Emory Report
November 6, 2006
Volume 59, Number 10


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November 6 , 2006
Teaching fellowship cultivates community ties

BY kim urquhart

As Andrea Arrington leads a discussion on slavery in the African history course she teaches at Clark Atlanta University, her passion for teaching is reflected in the students’ eager questions. She draws on her six trips to Africa to encourage a dialogue in which the entire class participates.

Arrington, an Emory doctoral student, teaches at Clark Atlanta through the Mellon Graduate Teaching Fellowship, an innovative program that places Emory’s top graduate students in the classrooms of five partner institutions.

Funded through a $247,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded in October 2003, the program supports the professional development of advanced graduate students earning doctorates in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The program places five fellows in the classrooms of five partner institutions for one academic year, where they teach two undergraduate courses while completing their dissertations. The fellowships are centered on teaching at the host schools and mentoring undergraduates, as well as participating in teaching seminars with other Mellon fellows. It also pairs fellows with mentors at the host institutions for additional support.

Now in its third year, the MGTF program grew out of the Emory-Dillard Graduate Teaching Fellowship, a Mellon-funded partnership between Emory and Dillard University, a historically black institution in New Orleans. Building upon the strengths of this fellowship, Emory decided to expand the program to include a select group of liberal arts colleges and universities in Atlanta.

Host institutions in the MGTF consortium now include Agnes Scott College and historically black colleges and universities Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman and Dillard. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has kept participation at Dillard’s New Orleans campus on hold for this year.
This multi-institutional partnership helps further strengthen Emory’s ties in the Southeast among liberal arts colleges, research universities and HBCUs.

“Reaching out to institutions’ complementary missions is a good example of innovative partnerships for interdisciplinary work,” said Lisa Tedesco, vice provost for academic affairs-graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which oversees the program. “Through our partnerships, the teaching and research assets and capacities of each institution are expanded.”

Fostering the professional teaching skills of graduate students is a major goal of the program. The fellowship also helps to strengthen the graduate education at Emory, and reflects many of the aspirations of the University’s strategic plan.

“Our commitment to the public good shapes our vision for graduate education,” said Tedesco. “Our vision calls for us to be ethically engaged, passionate about answering society’s most pressing questions and driven to improve the world around us. Where better to express this vision than through our preparation of teachers and scholars,” she added.

The anchor of the MGTF program is the Mellon seminar, where fellows convene monthly at locations that rotate among each host institution. The seminar functions as a sounding board for the fellows’ teaching experiences and dissertation progress, and encourages interdisciplinary dialogue on the issues and debates shaping American higher education. Each seminar examines a different topic; the recent October meeting probed issues of diversity in the university environment. This particular seminar also gave Arrington a chance to test drive her dissertation in a “mock job talk” each fellow must give throughout the year, with the group providing constructive feedback.

Arrington said that the camaraderie shared by the Mellon fellows has provided motivation — and support — as they work toward a common goal of finishing their dissertations and entering the job market at the close of the fellowship year.

That support has continued for former Mellon Teaching Fellow Ellen Spears, who taught environmental history and Southern studies at Agnes Scott College through the program. “Through the Mellon fellowship, I was able to gain valuable teaching experience with the added benefits of mentoring, insights and encouragement,” said Spears, who has continued to teach at Agnes Scott.

Spears is now a visiting assistant professor at Emory, and said the Mellon fellowship “helped prepare me to teach imaginative and rigorous courses in my current position at Emory.” Especially valuable, she said, was the interaction between teaching and her research, which included a dissertation that focused on community responses to chemical pollution in Alabama.

“Teaching in my major fields helped me think about what questions readers will have, and pressed me to further clarify arguments,” Spears said. Her students’ “enthusiastic approach to inquiry also contributed to my research in valuable unanticipated ways.”

Both Spears and Arrington agree that the gift of time granted by the Mellon fellowship is priceless. The program’s teaching requirement of only one course per semester gives fellows “room to breathe,” as Arrington described it, and allows them time to focus exclusively on teaching and writing. For Spears, the low teaching load “protected my time, allowing me to draft three chapters of my dissertation during the fellowship year.”

To date, the MGTF has provided fellowships to three cohorts of 15 fellows, five of which have completed their dissertations and have joined the professoriate as either tenure-track or visiting professors.

“The impact of the Mellon Graduate Teaching Fellowship Program has been deep and wide,” said Rudolph Byrd, the program’s co-director and co-founder of both the Emory-Dillard Graduate Teaching Fellowship and MGTF. “If we consider the impact internally, we have been successful in providing support for Emory graduate students at a critical juncture in their education. This involves not only fellowship support, but also the mentoring of graduate students in their development as both teacher and scholar as well as guidance as they prepare to enter the job market and the academy.

“Externally,” he continued, “the Mellon Graduate Teaching Fellowship Program has strengthened already strong relationships between our partner institutions.”

Emory hopes that the MGTF program will serve as an innovative model in graduate education, Byrd said. “Our combined commitment to the Mellon Graduate Teaching Fellowship Program has produced, we feel, a new national model in graduate education that emphasizes mentoring, economy in the deployment of resources, and substantive collaboration that advances the education of both undergraduates and graduate students,” he said.

MGTF administrators are preparing for the renewal process in 2007-08 and are hopeful that the future will hold both continued funding and substantial growth of the program.

“The significant support we have received from the Mellon Foundation for this fellowship program is not only external validation of our efforts, but has provided us with the resources to build an infrastructure necessary to accomplish the specific goals of this program and to move us towards sustainability,” Byrd said.