Emory Report

 October 27, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 10

Conversations on Teaching

Teaching Pairs prove
useful on many levels

If the past few years have seen an escalation of concern at Emory for the quality of graduate and undergraduate instruction, consensus about the best ways to enhance, evaluate and reward excellence in teaching nonetheless remains elusive. Throughout Emory College's departments and programs, the flood of new appointments funded by the Woodruff bequest has brought the evaluation of teaching in tenure decisions to particular prominence in the last decade. As the College's faculty has matured, interest in improving and assessing the quality of instruction over the course of an instructor's entire career has become ever more important.

In the history department, which has grown from 20 to 32 full-time members since 1986 and has granted tenure to 10 assistant professors, the desire to improve not only the evaluation, but also the long-term quality of faculty instruction, led in the spring of 1996 to the establishment of an ongoing Teaching Pairs program. Designed to encourage dialogue, constructive feedback and collaboration in teaching among faculty at all department levels, the program is based on self-selected pairs of faculty who visit each other's classes several times a semester or year and periodically meet over lunch to discuss their observations and suggestions. Written reports are submitted to the department chair at the end of the semester.

The program now forms a standard part of the history department's evaluation of teaching for tenure, promotion to associate professor and promotion to full professor. Over half the department's faculty have participated in at least one teaching pair to date, and several have participated in more than one. Faculty responses to the first three semesters of the program are enthusiastic and suggest a number of advantages to creating semester-long teaching pairs across two courses, as opposed to the more customary practice of individual visits to a single course. The program encourages the development of teaching relationships between tenured faculty as well as junior and senior faculty. By doing so, the program seeks to reduce instructors' tendency to be, in participant James Melton's words, "at a basic level defensive about our teaching." The teaching pairs, he concluded, offer "a kind of Hegelian experience through which you gain knowledge of your own teaching style through a dialectical engagement with someone else's." This allows teachers "to improve not so much by the formal evaluation one's co-teacher may give, but simply by being presented with a model of teaching different from one's own," Melton added.

Associate professor Patrick Allitt, a veteran of four history teaching pairs, similarly underlined the utility of participation in teaching pairs for faculty at all stages in their careers. He said he is repeatedly struck by how good teachers approach teaching differently and by how many distinctive mechanisms can be employed to engage students intellectually. Allitt also emphasized the broader departmental virtues of the program. While faculty participation in day-to-day administration and department meetings can be "dull and disagreeable," he noted, "we're at our best in the classroom." Participating in a succession of teaching pairs has thus given him a renewed respect for his colleagues, he said.

Indeed, as Allitt suggested, the collaborative nature of the program lends itself to broader pedagogical agendas. Assistant professor Leslie Harris, a specialist in African-American history, and associate professor Kristin Mann, a specialist in West African history, have developed a new team-taught undergraduate course, "The African Background to Atlantic Culture," for the spring of 1998 as a result of their fall 1996 teaching pair. Harris found the format of the teaching pair allowed for collegiality, and working with a specialist in African history allowed her to improve the quality of her material on pre-colonial Africa in her own course. From a practical standpoint, taking notes in a colleague's class was a useful reminder of the student's view of instruction. "To go back to that perspective is itself healthy for a teacher," Harris said.

Teaching at Emory, the report of the Commission on Teaching, calls for Emory faculty to become more intentional in the way they perform their teaching and track their development as teachers. The Teaching Pairs program has facilitated these endeavors for faculty in history and is now being used in a cross-disciplinary setting that may be useful as a model for others in the University. This year we have expanded our effort by creating a yearlong teaching pair between the two of us. Harriet King teaches a fall contracts course in the law school, and Margot Finn is teaching "Modern Ireland, 1640-1970" in the history department next spring. Our pair, now halfway through the first semester, has included class visitation, e-mail exchanges and conversation. Students have already experienced one immediate payoff in the contracts course: Finn's historical framework has provided a new perspective on some of their questions. More important is the opportunity to use shared experiences in a class to focus on improving teaching and learning, an opportunity that in turn provides the concrete examples necessary to stimulate our discussions about pedagogy. This has become an important way for us "to be involved in shaping, monitoring and reflecting on [our] own work as teachers," as called for in Teaching at Emory.

Harriet King is vice provost for academic affairs, and Margot Finn is associate professor of history.

To find out more about the Teaching Pairs program, please contact the history department in Bowden Hall, Room 221, 727-6555. To receive a copy of Teaching at Emory, call Susan Frost, Institutional Planning and Research, at 727-0765 or send e-mail to <sfrost@emory.edu>.

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