Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 |

Where Pedagogy Is "Interesting"

When he was a graduate student at Harvard, recalls Richard Light, Ph.D. ’69, resources for learning how to teach were scarce. As a budding assistant professor, he took the initiative, seeking out slightly older faculty friends to come to his classroom and observe him. Their advice included pointers as simple as breaking his habit of talking toward the left side of the room more often than the toward the right.Derek Bok Center book cover

"There was just no voice for teaching at Harvard back then," agrees Richard Olivo, also Ph.D. ’69. Today, he and Light are able to do something about the problem. Olivo is one of six associate directors at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Light, who has a joint faculty appointment at the Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government and is the author of Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (see "The Storyteller," January-February, page 32), serves on the center’s advisory committee. Both can tell you that a lot has changed during the quarter century of the Bok Center’s existence.

Founded in 1976 as the Harvard-Danforth Center for Teaching and Learning, the Bok Center was a modest operation for its first 12 years. It began with a six-figure grant procured by then-Harvard president Derek Bok from the Danforth Foundation, a St. Louis-based organization dedicated to furthering education. Bok had fielded enough telephone calls from upset parents to know that something had to be done to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching. "You can’t order professors to teach better," he says. "All you can do is a series of things you hope will counteract the very strong incentives that favor research over teaching. I think one of the most important things a university president can do is to use his influence to try to press for those things that are naturally important but naturally in a weak position."

Bok Center, atrium entrance
The Bok Center’s inviting entrance beckons teaching fellows and faculty members who seek to enhance their classroom skills—sometimes in unexpected ways.
Richard Olivo

When the Danforth funding ran out in 1978, Bok found a home for the center within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Ten years later, FAS decided to expand the center, creating a full-time director’s position that James Wilkinson ’65, Ph.D. ’74, has filled since its inception. Wilkinson quickly began expanding the center’s initiatives and increasing its staff size from five to the current 14.

The center’s present name dates from Bok’s retirement as president in 1991. "In the three years I worked with Derek before he retired, he would call me up, and I would go over and we would spend an hour talking," says Wilkinson. "His idea, and one I share, is that pedagogy is intellectually interesting." Indeed, with only about 300 teaching centers at the 3,500 colleges and universities across the country, Bok’s emphasis on teaching has put Harvard among an elite. (Only recently has the trend taken hold at the other Ivies: centers at Yale, Columbia, and Princeton are less than five years old.) When Daniel Goroff, another of the center’s associate directors, described some of its initiatives in testimony before the U.S. Senate last year, he says he "had to explain that if you want to attract the most exciting researchers and students, you must develop the ability to help those researchers learn to teach those students well."

Though it is located on the third floor of Harvard’s concrete Science Center, the Bok Center’s entrance boasts a cheery array of potted plants, flowers, and small trees that flourish in the sunlight of a south-facing corridor. "It has the feeling of a sanctuary," says associate director Terry Aladjem. "This is a nice quiet place where people can come and discuss teaching seriously."

In the fall of 1995, the center faced another major expansion when the Faculty Council mandated that all graduate students hired to teach in FAS had to have actual teaching experience. The measure was ratified by the department chairs (each department must now submit a plan showing how it will comply)—and the proportion of graduate students taking advantage of the center’s resources immediately shot up from one-third to two-thirds. Though the center deals primarily with graduate students—Wilkinson estimates that they make up 75 percent of its clientele—the number of junior and senior faculty members who seek out its resources is growing. "If you look at the user profile, it’s kind of like a pyramid," he says. "Senior faculty is a much smaller group at the top. But that group is growing, and that, I think, is a very good sign."

Research Matters publication

The center’s expert counselors, and lessons drawn from faculty exemplars, cover teaching questions in all disciplines.

This increase may be the harbinger of a larger, nationwide trend the Bok Center has helped introduce. Aladjem is one of the staff members responsible for helping graduate students prepare teaching portfolios—a relatively new arrival on the academic scene. Colleges and universities seeking faculty now often request that candidates submit such portfolios, which may include materials such as syllabi or evaluation forms from all courses or discussion sections one has taught. "Teaching has become much more important in the job market in the last five years," says Aladjem. "Graduate students and junior fac-ulty are seeking us out for that."

And because Harvard was already making teaching a focus, its graduates had a leg up on the competition, says Lee Warren, another associate director. "Some of their peers at other universities don’t get to teach. Our graduates go out into the job market and can talk knowledgeably about running a classroom."

The center seeks to promote two basic principles in interacting with Harvard’s teachers: use of the center should be voluntary, and it should be confidential. Says Aladjem, "We call ourselves consultants sometimes, but there’s also this seal of the confessional." There’s always at least one staff member free between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. for "office hours": collaborat-ing with everyone from the tenured professor who wants a reenergized teaching style to the undergraduate teaching assistant (in high-demand courses like computer sciences) who has never been in front of a class before.

Associate directors from varying fields of expertise—from science and math to literature and art history—enable the center to handle requests from teachers of all disciplines. Some staff members are currently teaching; all have experience at the university level, most of them for 10 to 15 years. Daniel Goroff’s title, in fact, is professor of the practice of mathematics. "I think it’s very important to keep people involved," says Wilkinson, who is affiliated with the history and literature concentration. "There’s something wrong with offering advice about teaching if you don’t teach yourself." Aladjem, a lecturer in social studies, says that when he arrived at the Bok Center to interview for a position, "It was like taking the top off of a volcano." Lee Warren taught literature at the University of Massachusetts-Boston for 12 years and Olivo still teaches in the Smith College neuroscience program, alternating semesters between that position and the Bok Center. "I didn’t want to stop being a teacher," he says. "It’s very useful to be able to tell somebody, ‘I tried this in my own course and it worked.’ To be a practitioner as well as a consultant is a very good combination."

