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Crossing Borders by Working as a Master Teaching Fellow

This article was originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

By Alison Piepmeier

Weather in the south is great. Spring and fall stretch out for months, giving us beautiful days for much of the school year. You know that we’re slipping into that stretch of balmy weather when your students say, “Let’s have class outside!” I said it as an undergraduate, and I get it now from my students. If you walk across campus on any beautiful day, you’re bound to pass by several groups of students and professors, sitting cross-legged in the grass, discussing the Civil War or a mathematical theorem.

As a teacher I’ve given in to this temptation many times, and I know that abandoning the normal classroom changes things. Our voices are no longer contained within concrete-block walls. Things look different in the sunlight than they do under fluorescent bulbs. My students are filled with new energy. Kids who don’t talk in class sometimes find they have things to say. They can pace furiously and argue at the top of their lungs acting out the parts of Katarina and Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew, something that normal classroom space often doesn’t permit. All this, of course, has its downside: the subject matter has to compete with insects, passing friends, the blue of the sky. But it is undeniable that changing the borders of the classroom can change our perspectives.

Short of taking your class outside every day, what other ways are there of extending the borders of the classroom? That’s what we’re asking in this issue of Teaching Forum. What are some of the ways of challenging, crossing, and maintaining boundaries in our teaching?

First, our cover story features professors from across the university reflecting on expanding and maintaining borders in various aspects of their teaching. These professors offer thoughtful commentary on their roles as teachers, mentors, and classroom innovators. Michael Rose highlights one strategy for challenging borders in his Professors After Hours series. From the Students’ View offers another perspective on the question, presenting undergraduates’ thoughts on how learning outside the box has improved their college experience. “Notes from the CFT library” reviews books that offer insight into broadening the reach of the classroom. And “Teaching Exchange” highlights specific innovations and tips which teachers at Vanderbilt have used to expand the perimeters of their classrooms.

These issues are important to me. I’m both a student and a teacher now. I know what being on both sides of that border is like. I know how exciting it is when real learning happens in a class-that moment when we step across an invisible line and the world looks different. My job as a Master Teaching Fellow (MTF) at the Center for Teaching has helped me to see those learning moments even more clearly because now I have the perspective not just of being a student and a teacher but of being a teacher’s teacher.

All MTFs go through an intensive training program in the summer before their year as MTFs begins. The other MTFs and I spent two weeks together, discussing our approaches to teaching, analyzing articles and videotapes, and trying out different classroom strategies. The Center took us all out of our normal routines and academic disciplines and asked us to think about nothing but teaching for an extended period of time-and at the end of it, I was exhausted, but I really felt qualified to help other TAs with their teaching.

All the MTFs plan, coordinate, and run a summer orientation for new teaching assistants; we get to share our knowledge of college teaching and help others to integrate teaching into their lives. We also serve as consultants for teaching assistants throughout the year, offering Small Group Analyses, individual teaching consultations, workshops, and conferences to interested TAs. These have been exciting and challenging experiences for me. They’ve made me reflect not only on my teaching but on my philosophical approach to teaching. I’ve had to move beyond the borders of my own assumptions to consider how my work in the classroom might be of help to other TAs. I’ve also had the satisfying experience of having my approach to teaching expanded through my discussions with TAs; I’m constantly learning from the folks who come to the Center to talk about their teaching.

Just recently, a TA came into the Center to talk with me about dealing with uninvolved students. I had dealt with almost exactly the same problems in my last class, and through talking with other Center staff last semester, I had developed a “tool kit” of strategies for dealing with the problems. When that TA left our meeting, I had been able to share with him my strategies (from “think-pair-share” exercises to incorporating games into the classroom) and learn some new ones from him.

In addition, working as an MTF has given me new insights into the behind-the-scenes work of a university. All the MTFs work on projects throughout the year; these projects-from reorganizing the Center’s library to designing our web page to promoting the construction of teaching portfolios-help us to think beyond our own individual research, learning how to get things done in the larger university community. In my work as editor of Teaching Forum, for instance, I’ve learned to work with graphic designers and with the diverse tastes of the Center staff. I’ve learned to set deadlines and stick to them. Most importantly, I’ve learned to think in broader terms about teaching so that the newsletter appeals not only to those who think like me but to a larger university audience.

Graduate school can sometimes be an isolating endeavor. Grad students often only interact with people in their departments; when you’re deeply involved in your own research, you may only see those folks whose offices or lab spaces are close to yours. Working at the Center for Teaching has helped me in this regard, too. MTFs work with TAs from every department and college on campus, and of course the MTFs themselves come from various departments and colleges, so I now have friends who aren’t English graduate students, which is no small feat.

Working at the Center for Teaching has been great. Since the Center is an organization which serves the entire university community, those of us on the staff are continually thinking of ways to keep the classroom a vibrant place and to reach out, expand our services, and help as many teachers learn to teach as we can.