Let this be a lesson to you
Center for Teaching offers classroom help to TAs, professors, departments
How do you teach a compressed summer class that meets for several hours at a stretch? When only three students sign up for it? And one of them isnt much of a talker? And its a required course, so theres no hope of it being cancelled?
"You cant exactly say, Lets break up into small groups," said Carolyn Lieberg. "Youre a small group all the time."
This may be every teachers worst nightmare, but its a real question Lieberg has fielded. As associate director of the Center for Teaching, she regularly consults teachers from any department of the University about their classroom problems. In this case, the instructor dropped in for help when all the usual teaching solutions didnt apply.
"We talked for a long time," Lieberg said. "It was a challenge to take the kind of things we often tell people and modify them. She did some collaborative learning projects, brought out some video clips. Things to cut up the time."
Thats the kind of problem that UI instructors bring to the Center for Teaching every day. Now in its eighth semester, the center is a university-wide resource available to all faculty and TAs who want to tone up their pedagogical muscles. The centers services take many forms. In addition to dropping in to discuss a classroom problem, teachers can get feedback on an individual assignment or simply have another pair of eyes look over a syllabus before distributing it to students. The scope of guidance ranges from one-on-one consultations to large-scale efforts like TALK, the centers newsletter that goes out to every person in a teaching position at the University.
"And we do everything in between," said Tom Rocklin, the centers director. "We do little two- or three-person teaching circles, just bringing some people together to talk about teaching. We do departments. Well do whole colleges. We did 18 departmental visits in the fall semester."
Some of the centers services take the form of scheduled events. There are workshops, "Films at noon," and a series of "Talking about teaching" brown-bag discussions led by Rocklin on the third Tuesday of every month. (See box for workshop schedule.)
The centers location on the 4th floor of the Main Library encourages drop-in visitors, but sometimes it takes a leap of faith to walk through those glass doors. It can be difficult for any instructor to admit that theres a problem in their classroom. Teaching problems can feel very personal, and more than one instructor has come to the center in tears or on the verge of tears. Rocklin and Lieberg try to create an encouraging, supportive atmosphere.
"Everything we do is voluntary on the part of the people who receive the service," Rocklin said. "And we wouldnt have it any other way."
"Its also confidential," Lieberg said. "If someone comes in or asks us to come into their classroom and observe, or if theyve got a problem in the classroom, then that name is private information."
The most common teaching problems revolve around student behavior. Perhaps class discussion isnt happening. The center can offer tips on how to rouse the troops. Or there may be a problem student who consistently interrupts. A consultation may offer some ideas on how to defuse the situation by giving that student at least some of the attention theyre demanding without taking up a lot of class time.
Not all visitors come with problems. "We have people coming to teaching circles and workshops whove already won teaching awards," Lieberg said. "These are people who are interested in improving their teaching."
"Our regulars," Rocklin added. "Teaching Center junkies."
But Rocklin is no believer in technology for its own sake. He encourages teachers to know the bells and whistles but to use them only when they add efficiency to the class, allowing more time for teaching.
"One of the outcomes that I think is really legitimate is that someone might spend four days learning all kinds of technology and decide not to use any of it. I think that would be fine, as long as theyve made a considered decision."
For more information on the Center for Teaching, contact Rocklin or Lieberg by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (33)5-6048, or by visiting centers web site at www.uiowa.edu/~centeach. The site includes a calendar of events, a catalog of materials in the centers library, an archive of past issues of TALK, on-line registration forms for nTITLE and the workshops, and lots of teaching tips.
Or just drop by. Theres nothing Rocklin and Lieberg like better than someone wandering in to talk about teaching. As Rocklin put it, "I dont think weve ever told anybody how to teach. What we hope to be are good conversation partners about teaching."
by Sam Samuels