By Matthew Renda
After Timothy Johnstone graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry, he surveyed the employment landscape, knowing his choices amounted to picking between a research laboratory or a university.
The choice wasn’t particularly difficult for Johnstone, who despite dedicating considerable toil to research in his field, has always gravitated toward the art and discipline of teaching.
“It’s a common trope that a lot of people work in universities because they want the freedom to research subjects of their choosing, to publish papers and secure grant funding—and then they also have to teach,” Johnstone said. “But I don’t look at it like ‘have to.’ As a grad student, I really enjoyed working with students, teaching classes, and developing course materials.”
So, Johnstone has embarked on his journey as an assistant professor of chemistry at UC Santa Cruz, while placing teaching at the forefront of his professional development.
It’s not always so with incoming or early career professors, but even those who, like Johnstone, are eager to teach are not necessarily equipped with the tools to do so effectively, particularly at an institution with an educational mission as unique and rigorous as UC Santa Cruz.
“You have brand new early career faculty who may or may not have had professional development related to teaching,” said Jody Greene, founding director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning (CITL). “Even if they have received such development and taught elsewhere, they may not be familiar with evidence-based teaching and the demographic makeup at UC Santa Cruz and the associated equity gaps.”
Fostering better teachers at the college level provided impetus for the creation of the CITL three years ago. The renewed focus on teaching and learning culminated in a two-day teacher training session held in mid-September just before classes commenced. The session was well attended with 30 incoming, second-year, and third-year professors.
“The two-day session is a new thing for our campus,” Greene said. “It’s exciting to convey to new faculty our incredible history and our passionate commitment to undergraduate teaching and how teaching is going to continue to be at the center of our institutional priorities.”
The two-day course comprehensively covered subjects incoming teachers need to know—teaching strategies to help close equity gaps; mentoring and assisting first generation students; handling cheating and plagiarism; and managing teaching assistants.
For Robin Dunkin, a biology instructor and CITL’s acting faculty director for fall 2019, closing the stubborn equity gaps in education represents the most pressing task for professors, new and old.
“It’s an ethical obligation to close equity gaps,” Dunkin said. “Whether it’s socioeconomic status or students from historically underrepresented populations, they graduate from college at lower rates. Our emphasis is to give faculty the tools they need so they can break the cycle of teaching the way they were taught–which we know serves all students better.”
Part of that includes a departure of the traditional lecture-style teaching into a more engaging and participatory form of education. Greene and Dunkin pointed to several studies that demonstrate that breaking up into group sessions and other forms of participatory teaching methods bolster the performance of students from both a grade and knowledge-acquisition standpoint.
According to Greene, while these methods have been shown to be particularly effective for first-generation students and members of historically underrepresented populations, the methods ultimately help the entire student body.
“The needs of first-generation students and students from marginalized groups will always be at the center of the work we do,” Greene said. “But we are imparting best practices so that all students can benefit.”
Myriam Telus, an assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said she appreciates acquiring strategies that will not only help students who may be unused to navigating a college environment, but will help all of those eager to learn.
“It helps everyone by making the classes more engaging,” she said.
Johnstone said the training helped shift his entire perspective and approach to the classroom.
“I’ve learned my focus should be on what and how I want students to learn and the tools I can use as a teacher to help that happen," he said.
In other words, it is less important to devise a scintillatingly brilliant and articulate lecture than it is to engage with all students to ensure they understand and develop competence with the intellectual concepts at hand.
Johnstone said the training also creates a community and lets other teachers know, regardless of discipline, that there are others equally invested in quality instruction.
Dunkin is confident the newcomers will excel.
“They have so much to offer the students in their exploration of the world in intellectual ways,” she said. “We’re just making sure they’re supported.”