Excellence in teaching: Driving students beyond the boxes

  • Excellence in teachingFeldman engages in one-on-one teaching during office hours.

    Excellence in teaching
  • Excellence in teachingSaha engages a large class meeting in a lecture hall.

    Excellence in teaching

There are no shortcuts for faculty members as they strive for excellence in the classrooms at William and Mary. They are the intermediators. On one hand, they must maintain a passion for the evolving knowledge within their disciplines or become ineffective or, worse, irrelevant. On the other hand, they bear responsibility for their students: "Not for driving them outside the box," explained David Feldman, professor of economics at the College, but for "driving them beyond."

"Helping students understand how the medicine I'm giving them in economics helps them understand other things—even at William and Mary, where students are particularly gifted—may be the hardest thing to do," he said.

Feldman, who was one of three professors cited for excellence in teaching by the College's Board of Visitors this academic year, keeps three things in mind when serving as that intermediary. First, he is aware that some of his students will graduate to become teachers and bankers. "I always ask myself, ‘Am I actually teaching them something that is meaningful if they're not going to become another economist in the world,'" he said. Second, he knows some do aspire to become economists. "Faculty members like to procreate," he said. "I have an obligation to motivate them enough to say this is an interesting life, and I need to provide the kinds of tools such a student would find useful." Third, he realizes that their ability to integrate knowledge is critical. "I like to ensure that if a student takes a class of mine, he can match that with other classes across the disciplines. I guess you could say I'm striving to make educated citizens."

Liberal arts on the edge
The quest to produce "educated citizens" is germane to the liberal-arts tradition that informs the College's aspirations for its graduates. The professors who can help students integrate knowledge from across the spectrum of ideas have crossed the divide that separates adequacy from excellence.

Margaret Saha, Class of 2008 Professor of Biology, chafes a bit when discussing the liberal-arts tradition, but ultimately she buys into the concept, although she does want to stretch the parameters.

"Often when people think of liberal arts, they think of history, humanities, English, literature and that sort of thing," she said. "I'd rather define it more broadly. I want to produce educated citizens for the 21st century who are knowledgeable about everything that is going on around them." She mentions stem cells and gene therapies to suggest that science "is very much related to social policy, to public policy, to global health. There are implications beyond the classroom or the laboratory," she said.

Saha, who was one of three professors at the College to be recognized with the highest award for teaching excellence from the Commonwealth of Virginia this year, resists the stereotype that a liberal-arts curriculum precludes "real" science. "I don't think that being at a liberal-arts institution affects the way I would teach a science course," she said. "I would like to think that the way I would teach would be the way anybody would teach at Stanford or Cal Tech or MIT."

Feldman agrees. "A lot of people think of liberal arts as breadth and everything else as depth," he said. "I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. A good liberal-arts education provides the depth with the breadth. I do try to lead my students through my classes to the edge of what is known. Breadth and depth are not substitutes; they go together."

Joel Schwartz, associate professor of government and director of the College's Charles Center, earlier this year became one of a few professors at William and Mary to receive both the College's Thomas Jefferson Award for Teaching Excellence and its Thomas Jefferson Award for career contributions. He uses the word "mentorship" to describe what he considers to be an important liberal-arts element in excellent teaching. On the extremes, you have professors who see themselves as imparting knowledge through traditional lectures while their students are passive absorbers and you have professors who refuse to impose structure on their classes because they believe that students should master knowledge on their own, he explained.

"This idea of mentorship kind of articulates the middle ground," he said. "It acknowledges that it is an important role for professors to guide, to make use of their experience to help a student along the path, but ultimately the goal is to liberate students to be creators of knowledge themselves. This idea of taking students from being consumers of knowledge to being creators of knowledge is a worthy objective."

Who decides who is excellent
Although these professors essentially stress "student outcomes" as a measure of their own effectiveness, student outcomes are not systematically researched at the College. The formal evaluative processes vary from department to department but generally rely on a combination of student inputs and peer assessments. Each has its own strengths and flaws, but taken together they are fairly valid indicators, most faculty members agree.

"At William and Mary, the students as a whole are relatively savvy. If you entertain them without teaching them and challenging them, they won't be very happy with you," said Philip Daileader, associate professor of history, who has received the 2006 Phi Beta Kappa Award for Excellence in Teaching at the College. He added, "Also, one is surrounded by an extraordinary concentration of teaching talent here. If you want to keep up with your colleagues and not be left behind in their pedagogical dust, you had better be prepared to work hard on your classes each and every semester."

As do many professors, Daileader knows that sometimes in exercising his responsibilities he risks receiving less favorable ratings from students. "My foremost job is to tell them what they need to hear about the current state of their own abilities," he said, "and sometimes that is not what they want to hear."

Feldman has questioned whether having a faculty member come into a classroom to evaluate a colleague does not change the dynamics of the class being observed. He also has considered whether or not there are objective reasons for worrying about student evaluations—"essentially relying on the customers to tell us whether the class was meaningful," he said.

Feldman's colleagues have asked, "How does a student know right now, when they are 18, what is going to be useful to them when they are 28? They have no long-term perspective." In his own case, he has dismissed the argument. "I think, on average, students here are pretty wise, and they have a sense of what is good for them. It's not just a popularity contest; it is not about who entertains them the most."

Saha remains uncomfortable with the whole process of judging excellence. "I just think there are so many styles, so many strategies, and I think that many professors here are excellent in different ways," she said. "Now, some of those ways may be more popular with students, but that does not preclude excellence."

Advice for young faculty
A formula for becoming an excellent teacher, were it to exist, would have little to do with style.

"You have to teach within the reach of your own leash," Schwartz suggested. "If I watch you teach, and you are a spectacular formal lecturer—you are spellbinding and students get so much out of you—that still may not be the best way for me to teach. I may be the more give-and-take-in-a-seminar kind of person."

Saha believes that self-reflection as a professor may be egotistical. "The students are what ground me to the reality of good teaching," she said. "How are they performing? Exams are not the only indicator. You can sense their progress when you talk to them and find that they're thinking deeply about the material."

Asked to offer advice for younger faculty members, Saha said, "Be yourself. You can't tell someone to be passionate. They either are or they are not, but be passionate, and let that passion come through."

Feldman suggests that younger faculty members who are striving for excellence should attempt to remember their own undergraduate experiences and identify what motivated them.

"When I think back, some of the things that made me sit up and look at the world differently happened in economics classes; some did not," he said. "Some of the best teachers I had were those who could take the rigorous theory that I was learning and place it in a context that made me really know why people sat around constructing that theory."

Daileader's advice dovetails with Saha's. "You need to let your enthusiasm for the subject matter show through," he said. "If you do not care about the class, your students will not care about the class either."