Great teachers may have a natural gift, but they also cultivate their craft very deliberately. What works? What might work better? The Bulletin took up some questions of craft with the two winners of the 2016 Trustee Teaching Awards.
As an expert in postcolonial and transnational studies in addition to critical theory, Murthy often introduces students to “literatures from elsewhere,” seeking to place foreign works “in conversation with British and American texts.” She joined the faculty in 2012.
In leading class discussions, how do you balance your own agenda with an openness to exploring students’ ideas?
I have a framework — several questions to examine in a concerted way. But we usually discuss a novel over four or five class sessions, and that leaves a lot of space for students’ ideas. Students will write journal entries on the reading and submit them the night before class, and they’re really great. Sometimes I’ll say to myself, “I never thought of it from that angle.” Part of it is that I’ve forgotten the pleasure of that first reading. Usually the connections that students make are incredibly productive. I’ll pick up those moments and start stitching them together in class.
Do you set very explicit expectations for your students?
The classes I teach are usually “one-off” classes — courses like African fiction and South Asian fiction, where students won’t go on to pursue the topic at a higher level. My goal is exploratory. I tell them, this is not about mastering a body of texts but about exploring certain questions and developing a set of reading practices. I joke with my students that my goal is to leave the class dissatisfied: We may have answered some of the questions they came in with, but we’ve raised so many more.
You’ve taught Introduction to Literary Theory as well as Gender Benders, focusing on feminist theory. Is it hard to teach theory to students who still are relatively inexperienced readers?
Theory’s hard, but it’s exciting. In the introductory course, I have two aims. One is for students to understand the foundations of these ideas, the social and historical context in which they emerge, and how certain ideas emerge in conversation with others. But I also emphasize that theory is very playful; it’s a set of possibilities that enable you to approach texts in interesting ways. And I point out to students that they’ll encounter these theoretical approaches in other classes in the humanities and social sciences.
How much reading do you assign?
Instead of assigning six or seven books, I’ll often focus on four big novels and then some critical articles. I expect them to read books we’re not covering in class. But I think it’s important to have time to read closely, and also time to step back. I like the recursive aspect of looking at texts. I’ll have students revisit their journal entries and the texts we’ve read, and write a reflection paper. In one class, we regularly had what I called “shop talk.” Every three weeks, we’d have a session with no “teaching.” Instead, they would go back through their notes, I’d raise a broad question, and we would discuss it, taking up lingering questions.
A faculty member since 1992, Turner specializes in astronomy and astrophysics. In addition to overseeing the Miller Observatory at Kenyon, she directs a two-week summer program for undergraduates at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California.
How would you compare the challenges of teaching courses for majors to the challenges in non-major courses?
Some of the challenges are identical. I struggle every time I teach a course to get people to do a better job of explicating what they’ve done. In labs, making a good record in your lab notebook so that someone else can replicate your results — that goes for a non-major course like Creating with Gadgets all the way up to advanced labs. Everybody could get better at that, and I will hound them until they do!
What kinds of changes have you introduced in the way you teach?
Last fall, coming back from sabbatical, I was teaching General Physics I, our course for pre-med students or others who don’t need a calculus-based approach. I decided to use the “think-pair-share” method, in which I test their understanding by presenting a question; each student has to commit to an answer, and then I pair up students with different answers so that they can try to convince each other. There’s some research showing that putting in information involves different mental processing from unpacking it again and using it. This method tries to get students into that state of unpacking the knowledge and applying it while they’re in class and I can mediate.
You also made some innovations in the first-year seminar.
I used an inquiry-based approach, in which students undertook three projects. In one, using a worksheet I developed At the Mount Wilson Observatory, they learned how to use a database of solar images from NASA involving different wavelength views of the sun. Then I had them generate questions, and they formed groups to pursue them. They spent two or three weeks digging through these images, figuring out how to make the measurements they needed. As a teacher, I was giving up control in order to give them an opportunity to explore something without knowing what the answer should be.
In courses for non-majors, how do you convey the sense of wonder that often inspires scientific careers?
For me, that comes from the things we do that are experiential. Every one of our non-science-major courses has a lab, in which we do measurements and attach meaning to them. In Stars and Galaxies, I take students out to the telescope and have them learn to point at and study something, whether it’s a gas cloud or a star pair or a star cluster. The experience of having done that themselves gives them a feeling of capability they didn’t have before. It can be a powerful experience.