Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: Chelsea Yarborough, Cross-Disciplinary Examples, and Online Covenant Building
by Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern
During Spring 2020, the Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog series will highlight teaching innovations that CFT staff have implemented and evaluated in their own courses.
Something I’ve noticed in my time as a student is the false dichotomy sometimes constructed between disciplines. The most obvious example of this is how often STEM is defined in contrast to the humanities. This can create expectations that classes and students in each domain should be separate and qualitatively different. However, I’ve been in humanities classes that I wished would draw upon common practices in STEM classes, such as more explicitly discussing theory development and the evidence behind them, and I’ve been in STEM classes that would have benefitted by placing their subject matter with the broader context of society and history, each more explicitly acknowledging that neither could exist without the other. That’s why Chelsea Yarborough’s practice of using examples from across disciplines in her courses is a great teaching practice.
Yarborough, who has been a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the CFT in both 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, teaches across disciplines in the Preaching and Worship course she teaches in the Graduate Department of Religion and the Certificate in College Teaching course she teaches for the CFT. Students in the first class come from humanities backgrounds while many of Yarborough’s students in the second class are from STEM fields. For both courses, Yarborough aims to pull examples from outside students’ comfort zones to open up their minds and create new connections to jump-start the learning process. For example, in her Preaching and Worship course, Yarborough draws upon the illustration of a butterfly going through metamorphosis. Students may approach that example as a metaphor for how they aim to transform others through their work, but Yarborough goes through the actual science of the process, illustrating how biologically the caterpillar essentially must digest its own tissues and rebuild them—a not particularly great-sounding process. By drawing upon biology, Yarborough helps her students understand what they’re asking of people when they ask them to change and grow. On the other hand, Yarborough starts her Certificate in College Teaching course with a poem, “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. By asking her students to start trying to make connections with a subject matter they might not be familiar with, Yarborough invites students to be brave and vulnerable, setting them up for understanding what learning and teaching really means.
Yarborough says that feedback from students has been positive, and she says she also sees evidence that her approach is helpful in the examples her students reference and the ways they talk about how these approaches scaffold their learning. Part of Yarborough’s success with this technique may be due to how she explicitly informs her students of her motivation in using her cross-disciplinary illustrations. Not only does this transparency help establish trust when dealing with areas outside of student’s comfort zones, but it may also aid them in making connections with the material. Yarborough also keeps a document of the illustrations she uses in her courses, organized by general theme and with their sources so she has a resource to draw upon for her classes.
Since Vanderbilt shifted to remote teaching and learning this spring, I am also asking each person I interview about how it is affecting their teaching. Yarborough says that in these uncertain times, she opens her online courses by working to establish trust and create a class covenant to guide class behavior and etiquette. She has the class read “Invitation to Brave Space” by Micky ScottBey Jones, and then as students introduce themselves she has them point to a line about what matters most to them or is important for them. Yarborough creates a document based on their responses, screenshares it with the class, and then uses that to create a covenant for the course. She says that by making an explicit contract that covers what matters to each student, it helps form the basis of trust and engagement in the course. She has students use a Zoom react emoji if they agree with the covenant. Yarborough finds that as the course goes on she doesn’t need to enforce the covenant as students refer back to it themselves to help guide each other in how to interact with each other. By scaffolding a way to establish what matters to each student and creating a means for them to refer back to it, Yarborough helps her students establish trust in the online teaching process.