Q&A: Director Led UVA Center That Helps Teaching and Learning Take Flight

Retiring as executive director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, Marva Barnett will return to teaching Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” next year. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
September 13, 2016

Many longtime professors don’t recall their early education on how to teach at the college level – because most didn’t have any, beyond a short session or conversation, if anything at all.

“Give a quiz once a week” was about all the advice Marva Barnett received when she began teaching French language courses at her first university job.

Barnett, who in 1990 established the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence (then known as the Teaching Resource Center), has helped create a cultural shift at universities nationwide toward emphasizing student learning. She has championed and strengthened the teaching segment of UVA’s mission as a public university, alongside research and public service.

The University recognized her efforts with a Thomas Jefferson Award in 2011, the Excellence in Faculty Mentoring Award in 2008 and the Elizabeth Zintl Award for Leadership in 2002.

As a faculty affiliate of the Department of Drama and the comparative literature and writing programs, Barnett has focused her research on French author Victor Hugo, especially his renowned chef d’œuvre, “Les Misérables.” For her work in promoting French language, culture and literature, the French government named her Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques in 2012.

As Barnett retires this month from leading the center, she reflects on a career devoted to helping faculty help their students spread their wings to become lifelong learners, and why the teaching experience still makes her feel like she’s flying.

Q. What was your reason for wanting to establish a center on teaching?

A. After I got my master’s, I taught French at the University of Maine for two years and had one two-hour training session. I had to think back to my high school French teacher’s activities, because in college I placed out of the foreign language requirement, so I took only literature courses there.

Ever since I was a doctoral student at Harvard, I have been interested in what makes for great teaching. I was one of the first clients at the Harvard-Danforth Center, now the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. I went to every workshop they gave and benefited from that program.

Q. How did you get UVA’s Teaching Resource Center going?

A. When I first got to UVA, I trained the French graduate teaching assistants, along with some of the TAs in less commonly taught languages. Cora Diamond was acting dean of graduate studies and convened a meeting about having a teaching center. I wrote a Funds for Excellence grant proposal to [the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia]. The late Shirley Menaker, an associate provost, was the godmother of the TRC – she found us a home and we opened in the downstairs of Hotel D.

The center was funded first for Arts & Sciences but soon became University-wide. It opened for both teaching assistants and faculty. It was practical; I wrote a handbook and we made videos of the best faculty and TAs that I found through course evaluations. Our first workshop was about giving large lectures and included well-known teachers like economics professor Ken Elzinga.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. The Center for Teaching Excellence is one of the best in the country. We constantly get calls seeking advice and requests to share our work.

I’m proud of my colleagues who have gotten some top awards for research on the center’s programs. They’re creating evidence on what we know is best for student learning. [Managing Director Michael Palmer, Associate Director Dorothe Bach and colleagues have won awards in the past two years from the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education.]

After 20 years, more than 400 people have completed the Course Design Institute, run by Michael and Dorothe. It’s for faculty and a few advanced graduated students. One hundred percent have said they would recommend it to their colleagues. In the program, we ask instructors, “What’s your dream scenario of this course? What will the course give students and make sense three to five years later in their learning?”

I’m proud of the number of people at UVA we’ve helped to be better teachers, and now they’re everywhere – on Grounds and at the schools they’ve gone to after getting their Ph.D.s here.

Q. What’s happening at the center these days?

A. Recently, I talked with many faculty and administrators to see how the center could help in this period of faculty turnover. They were overwhelmingly positive about new faculty, their interest in teaching and the response of colleagues who have gone through our new program, “Ignite,” which includes the Course Design Institute. Ignite provides faculty who are new to UVA with the knowledge, skills and supportive community they need to develop into exceptional teachers.

Over 60 faculty have been involved in Ignite, now in its second year, with funding from the Jefferson Trust and support from the Provost’s Office. And I’m excited that the University Academy of Teaching will start working with the program.

Q. Why should excellent teaching be emphasized?

A. Here at Thomas Jefferson’s university, we’re spreading knowledge, educating future leaders and helping students learn “to follow truth.” If students don’t learn well, how are they going to do research, make good choices and live in the world?

There’s a lot more evidence today about how to get students motivated, to help them learn. New teachers don’t have to figure it all out for themselves. We want to make it easier and efficient for faculty.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I’m halfway through my second book on Victor Hugo. [Her first, “Victor Hugo on Things That Matter,” was published in 2010.] It’s on “Les Misérables” and living a life of conscience and love, like the main character, Jean Valjean does, and it’s for the general public.

In February, I’m bringing back to UVA the creators of the “Les Misérables” musical, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. And in the future, I will teach a University Seminar on “Les Misérables.”

Q. Looking back, how do you feel about the job?

A. In this job, it’s important to be a faculty member teaching and having experiences in the classroom, not just an administrator.

I like to help students fit in, expand their minds and find their brilliance. It’s exciting and wonderful to be part of seeing students’ new ideas still forming as they’re listening and thinking and talking. It makes me feel like I’m flying!

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications