I was an undergraduate student studying sociology at Oakland University in the suburbs of Detroit, and I didn't have a great picture of what I wanted to do after graduation. I took several classes with an instructor who had an excitement for sociology and criminology that I had never seen before. She brought me in on a research project — the first research I had ever done — and strongly suggested that I pursue a graduate education. If not for that, I never would have considered going into graduate school.
In my adolescent mentoring course, undergraduate students go through an intensive training process, then they're matched with a young person at a local alternative high school to provide mentorship the rest of the semester. I guide them through a process of reflecting on their experiences, connecting them to concepts that they're learning about in criminology and criminal justice courses that often feel so abstract and foreign to them. It's a very intense experience that’s different for everyone. One student was describing the amount of patience that she's gained throughout the semester because she's been putting herself out there and trying to be a mentor but not finding the fulfillment and success that she wishes she could have experienced. I also see students who have completely changed their career trajectory because of the experience, who have decided to go into social work or counseling and helping professions. I think it's these moments they have working with young people that ignite a fire.
When the adolescent mentoring program started, I had a student, Abigail Dobbins, who took the course and was matched with a young man who had a lot of trauma in his life. I can't tell you how many times she was in my office with ideas on how to bring him out of his shell. At the end of the semester, we brought all the kids to USC for a little party and, unsolicited, he stood up and talked about how because of her he enjoyed high school now and that he hadn't ever thought college was a possibility until meeting her. There wasn't a dry eye in the room among the adults. So, Abigail pivoted with her career plans, and she is now finishing a graduate degree in school counseling. She is an intern at the same alternative school I partner with for the mentoring program, and I'm working closely with her. It's come full circle.
My first semester teaching? I'll never forget it. I would spend hours and hours writing detailed outlines of all the things I wanted to cover in a class, and then I would get through a quarter of it and beat myself up. I really had unreasonable expectations of what I could cover, and it was a moment of just stepping back and letting go. I think that really changed my teaching. I'm always striving to learn from my students about what is working well and what maybe needs to change or be dropped from the program. I think the challenges of teaching change over time because we're always striving to do better the next time. For me, I don't know that it's gotten any easier. I just think maybe I've gotten a bit more comfortable over time.
I think impostor syndrome is something a lot of people struggle with. It's something I think I still struggle with, and I've been teaching since 2013, but being able to name it and know that it exists and that it's a real struggle for many of us is helpful. I would reassure beginning teachers that they are the experts in the subject matter, so they should trust themselves and also take advantage of the wonderful resources we have on campus like the Center for Teaching Excellence and, in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Incubator for Teaching Innovation and ongoing professional development opportunities.
I was drawn to community pharmacy because you get to educate patients. You don’t only provide medication, but you help patients use that medication. They’re not students, but you help them understand their disease state and how to take care of themselves. There was always an aspect of wanting to teach, but it didn't necessarily have to be in the classroom.
It probably started in eighth grade. That's the first teacher I can think of that really challenged me, our math teacher. The teachers that I look up to the most and consider mentors have been the ones that challenge their students, that stretch you a little bit farther than you probably think you can go.
I’m an introvert. As a student, I didn’t like to speak up in class. I appreciated those teachers who would ask questions but not necessarily require a verbal response. I try to get the students to process material and think about the material but in ways where they don’t necessarily have to raise their hand and speak in front of the class if they don’t want to. That’s where team-based learning comes in.
Team-based learning is where they gather information or learn new information on their own — in my case, through assigned readings — then they come to class and work in permanent teams, the same teams throughout the entire semester.
I get to see my students’ thinking. I get to see their thought processes through their responses and discussion questions. And then I can see maybe where they're struggling, too. Maybe they're close, but not quite grasping something. Or sometimes they connect the dots to something that I wasn't even thinking about myself. Because of the method, it comes up in class.
If I have 110 students, they're bringing 110 different perspectives on the material. Whether we're talking about immunizations, medications, over the counter products or things that they've interacted with and their family has interacted with, they bring different perspectives to the table. That’s another reason why I like the team-based learning model. They bring up things. They challenge me as a teacher, as a pharmacist. That mentality that I'm here to learn from them as well has helped me not take myself too seriously as a teacher and not get caught up in my own ego.
I always appreciated those professors you respected but who would, in a sense, treat you as a colleague, who would talk about things that they found helpful in their career and wanted to pass on to me as a student. It wasn't necessarily something for a test. They were just saying, “Hey, I found this really helpful, and I want to offer it to you.”
No one is finished. There's always room for improvement, and to play even just a small part in that growth and improvement, particularly in a professional capacity, has been really rewarding — to be able to see students come in as these young first-year pharmacy students at their white coat ceremony, then see them graduate, then go on to become pharmacists. It's just really rewarding to have sort of a front row seat.
I was talking with a grad student last week and we were saying how neither one of us had really left school. Not long after grad school, I started teaching drawing and ceramics, and then sculpture, while also working as a gallery director and art technician. Eventually, my artwork and my teaching dovetailed more and more.
In some of my older pieces I set up situations for people to actually build — to make sandbags and build different structures that change over the course of the exhibition. Getting people together to think collectively and make and talk about themes and ideas, this is really a wonderful part of the process. It makes it not so much just about me and my own experience. The classroom is similar.
My own work is driven by my response to things like flooding or sea level rise, things that affect our lives and our homes. But that's my own particular view. Where it shifts in my teaching, I think, is that I open that up and say, “Well, what do you all find important? What do you as students want to investigate and consider and make work about?” That can be hard sometimes because they're not always used to thinking about things that way.
I had a drawing and painting professor when I was an undergrad at Michigan State. His name was Irv Taran. When he was looking at your work, he would kind of hop from side to side in the studio saying, “Is it better this way? Or is it better that way?” He would talk about the push and pull, trying things and then stepping back to see what you've done, to critically assess with you, and then keep going. It becomes this whole series of problem solving and really thinking about what you're doing, and why, and how. Now I do that with my students.
They don’t always quite understand how to see in three dimensions. That feels weird to say because we live in a 3D world, but we don't consciously think about that. When you ask a student to make something, and not just draw it with a pencil, they don't always know how to go from two dimensions to three.
I developed this sculpture project to get them doing visual research. You know, “Let's go do something fun! Let's go do something that we don't usually get to do! Let’s go look through an electron microscope and look super, super closely at things and then build these wire sculptures—” I've done it in a variety of ways.
A lot of times, the things that I’d like to explore more in my own work I end up playing around with in class, or posing as prompts for my students, just to see what everyone comes up with. It becomes this lovely, circular, holistic thing. It's this dance between setting up more open-ended projects and teaching students how to do new stuff with things they haven't ever tried before. It’s about figuring out the sweet spot.
I was doing projects that that made sense to me — as far as learning the principles and elements of design, the basics of art as a visual language and communication tool — but so much of their stuff was going into the dumpster when they were finished. They weren’t personally invested. So I started asking them, “Well, what do you wish you had done?” More and more, I got responses like, “I want to make something that means something.” That really stuck with me. Finding ways to change my projects so that they are more relevant to their lives, socially and culturally, whatever — that's become one of the topmost important things about how I teach.
I didn't have very much teaching experience coming out of grad school. I just had to learn on the fly — for so many of us, that's how it is. But I found people, or people found me, who were willing to mentor me and listen to my internal questions and help me figure out how to do this gig. So now I feel it's important to give back. If someone has a question about a project I’ve done, or how I do things, I just give them my stuff because that's how I learned from other very generous people.
My most memorable experiences as an undergraduate were the outside of the classroom experiences. So, I do a lot of that now.
You can acquire a lot of information in a classroom, but learning alone is often not sufficient to add value to society, to a business or to an institution. To do this you have to learn to do valuable things. And by learning new skills and then practicing them, learning to work with others, you can add value. Now, don't get me wrong, lecture is necessary. That’s an important part of higher education— the opportunity to learn the necessary pieces of information and then be provided the opportunity to put that to work and to get feedback on how well you're doing it.
As an undergrad, I was interested in treatment of delinquency problems, misconduct and ADHD. I took classes on behavior and learning, abnormal psychology, adolescent psychology and so on. But none of it really clicked for me until I got out of the classroom and was a counselor in a program at USC, where I did my undergrad, for kids who had conduct problems and who were expelled from school. And there was an evidence-based approach to shaping their behavior and teaching them social skills, problem solving, how to cope with trauma, how to navigate conflict with peers. And then it's like all those courses in behavior modification, social psychology, counseling — it starts to click.
Get engaged, get out and do something. You're in control of this learning environment. You can go knock on a professor's door and say, ‘Hey, let me work in your lab. Let me run some analyses with you from the stats that I just learned here. Let me learn how to enter data or let me work in this camp that you're running for kids or let me go observe therapy.’ There are cool things that you can do.
I think a lot of students learn from discourse. We're very social creatures, and a lot of times how we learn is less about the rational, logical explanation for something and more about how we feel. So, one way to do that is to encourage debate and discourse. I think that's a great way to engage students.
In my research methods class, we have conversations about a hot topic or a potentially sensitive topic as it relates to cause and effect. In order to do this, you have to protect the students, too. So we review the Carolinian Creed. If you can protect that safe, inclusive environment where people feel free to share a perspective and also free to disagree with other people's perspectives, I think that's where teachable moments come. Because a lot of times there are these ‘Aha’ moments.
I learned the importance of engineering a class that is a positive, affective or emotional experience where students walk away from that class and they feel hopeful, they feel empowered and they feel excited about what they learned, not stressed about the test. They're actually excited. They learned something new.
