A University commission is examining age-old questions and new issues



Art of Teaching


By Allison O. Adams

Click here to read about the issues addressed by the University Commission on Teaching.

Last fall, freshman Steve Becknell took an introductory philosophy seminar with Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy Tom Flynn. At the end of one class, Becknell distributed an essay he had written about Martin Luther King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," which would form the basis of the next session's discussion on collective moral responsibility. Each of his fifteen fellow students wrote a similar essay to guide the class during the term.

"We were able not only to discuss the ideas in our reading assignments," Becknell says, "we also were able to discuss the ideas of our peers."

Becknell credits Flynn's teaching style with engendering that kind of student interaction. "Dr. Flynn lectures some, but not a lot. He really does open it up to discussion. He listens to students and helps us learn from both the good and the bad things we say. He makes it very easy for us to know him as a person, and consequently, I think all of us feel more comfortable in class with him."

Classroom dynamics and style, balancing the demands of teaching and research, and the state of teaching in the twenty-first century are topics frequently on the minds of Emory faculty. Current efforts to assess the status of teaching at the University and make recommendations for its future have brought to the fore both age-old questions and new issues.

Flynn, who has received numerous teaching awards in his nineteen years at Emory, recognizes the tensions between the longstanding and emerging concerns of his profession. "Information technology, for instance, is a challenge the same way the telephone or the printing press were challenges," he says. "There's a tendency to think that we can get a quick fix from these mechanisms.

"But Aristotle talks about the teacher as artist, an artist who doesn't impose things on nature but cooperates with nature. I think good teachers have to know human nature. You have to let students know that you like and respect and trust them and want to see them flourish."

For most of his career, Flynn, a scholar of twentieth-century French philosophy, has practiced the difficult academic task of balancing teaching and research. "There was a time when everybody said these two things were mutually exclusive," he says. "Then more recently, people have said that really good teaching involves research and good research involves teaching. I think both of those are a little simplistic. It's not an abstract principle; it's a living relationship, and you have to keep reassessing it. It differs from stage to stage in a person's career."

Defining and understanding these stages is a priority for the University Commission on Teaching, a group of some thirty faculty, administrators, students, alumni, and staff brought together in early 1996 to attend to the critical issues of teaching. President Chace charged the group with addressing "the extraordinary pressure being put on the best institutions in the country to make teaching very important and to make Emory a place where that occurs." He also said it was important "to recognize and understand the ages and stages in a scholar-teacher's life."

Provost Billy Frye adds, "Excellence in teaching continues to be one of our strongest commitments, and its susceptibility to erosion one of our central concerns. . . . [The commission has been asked] to make specific recommendations concerning what can be done, consistent with our total mission, to assure our continued commitment to and success in achieving teaching of the highest possible quality in the years to come."

Rebecca Chopp, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Systematic Theology and chair of the teaching commission, says the group faces several tough issues at the national level. One is determining ways for institutions to respond to the fluid relationship between research and teaching. Another is the impact of interdisciplinary matters and information technology on the organization and structure of universities. Perhaps the most far-reaching issue, Chopp suggests, concerns the teaching of ethics. "How do we train not just college students, but doctors, nurses, ministers, lawyers, businesspeople, and public health professionals to be good citizens in a global environment?" she asks.

In response to the commission's early work, the Office of the Provost established a $250,000 fund to support faculty initiatives to improve teaching and broaden conventional notions of good teaching. Last year, twenty-three projects received grants. Don Saliers, professor of theology and worship, received $7,700 to use CD-ROM technology and the World Wide Web to integrate photography, video, and audio recordings into his course on liturgy at the Candler School of Theology.

"The course is multidimensional," Saliers says. "It involves thinking about space, time, sound, sight, the body, gesture, movement, and the history of architecture and music. I had long wanted to approach it not just in lecture, but in an interactive format in the classroom."

Also funded was a $5,000 joint project of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to help international graduate teaching assistants with their English skills in the classroom. "It's often difficult for foreign teaching assistants to pick up slang and typical American phrases," explains Ron Gould, the department's director of graduate studies. "Much of it is just being comfortable with students' cultural references and how to respond to them."

The commission's final report should be available later this year. Although Chopp is reluctant to identify recommendations, she is quick to say "there is a great deal of talk and interest around teaching centers, resource centers where faculty can go to learn new teaching techniques-to find out how to deal with a multicultural classroom, for example."

In fact, one such center has existed in Emory College since last spring. Led by commission co-chair Walt Reed, professor of English, the Emory Center for Teaching and Curriculum set out to provide the kind of institutional support for teaching that only faculty research had traditionally received. The center has sponsored a program of annual awards for teaching excellence, a series of lunch discussions on undergraduate teaching, a research project on Emory students and teaching, and summer stipends for faculty who are planning new courses or revamping existing ones. "It is intended to be a way of unifying and enhancing the faculty's professional activities," Dean of the College David Bright said when the center opened.

"Teaching is as much a matter of nurturing relationships as it is fixing problems," says Chopp, who will serve as interim provost when Frye becomes University chancellor in June. "I think when faculty are passionate about their teaching and know they have plenty of support, they will be good teachers. And when a whole university says to itself, Let's attend to teaching, and when it provides a healthy amount of resources, you will see benefits."

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