Reed’s conference method is a transformative experience for students—but requires painstaking preparation by professors.

Reed’s conference method is a transformative experience for students—but requires painstaking preparation by professors.

Teaching Smarter

Reed’s Center for Teaching and Learning helps professors stay on top of their game.

By Romel Hernandez | December 18, 2020

When Prof. Charlene Makley joined the Reed anthropology faculty 20 years ago, she knew she was taking a job at a college that prided itself on a rigorous undergraduate education. When she arrived, however, she was shocked to discover a dearth of campus resources to promote teaching excellence.

“Despite Reed’s reputation, there was almost no support—junior faculty were pretty much on their own,” Prof. Makley recalls. “It was sink or swim. You were told that the students would teach you how to teach.”

Today Reed’s Center for Teaching and Learning is in its seventh year of helping professors become outstanding teachers. The center serves as the campus hub for faculty seeking guidance, support, and resources to get the most from themselves and their students.

Since the pandemic, the center has proven invaluable in helping professors adjust to virtual instruction.

“The center has become an essential part of the college,” says Makley, who participated in early campus discussions that culminated in its creation. “It’s a place for faculty to build community.”

As Reed’s student body grows increasingly diverse by almost every definition, the center plays a critical role ensuring that pedagogical practices reflect the college’s commitment to inclusivity. If professors are going to be prepared to engage today’s students, they need to understand them.

“From the very beginning the center has focused on pedagogy and inclusivity as a single concept,” says Prof. Kathy Oleson, the inaugural director of the CTL and now the dean of the faculty. “To me that means faculty should always be thinking about how to make sure their students are thriving in their classrooms. My hope is that faculty who may not have been involved with the center’s programming until the pandemic will now see that it is an essential, everyday part of the world at Reed.”

In recent years the center has offered workshops such as “Fostering a Sense of Belonging for Students,” “Power and Engagement in Classroom Dynamics,” and a three-session offering of “Campus Climate: Inclusion without Coddling.” Roughly half of faculty participate in CTL workshops in any given year.

“The center brings together faculty and coordinates conversations where they can share ideas and strategies about what makes great teaching,” says Prof. Tamara Metz, the center’s director and an associate professor of political science. “The work we had to do over the past spring and summer was based on that same approach, even as we made an incredibly dramatic shift in how we were teaching.”

When on-campus instruction shut down abruptly in March due to the pandemic, the center shifted into overdrive to train faculty in online instruction. Over the summer the center continued its efforts, so that Reed could offer a hybrid model of  in-person and online classes in the fall.

So far 80% of Reed’s professors have participated in the center’s workshops on online instruction. The sessions focus less on the nuts and bolts of technology like Zoom or Moodle (that’s the job of Computing & Information Services), and more on strategies for fostering student engagement in the vast, sometimes cold, reaches of cyberspace.

Workshops cover subjects such as redesigning courses for online delivery; managing asynchronous teaching for students in far-flung time zones; accommodating students with disabilities; and supervising remote exams and projects, including the daunting senior thesis.

“I doubt anyone at Reed ever imagined we’d be doing online education,” says Prof. Kyle Ormsby, associate professor of mathematics. “The center has been amazing for crowd-sourcing information and ideas.”

Reed’s culture revolves around the dynamic between faculty and students. That’s in sharp contrast to the prevailing trend in American higher education, which typically isn’t geared to reinforce or reward excellence in teaching. PhD programs tend to focus on developing scholars and researchers, not educators. Many institutions make tenure decisions based on junior faculty’s record in securing grants and publishing scholarly work, and give short shrift to teaching. As a result, professors are obliged to “learn on the job” how to teach. The results are painfully predictable—while some shine from the start, many struggle.

“I don’t believe in natural-born teachers—you have to work at being a good teacher,” Prof. Metz says. “You always want to improve your craft, whether it’s your first year teaching or you’ve been doing it 20 years.”

After earning her doctorate in political philosophy, Metz spent a postdoc year at Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, one of the country’s leading proponents of excellence and innovation in higher education. She’s directed the CTL at Reed center for three years, focusing on pedagogy while expanding collaborations with the offices of the dean of the faculty, institutional diversity, and disability services.

Reed launched the CTL in September 2014 thanks to a generous gift from the late Dan Kemp ’58, a legendary chemist at MIT who won several awards for undergraduate teaching and who never forgot the inspirational teaching he received at Reed from Prof. Arthur Scott [chemistry 1923–79].

Workshops at the CTL are designed to support faculty members at all levels of experience. Participation is voluntary; some professors take part as a way to stay fresh, while others may attend a session to fine-tune or update their skills in a particular area.

The center offers a range of brainstorming sessions, seminars, symposia, and one-on-one consultations. Professors can ask colleagues or students to observe their classes to provide feedback.

Prof. Ormsby credits a workshop in “transparent course design” for getting him to rethink how math, a subject with a reputation for being scary and intense, could be made more student-centered and accessible.

“The traditional approach was always, ‘I’m the professor, here’s the lecture, here’s the homework, here’s the test—good luck,’” he says. “Now I’m better able to create a learning community around the student perspective, so they clearly understand the syllabus and assignments and how everything fits together.”

History professor Margot Minardi was an early adopter of the CTL. She has participated in the center’s Student Teaching Consultant program, which enlists students to sit in on classes to observe and offer input to professors, as well as the newer Faculty Peer Observation and Feedback program.

While Prof. Minardi is widely regarded on campus as a stellar teacher, she doesn’t take anything for granted.

“Knowing that there is going to be another set of eyes in your classroom—someone asking you, ‘Why did you do that?’—forces you to be more rigorous and intentional about the choices you’re making,” she says. “Overall, the center brings a different dimension to the culture at Reed, where you get faculty as well as students thinking critically and collaboratively about teaching and learning.”

Tags: Academics, Professors