Conversations on Teaching

Note: In this new column designed to stimulate conversation on teaching by showcasing model practices, styles and understandings of teaching, research assistant Jodi Cressman interviews Jacqueline Irvine, professor of educational studies, who is considered to be a model teacher.

JI: One part of teaching is creating a climate where students feel comfortable in sharing their readings, discussion and experiences; more importantly it is a climate where students can question what they've never questioned before, where long-held values and beliefs can be directly confronted in a safe and supportive environment.

JC: How do you create this safe environment?

JI: One thing is to make expectations known early. One of my expectations is that every student must read. Another is that everybody will participate. Also, I have to model what I want students to do. I think aloud so they can model my thinking through things. Another important thing is to know my students' names by the second or third time we meet. I also share my other life with my students. I want to tell them a little about me and how I got to believe and operate the way that I do. That's part of modeling. It's creating a climate where students talk to each other. A typical scenario is that I ask a question, a student anwers, I respond. But, ideally, the students question each other directly.

JC: How do you get them to do that?

JI: You model it. I'm trying to get them to take the conversation out of my classroom and into Cox Hall, the dorm, the frat house. If there were one thing I could do to enhance the quality of teaching at Emory it would be to find more ways to have conversations about recent political and controversial issues, and even have their coursework take place outside of the classroom. That's a community of learning. Other schools have professors who live in the dorm. Students need someone to model intellectual discourse. Where do they see it? Faculty don't live around here; they come in to campus; they teach, they advise, and they leave. So there's no hanging around, talking with students on the quad, in Cox Hall. The teachers and the learners often don't cross each other's paths except in the class.

JC: You've obviously thought about teaching for a long time; teaching is your field of research.

JI: That's exactly right. The classroom is my lab. Although I am not always teaching what I am writing about, I learn a lot from my students, and I'm improving my skills every year.

You have to make what's generally thought of as a private event into a public event. You might assume that teaching is already a public event, but it really isn't. It's closed to your colleagues. You get no feedback on your teaching except at the end of the course when you learn whether students liked it. When you make teaching public by inviting people that you trust and whose opinion you value to see you teach, they represent another set of eyes. Teaching happens so quickly that you can never know what you look like or sound like. I didn't know until one of my colleagues visited my class that I focus my teaching to people sitting to my right.

JC: Getting back to the idea of a learning community, how could Emory make its faculty want to learn how to teach better?

JI: The administrators have to make sure that the message that teaching is valued and rewarded comes through loud and clear and is not just hollow words. I am personally rewarded by teaching, but there are some people who need concrete evidence. Until you can concretely identify those people who have been rewarded for good teaching, then it gets to be just a set of hollow words.

I want to be able to teach students how to learn. I could never prepare them for all the scenarios they might encounter, but if I can teach them how to be excited about learning and to feel that sort of unpleasant uncomfortableness when you don't know and want to find out, that will go a long way.

Jodi Cressman is the research assistant for the Commission on Teaching. For further conversation on teaching, contact the Commission through its web page: <>.

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