William McFall "Mac" Pearce Professor
There was a professor by the name of Dr. Sally Short at Syracuse University who was teaching dietetics and health promotion. I was working in Audiovisual Services, and we were supplying slide projectors and motion picture projectors for faculty to show slides and movies in class. But Dr. Short had something very different — it was the 1960s, so she called it a “happening.” She drove into class once on a motorcycle, down the steps of an amphitheater-kind of auditorium. To bring a motorcycle without permission into this brand-new building and then run down the steps. I mean, the administration went crazy in a good way and a bad way. We once carried her in on a surfboard in hippie attire. So she had these happenings, and I was just amazed at how she was out of the box. Back then it was the “sage on the stage,” behind the podium in a jacket and tie. And she was a female in hippie attire, and she immediately connected with the students.
My wife, Linda Mihalik, as former director of Enterprise Academic Technology Initiatives working for the university’s Division of IT, first showed me 360-degree video technology and immediately the light bulb went on. As a professor of tourism and sport management, I study the legacies of the Olympic Games, but how can I get my students to the 1936 Berlin or Beijing 2008 Olympic Stadiums? I can’t. But all of a sudden, this technology comes along and I can. I started looking for content and realized I didn't have the content I wanted for the Olympics. So any time I traveled, I would try to take a side trip to an Olympic legacy venue. My wife and I became a two-person cinematography crew. We now have produced, edited and posted to YouTube over 20 360-degree VR videos on tourism, sport and Olympic-themed content with all viewed at some time in my classes.
I wondered if the students really liked these 360 videos. So I started looking at the research, and there were people doing some studies on this. We identified two survey instruments and modified them for my content. Almost 100 percent of my students love it. We call it “Travel Tuesdays.” Every Tuesday, we're going on a road trip. Bring your goggles. We're going to Beijing, to Berlin, to Iceland, to Patagonia. And then we do survey research on the destination and say, “OK, now that you've seen this, would you really like to go there in person?” And we've been collecting that data for three or four years.
Early on in my teaching career, I showed slides I had taken at the World War II concentration camp at Dachau, and a student raised his hand and said, “My parents and I don’t believe the Holocaust happened.” I just looked at him with my mouth open. Talk about a teachable moment for a new assistant professor. But that made me realize there's a wide variety of people in class, and I have to try to connect with them all. I cannot simply lecture to them for 75 minutes. I have to come in with a variety of techniques. Thus, the integration of 360-degree VR content.
Today's student is more technologically savvy and easily mastered viewing 360 VR videos. The next step was for students to produce their own videos based on our campus as a tourism attraction. Student evaluations revealed strong support of their production of these videos as a pedagogical technique.
Clinical Assistant Professor
I think of myself as a ringmaster, introducing students into this sort of circus of medical school. I'm at the front of the stage and I'm helping guide them through this often-scary overwhelming experience, but I'm also trying to instill in them a sense of confidence that I'm never going to ask more of them than I know they're capable of giving. I set the stage very quickly in the very first lecture — “Here are my expectations in terms of how you conduct yourself, how you approach this material.” I want them to understand that it should be fun, but this is not fun and games — we're here to do a job. I'm going to try to make it as accessible to you as possible, but this is where we need to go. This is where the finish line is, and I want you to cross it.
The most impactful teacher that I had was one of the instructors who taught gross anatomy [at the University of Florida]. He would pepper in his presentations all of these fun stories about things that he had done when he was when in his 20s, how he had traveled the world. And then he would shift back to the teaching. It was almost like a little break for you to catch your breath, hear the fun story, and then jump back into the content. He was really clear in terms of what was important and what was not, so you weren't confused as to what was being asked of you. And then when you kind of started feeling a little tense at the sheer volume of information, he’d stop and tell another story. That learning experience and the fact that it was in gross anatomy, which was one of the most life-changing classes I ever took, is what really inspired me to go into teaching and inspired me to take pieces of that and try to incorporate it into my own teaching.
As a brand-new instructor you're going to say something wrong and that's OK. You're not going to be an expert initially, but you're going to get better every year. Give yourself some grace in mastering that learning curve because it's OK to be wrong — we're all going to be wrong. That doesn't mean that you've lost your legitimacy with the students as long as you go and clean it up and don't hide behind a mistake.
I had a third-year student stop by my office, and he was bragging about how he had gotten an answer right during a surgical procedure. The surgeon had asked a question about a particular anatomical structure, and he had first asked one of the residents and the resident didn't know the answer. My M3 student knew the answer because of something that I had said two years earlier in my course. What I taught him in his first year of medical school was a clinical application of a basic anatomy concept, and that’s important to me because sometimes students don't see that connection. For him to remember that detail two years later, that's a job well done in my mind.