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A Mentorship Initiative Where The Subject Is Teaching

Bass Society Fellows pair with junior faculty to talk about teaching

Philosophy Professor Andrew Janiak is one of the senior Bass Society Fellows mentoring junior faculty in the new teaching initiative.
Philosophy Professor Andrew Janiak is one of the senior Bass Society Fellows mentoring junior faculty in the new teaching initiative.

After teaching at Duke for three decades, historian Tom Robisheaux knows a lot about course instruction. This semester, to learn more, he went somewhere he's never been previously: An Italian language class.

The instructor was Emily Sposeto, who is paired with Robisheaux in an unusual teacher mentoring program launched this year by Vice Provost Keith Whitfield in conjunction with Duke faculty in the Bass Society of Fellows. The paired instructors – always from different departments – spent the semester talking and learning together about teaching. 

The program was intended to help junior faculty members develop their teaching skills, but as Robisheaux found out, there's much for senior faculty to learn as well.

"Working with Emily has shown me several things: how to make effective use of every part of class time, how to use more structured learning exercises, and the power of tapping into students’ own eagerness to help each other achieve learning goals," Robisheaux said.

Mentoring has long been a part of the Duke faculty experience, but teaching isn't always part of it, Whitfield said. It's not that faculty members don't talk about teaching, he said, but there hasn't been "any centralized space that can allow faculty without any stigma to talk about best practices in teaching."

The program was initiated with the assistance of professor Andrew Janiak and the Bass Society, a collection of faculty selected for their teaching excellence and dedication.

"Because we have the resources of the Bass Society, it made sense for us to use them in this way," Whitfield said.  Nine junior faculty members applied for the program and were paired with nine Bass Fellows.  The interactions take a variety of forms, from lunches together to visits to each other's classrooms. All 18 participants regularly come together for general discussions about teaching.

There are several obstacles to teaching mentorship, Whitfield added. For one, junior faculty may be uncomfortable discussing areas of improvement with senior department faculty who will make tenure decisions.

Whitfield said pairing faculty from related but different departments addresses that concern and helps in other ways as well.

"It works because we get people from different perspectives together, and we pull them out of their comfort zones, which always is helpful," he said. "And you learn about best practices in other departments – anything that can help you as an instructor spend more time on what you think is most important."

Robisheaux said talking about teaching outside of his department was "liberating."

"There are no inhibitions in our discussions," he said. "Because we teach very different subject material it is also frees us from discussing content and focusing on pedagogy." 

The initiative emphasizes ways to improve teaching and give faculty space to learn how to experiment. The conversations have ranged from flipping classrooms, technology in the classroom, team-teaching and other non-traditional classroom approaches. 

"One of the issues that came up in our discussions, both individually and with the larger mentorship group, was how to facilitate student collaboration," said Emily Sposeto, the Italian language instructor paired with Robisheaux. 

"This led me to try a new approach to the final review activities that students conduct in the final week of classes," she said. "This semester I added an intermediary step in which they edited each other’s work in a class Wiki before presenting their activities to the class. The concept of shared responsibility for the accuracy of the activities seemed to produce great results. I’m also thinking about ways to refine my approach to a cultural project in which they are asked to co-author a paper."

Whitfield said he knew the program was starting strong when he found out that the paired faculty members started meeting together and visiting classrooms on their own as soon as the pairings were announced. The program will continue this fall before starting with a new round of faculty pairings next spring, he said.

Janiak, the chair of the Bass Society and the Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Philosophy, said faculty members are eager for more opportunities to talk teaching. The experience in the mentoring program, he said, has "been amazing."

"We all sit down together and an hour flies by," Janiak said. "Faculty rarely, if ever, have a chance to discuss their pedagogical experiences and approaches with one another, so our sessions are lively and substantive and helpful."