Instructors Open Classroom Doors for Two Days of Teaching Visits Across Campus
by Marianna Sharp, CFT Communications Intern
This year’s Open Dores Teaching Visits program was a success. On September 27th and 28th dozens of faculty, post-docs, and graduate students visited forty classrooms and observed the teaching practices of faculty in a wide variety of disciplines. On Wednesday afternoon, a number of the hosts and visitors gathered to reflect on the experience. Their reactions were consistently positive. Those who visited classes greatly valued the opportunity to see what their peers were doing and to gain insight on different strategies to incorporate into their own teaching.
“It’s always impressive to see how different people lead discussion, what kind of examples they use, and what kids of questions they ask,” said Sara Mayeux, Assistant Professor of Law. “It’s useful to get more of a sense of what other people are doing, because otherwise you kind of feel like you’re on your own.” As a professor new to the Vanderbilt, she wanted to sit in on some of her colleagues’ classes and was glad that this program provided a structured opportunity to do so.
This desire for opportunities to observe classrooms was echoed among other participants, and several hosts expressed excitement at the discovery that there were so many people eager to engage in a more open teaching culture. At U.S. universities, syllabus design and development of teaching practices are often individual processes, but this is not the case everywhere. As Xiu Cravens, Peabody’s Associate Dean for International Affairs pointed out, observation of peers and collaborative lesson planning is a common and structured practice in Chinese schools and universities. In many schools, teachers design lessons together and then observe one another in order to give feedback to their colleagues in a multi-step revision process. Though faculty at a university like Vanderbilt may not have the luxury of time for this sort of extensive peer review process in each class, events like the Teaching Visits program provide an opportunity to gain some of the benefits of collaborative pedagogical development.
Several visitors also commented on the benefit of being able to watch student engagement from the back of the class. Professors at the front of the room can tell, of course, whether a class is engaged and attentive or not, but the back of the classroom provides a different perspective. By observing a colleague’s class, educators are able to focus on tracking what engages individual students and how they respond to different methods. Rebecca Panter, a postdoctoral fellow in digital humanities who will be teaching next semester, was enthusiastic about the opportunity to watch the professor-student interactions. “One thing that really impressed me was when the instructors engaged with the students. The work that they put into engaging with the students really made the class work,” she said. “I was paying particular attention to those moments because I was taking notes on form and structure of the class, trying to focus on the methods being used.”
Though observing classrooms in cognate disciplines helped many participants gain insight on strategies directly relevant to the classes they teach, some visitors ranged further afield. For example, Mark Schoenfeld, a professor in the English department, visited a Law School class on evidence taught by professor Ed Cheng. “Although I was teaching the intro to the [English] major course, and he was teaching evidence, both classes really intersected over how language gets used,” he said. “It was of nice to see the continuity between something in the law school and what’s going on in an English class.” Panter, who visited eight different classes, commented on this as well. “Even courses in a similar disciplinary category could have very different techniques that were being used, and it was really a unique experience to be able to compare so many different fields all in the space of two days….I do think that even though what I would be teaching would be pretty very solidly humanities in most cases, that still I can learn something from what other vastly different fields are doing.”
Teaching visits like those at Open Dores are one way the Center for Teaching builds the teaching community at Vanderbilt. Keep an eye on the CFT website for more teaching visit opportunities. Thanks to our wonderful hosts for opening their classrooms, and to all of our participants for helping to make this event a success. We hope to see you at our future events!