Frank Durham, assistant professor of journalism, is talking about his experience in Writ Large, a class designed to help University of Iowa professors explore the difficulties and delights of teaching writing in a large class setting. A dozen faculty members from disciplines as disparate as nursing, anthropology, counseling, and engineering gathered daily for two weeks in July to discuss the theory and practice of making large class writing assignments efficient and effective.
Assigning a five-page paper to hundreds of students can be like asking for a hailstorm, Durham says. It can be so inefficient. Writ Large provided lots of practical ways for faculty members to support those longer assignments by incorporating writing techniques and short assignments into all parts of the class.
Writ Large is just one of the courses offered by The University of Iowas Center for Teaching. Established in 1995, the centers goals include supporting and promoting the development of teaching skills, weighing in on policy discussions that relate to teaching excellence, and serving as a symbol of the Universitys commitment to teaching.
Were here to promote and support anything that enhances instruction, says Wilf Nixon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a parent of three University of Iowa students, who serves as the centers director.
The center offers courses on a variety of topics, from using technology in the classroom to preventing cheating to teaching ethical values and religious traditions in a public university. They provide written materials (including a handbook for teaching assistants and a regular newsletter), regularly scheduled courses (like Tips for New Teachers, offered several times at the beginning of each semester), and one-on-one counseling on teaching issues. They also serve as a resource for any member of the University community who seeks to hone his or her teaching skills.
One instructor who took advantage of the centers services is Amy Fletcher, a fitness specialist who holds dual appointments in Student Health Service and the Department of Health and Sport Studies.
Id taught a few years before I came here, so I naively thought I was pretty experienced, Fletcher says. But when my first evaluation didnt go as well as Id hoped, another faculty member referred me to the Center for Teaching.
Fletcher used a number of their services, including one-on-one sessions with Carolyn Lieberg, the centers associate director.
She was so helpful, Fletcher says of Lieberg, with whom she shared her ideas about her course format. She even had me to come to her house after shed had surgery, so she could help me with my syllabus.
Like many faculty members, Ive never taken a teaching methods course, Fletcher says. My contact with the center has helped me get a better grasp on what it is I want to docreate a specific goal for each class period, for example, and ways to keep students involved and interested.
Fletcher also took part in another service offered by the centeran in-class evaluation. A staff member of the Center for Teaching comes to the classroom and meets with students in small groups. They ask the students what the instructor is doing well and what they think the instructor could improve. The information is compiled into a report that the Center for Teaching staff member shares with the faculty member.
The information was very positive and very useful, Fletcher says. Her evaluation took place mid-semester, so she was able to use the reports findings that same semester.
Nixon agrees about the importance of evaluations.
Its an incredibly valuable experience, he says. It gives faculty the opportunity to try something new in their classrooms, and then a way to assess how well students are learning. All my colleagues have an interest in good teachingteaching poorly wastes both the teachers and students time.
While the centers resources are invaluable, the opportunity to talk teaching with ones peers is, in the words of Frank Durham, radical.
Its so unusual for faculty members from across the University to get together to talk about how we teach, Durham says. Writ Large created a situation where we couldnt talk in jargon, because we were all from different disciplines, so we found common goals.
The students in Writ Large learned so much from one another that they plan to attend one anothers classes and meet at the end of the year to discuss how their newly learned techniques worked.
That meeting of the minds is one of the things that Nixon finds so valuable about the Center for Teaching.
The content of our courses is important, of course, Nixon says. But equally important is creating the time and space to sit down and talk about teachingto share concerns about how best to connect with students.
Our classes give instructors the chance to share some hard won experience, so everyone doesnt have to learn the hard way, he says. Its helpful to realize that other faculty members face some of the same struggles you do, and its helpful to be able to ask someone whos been at this a long time, How do you do this?
Of course, students are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Center for Teachings work.
Everyone who participated in Writ Large teaches large, general education courses. Durham says. This was a conscious effort to help make the first-year student experience at a large university less mysterious and more useful.
And thats the motivating force behind all of the Center for Teachings activities.
Faculty members are uniformly committed to student learning and student success, Nixon says.
by Linzee Kull McCray