When Adam Beaver was the Departmental Teaching Fellow in History in 2006, the job was simple, if arduous: over the year he had to watch videos of 30 graduate students, all first-time instructors teaching in their first undergraduate classroom; and he had to do it sitting alongside them. He learned to stop the film at some arbitrary point early in the hour and ask a general question like, “Who’s that guy with the hat on?” It was an icebreaker; soon the novice teacher would be telling Beaver, “That’s Joe, and I just can’t get him to talk.”
“It’s like football quarterbacks watching the tape,” Beaver recalled ten years later, where, after a stint teaching at Princeton, he has returned to Harvard as an associate director of the Bok Center. “When you’re teaching, you don’t realize that this guy’s open over there, like a wide receiver. There’s a student on the right just bursting to speak.”
The DTF program has evolved since its start in 2004, when only two departments had DTFs, but the purpose remains the same: to support all the teaching fellows, or TFs, in the College and professional schools teaching Harvard undergraduates. Where Beaver once watched videos, now there is a required course—History 3920hf—that introduces history graduate students to principles of teaching; and indeed it is the prevalence of such teaching courses, in 20 departments, that is among the program’s most significant achievements. (Ten more departments have DTFs but have yet to develop their own pedagogy courses.) Experienced graduate students do much of the teaching in these courses—and often they’ve had a hand in creating them, too.
Some time ago, the Bok Center realized that for a leading research university like Harvard, a Teaching and Learning Center would be most effective if its efforts were deeply rooted in the departments and disciplines. The scholarly identity of the departments, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and indeed the entire University was too powerful for a generic program of pedagogy specialists with teaching exercises for the trainee scholars. Any teaching course would have to be “bespoke,” in the description of senior associate director Virginia Maurer, because all the departments were so different. In Visual and Environmental Studies, graduate students teach film studies, while studio art is taught by local artists who are not Harvard students. In Statistics, with heavy demand for its undergraduate courses, G1 students start straightaway preparing to teach in their second year, and the department’s year-long teaching course—unlike History’s, with its two sessions on, for instance, “Conceiving a Course”—is almost entirely devoted to hands-on practice in the statistics classroom.
“What’s exciting,” Maurer says, “is that it’s the graduate students themselves asking for these courses, and often getting them off the ground.” It was just one student in Statistics, she recalled, who years ago made the case to his department chair about the need for pedagogical training. The department chair approached Maurer, who helped to develop the first version of a teaching course that subsequent generations of DTFs have continued to refine. And while many teaching courses are co-taught or headed by faculty, some are run solely by the DTF. OEB 399, “Topics in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology,” was, six years ago, a course for first-year graduate students exposing them each week to the extremely varied research of their departmental faculty. Thanks to a succession of DTFs who, with the department’s backing, slowly began to take over the course, devise its syllabus, recruit guest speakers and offer professional development sessions, it now includes a much stronger emphasis on pedagogical training. “It’s really entirely on me,” says DTF Glenna Clifton, who will begin her second year in the position in fall 2016. “And to pass it on to my successor, too, with even more comprehensive materials.”
Inevitably, the teaching courses become a key part of community building among a department’s graduate students—and then, through the various trainings and meetings held regularly throughout the year by Maurer and her Bok colleagues, the DTF program builds community across graduate students throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a mutual embedding,” says Adam Beaver. Because of the DTFs, “there’s a bit of Bok in the departments, and a bit of them in us.” According to Beaver, as a graduate student sometimes one “feels like a grown-up,” and sometimes not: “Being DTF is a rare time you feel like you, as one person, can make a difference—not just in your fellow TF’s lives, but in the discipline. It’s among the biggest multiplier effects in the Bok Center. You’ve got 20 to 30 graduate students each year becoming more mindful teachers, then teaching hundreds themselves.”
That same multiplier effect extends to the faculty, as well. Many DTFs have involved faculty in panel discussions and as guest speakers in the teaching courses, and the faculty routinely say that they’ve gotten at least as much out of the experience as their students. Some have even lamented the fact that no such program existed when they were graduate students. Maurer remembers a junior faculty member in Statistics who pronounced himself amazed by one of the program’s notable features—that more than two dozen Harvard graduate students from different departments regularly meet to talk about teaching.
Each DTF is funded by either the Bok Center (which approves them all), or the Office of Undergraduate Education, for an academic-year appointment that will bring the chosen fellow into a pedagogical nexus comprising departmental faculty, graduate student peers across the disciplines, and Bok Center facilitators and experts. The job of a Bok administrator like Maurer is to help the DTFs, individually and together, think through what they can do in one year to help teaching in their departments. Often, this means helping the graduate students, already steeped in the culture of their disciplines, to think about translating that disciplinary expertise into powerful learning experiences for undergraduates. In OEB, Glenna Clifton introduced students in her teaching course to the principle of “backward design” based on a workshop taught by the Bok Center’s managing director, Tamara Brenner, a biologist herself: “The workshop really shows the process of starting with a concept or lesson idea, figuring out the assessment, and then creating an actual lesson.” Clifton enjoyed the simplicity of the central activity, in which students map out the steps involved in designing a lesson on a set of colorful Post-it notes.
Looking ahead to her second year as DTF, Clifton has ambitions for a second departmental teaching course for graduate students nearing completion of their PhDs. “When you think that the only teacher-training you get is in your first year, before you start teaching, you realize there could be a need for this,” she says, and pays credit to “a long breakfast” with Maurer for helping her think through her plan: “Virginia’s run thousands of workshops, she’s always so positive, she knows everyone and always has lots of contacts for whatever the next discussion will be.”
In turn, Maurer has learned that a big part of the job is letting the DTFs run free with their imagination: that, having been put together, they will head out in ways that could never be planned or predicted. “The DTFs are very creative and entrepreneurial,” Maurer says. “We’ve always had conversations about race and gender in teaching. This year, two DTFs went above and beyond to create a campus-wide discussion series that will be co-sponsored by the Bok Center and several humanities departments.” The series, on “Diversity in the Classroom,” will run September-December 2016 and will include sessions on Unconscious Bias, the Bilingual Mind, Trans Identities, and Economic Disparities, among others. “Though we are involved in the series,” Maurer says, “you see the fellows aren’t just doing what they’re told to do.”
The success of the DTF program has led the Bok Center to hire more graduate students for different fellowships, including new MLV (for Media, Literacy and Visualization) fellows to work with Learning Lab director Marlon Kuzmick on faculty requests to improve specific current course assignments. Looking outside the departments, Maurer has created Bok Pedagogy Fellows in General Education to support TFs in courses that tend to be interdisciplinary with a heterogeneous student population—and allows a handful of eager and talented graduate students in smaller departments to come on-board.
By now, it’s well-known that once graduate students start with the Bok Center, they tend to stay in some form or another until earning their degree.
“When I think of the DTF cohorts I know,” Beaver says, “people don’t disappear after one year. They do it two years, they’re often a resident tutor in the Houses, maybe they start a seminar.”
In other words, they’re collegially minded—far removed from the medieval idea of the monkish scholar, alone with his books. “They have an idea of university citizenship,” Beaver says. “It’s possible to escape grad school without understanding collegiality, and that doesn’t happen here. The job does require personal diplomacy. You have to be able to identify opportunities in your department and win over your fellow TFs.”
Has Maurer thought of a DTF alumni association, some way to track the future careers of their fellows, and whether an unusual preponderance of them become deans, provosts, even, in time, college presidents?
“We haven’t,” Maurer replied, glancing at Beaver, “but maybe we should.”