The Teaching Resource Center: Helping Teachers Become the Teachers They Dream of Being

September 25, 2009

September 25, 2009 — University of Virginia faculty have the opportunity to ask Teaching Resource Center staff, "Will you TAP my class?"

What they mean is having a "teaching analysis poll" done. A member of the center staff visits the class and takes a half-hour alone with the students to ask what is helping them learn and what is impeding them.

The center staff member later shares the results with the professor, keeping the students' comments anonymous, and they discuss what the teacher might want to adjust or choose among follow-up options.

The TAP is one of the services the Teaching Resource Center offers in support of its mission to foster and enhance learning, as well as teaching. This year marks the center's 20th anniversary of building an interdisciplinary community, including graduate instructors and teaching assistants, junior faculty and tenured faculty, dedicated to improving teaching and learning.

Michael Palmer, one of the center's assistant directors, said, "The TRC helps teachers become the teachers they dream to be."

Before veteran French professor Marva Barnett founded the center, open discussions about teaching and learning didn't occur, President John T. Casteen III said.

"The center has shown that teaching is an activity not that one is born knowing, but is something that can be learned," he said. "It engages everyone on the faculty, providing guidance and dialogues that cut across disciplines."

Although several universities, including Harvard, started similar teaching programs earlier, the University has led the wave in faculty development since 1990, Barnett said. Faculty development has become a discipline with its own body of research growing for about 15 years now, she said.

Now the center's faculty members not only translate research on teaching and learning, but also generate research and new ideas, she said.

In the early days, the center focused on training graduate students and new faculty. Barnett and a few other faculty members worked on creating a mentoring network, supporting technology in the classroom and raising the status of teaching, which often took a back seat to research.

The center puts faculty on a trajectory that shows them the University values teaching and assumes that teaching and research are interdependent, Barnett said.

"The center fulfills the University's mission of valuing both," said Barnett, who has taught for 35 years but nonetheless always has the TAP done in her classes. (It gives the students a chance to focus on what they're learning, she said, and it helps her find out if there is any discrepancy between what she's doing and what the students are understanding.)

Through support from grants and from the provost's office and U.Va., the center administers several fellowships and professorships, including University Teaching Fellowships for successful junior faculty members and Excellence in Diversity Fellowships for new faculty members.

An Excellence in Diversity fellow is matched with a mentor, someone from outside the fellow's department who supplements any mentoring received within the department.

Hanadi al-Samman said the center has been "a godsend" from the moment she came to U.Va. three years ago. Being one of the diversity fellows, she immediately felt welcome, she said, and saw the University's commitment to junior faculty. She also learned about the wider community beyond her small department, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures.

The center "creates a nurturing environment to help you give the best you can. ... They look at you as a whole person," al-Samman said. She also has held a University Teaching Fellowship.

She and her mentor, Italian professor Cristina Della Coletta, worked together formally for a year, but continue their connection. Della Coletta commended the center on its mentorship selection, an integral part of the diversity program.

"They do a lot of preparation of the mentors and do a tremendous job pairing people. It's a success story," she said.

Barnett said at first she and her staff had to help faculty members see themselves as mentors and help them realize what they could do.

"They see the give-and-take aspect of mentoring, and now the idea is out there and accepted," she said.

The University Teaching Fellows Program is for faculty who are motivated to help students learn better, to make their learning a transformative experience. Usually it includes taking time, with support from a summer grant, to significantly redesign a course. The six fellows get together monthly for interdisciplinary discussions.

The center's other programs include University-wide teaching workshops before each semester, plus guest speakers and sessions on teaching-related topics.

The center also has a program, "Professors as Writers," created in response to faculty concerns about writing and publishing, whether someone is a newly minted Ph.D. working on turning a dissertation into a book or a seasoned professor embarking on a new research project. The program offers workshops, grants for editorial or coaching support and resources about peer writing groups.

"Professors as Writers aims to address writing challenges both new and old – including those posed by the changing nature of academic publishing in the 21st century, as well as the very practical challenges to writing often experienced by those who think, teach and write for a living," according to the center's Web site.

Barnett calls these groups of faculty members who are involved in the center's various programs "learning communities."

Greg Schmidt Goering, an assistant professor of religious studies, said he might be considered "a heavy user" of the center. A University Teaching Fellow this year, he, too, started with an Excellence in Diversity fellowship. He has attended workshops and used the resources in the center's library.

"Through these myriad resources, I have found in the TRC a conversation partner around issues of teaching, as well as around issues of teaching and research," Goering said. "This conversation has no doubt improved my teaching, which most immediately benefits my students. But it also benefits me, because of the confidence and satisfaction I gain from knowing I am a better teacher than I would be without the TRC."

Another heavy user, Fernando Tejedo-Herrero in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, described the center as "an indispensable and a distinct feature of U.Va."

Along with contributing to expanding his repertoire of teaching skills, he said, "The TRC has also helped me expand my professional network by introducing me to colleagues who would help me develop my work. This has contributed to my gaining a better sense of both the University culture and how to navigate within the system."

Another University Teaching Fellow, LaVae Hoffman, an assistant professor in the Curry School of Education's communication disorders program, said, "The sense of community around teaching that is fostered by the TRC provides opportunities to examine the art of teaching, along with support for trying new techniques and reaching beyond my own instructional comfort zone."

In addition, the center offers professional development for graduate and postdoctoral students, and collaborates with the Center for American English Language and Culture on a program geared specifically to international graduate students.

Former U.Va. provost Gene Block, who is now chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, said the center "is certainly a model for the rest of the U.S."

For information, visit trc.virginia.edu.

— By Anne Bromley