 

When people come calling, the Bok Center doesn’t prescribe any one method; rather, it offers innovative options and general tips and lets the teachers take their pick. "We don’t have the sense that there is one way to teach," says Wilkinson. "We are here to help grad students and faculty discover what their strengths are and develop them."

Much of the center’s current emphasis focuses on ways to involve students. One example is a workshop that draws from the theatrical tradition. As part of the center’s fall orientation for teaching fellows, acting coach Nancy Houfek of the American Repertory Theatre instructs them on connecting with their students in order to communicate better. After presenting breathing exercises and stretches that actors use to warm up, Houfek has the TFs stand in a circle and throw a tennis ball from person to person to demonstrate the principles involved in effective communication: just as throwers must toss the ball the correct distance, look where they’re throwing, and pay attention in order to catch it again, teachers must tailor lessons to their students’ ability level, notice their reactions while teaching, and look out for feedback.

"Nobody ever talks to the graduate students about this," says Lee Warren, who teaches the workshop with Houfek. "It’s all cerebral, and suddenly somebody is saying you need your whole body." Faculty members have learned the same thing. Even though she has been lecturing since 1974, McKay professor of computer science Barbara J. Grosz recently consulted with Houfek and Warren to improve her style. "They’ve given me a lot of help in ways to use my voice, and project, and deliver the content in a way that is more interesting, and more engaging, and more fun," Grosz says. "It’s very clear to me that I’m much more effective in delivering my lectures, and I have a lot more fun doing them."

A Bok Center brochure informs its readers that participatory lectures—stopping to ask students questions, working through case studies during class—"highlight the important distinction between faculty covering material and students learning it. Student participation often means that you are able to cover less material during a semester. Yet it also often means that students learn more material than in a traditional lecture course, because they truly grasp the fundamentals."

Increased student participation has meant a renewed focus on writing. Instead of a midterm, a final, and a paper, professors today are requiring more short assignments, like weekly response papers, or sending discussion questions out by e-mail so students can prepare for section. All this gives professors and TFs more sense of how their students are faring before exam time rolls around. Technology has enhanced the value of weekly writing assignments further because students can write for their peers, posting essays that can be read instantly on a class web page. Richard Olivo says this technique helps students focus and clarify their writing.

At the most basic level, the center has evolved along with the kinds of teachers Harvard students encounter. This past summer, when a new program offered 47 foreign graduate students with upcoming teaching appointments a month of language and acculturation training, one of the four weeks was spent at the center working on presentation skills.

Those skills benefit from the center’s videotaping service. Today, the center does about 250 videotapings a year of individual classes, some at the Bok Center, some on site. When a TF or professor requests the service, a Bok Center staff member does the videotaping; then the staff member and the instructor watch the tape together and assess the teaching performance. The entire process is handled confidentially.

Student evaluations of Core courses and sections from before and after the center began working with Core professors and teaching fellows show that scores rose an average of a full point on the five-point scale created by the faculty’s Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE). Bok Center staff members attend weekly meetings with professors and teaching fellows for many Core courses, as well as all course lectures. Their input, says Susan Lewis, director of the Core program, "is very much a part of the way the course goes."

Dean of undergraduate education Susan Pedersen now writes to teaching fellows who receive a score below 3.0 on the CUE scale, urging them to seek help at the Bok Center. Behind the encouragement is the threat that if the TF scores below 3.0 a second time, Pedersen may bar him or her from further teaching at the College. Though that step is hardly ever taken—Aladjem, who deals with graduate students who have received such letters, estimates that only four or five a year are penalized—its existence undoubtedly provides extra incentive for low-scoring TFs to solicit assistance.

Those who do learn that however much technology can help them, it’s still the overall level of involvement that matters most in teaching—and this correlates heavily with a teacher’s people skills. "We’ve looked through evaluations and found four things that virtually guarantee a high CUE score," Wilkinson says. "Know your subject and be able to convey what you know; be enthusiastic about your subject; really care about whether the students learn your subject; and notice whether or not they learn. One of the surprising things for beginning teachers is that two of those four are about emotion, rather than about the intellectual content alone.

"I believe that the really great teachers have an innate talent, but the Bok Center can ensure a sort of minimum standard," Wilkinson continues. "If you ask students who were the professors that meant the most to them, it’s those who connected with them somehow, the ones who stopped them on their way across the Yard and told them what a good job they’d done on their last paper."

"The Bok Center has changed the culture of Harvard," says Richard Light. Wilkinson tells of a faculty member who came in specifically to tell center staff that he’d realized something new had happened when he could talk about teaching at a department meeting and not feel ashamed. "In the past, you talked about teaching if your research wasn’t going well, or if you weren’t really a researcher in your heart," he says. "The problem is to make it possible to talk about teaching without there being some sense that you are turning your back on your research. The Bok Center has had a share in addressing that problem."

~Elizabeth Gudrais

Elizabeth Gudrais, one of this magazine’s 2000-2001 Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows, is spending the fall semester as a student at the University of Latvia on a Radcliffe fellowship.