates for the University Academy of Teaching may be nominated by academy members, senior faculty and department chairs, or they may self-nominate. Required nomination documents must be submitted to the Teaching Resource Center by May 29.
– By Anne Bromley