Behind Every Great Professor…is a Great Professor

How do URI professors continually improve their craft? Most turn to Bette Erickson in the Instructional Development Program to explore the ins and outs of good teaching.

The New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell has observed that the problem with teaching is that you don’t know if you are any good at it until you are actually doing it. Most professors have spent decades immersed in their scholarship—but how do they learn to teach it?

They turn to the teacher’s teacher. At URI, that role is filled by the Instructional Development Program (IDP) and its director, Bette Erickson. Since 1975, the IDP has served URI as a multi-faceted resource, providing all instructors—from graduate teaching assistants to full-time professors—with the opportunity to develop and hone the craft of teaching.

Professor Cheryl Foster, a philosophy professor and associate director of the honors program, is one of URI’s most decorated faculty members. She was recently named Rhode Island Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation/CASE’s US Professors of the Year Awards Program. In 2012, she was named a Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher, and in 1996, she was a URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award winner.

Foster recalls coming to URI in 1992, with four years of college teaching already under her belt. “Even though I had been teaching for years, I had not had a moment of formal teaching training until I went to Bette’s workshops. They made me realize I had no self-awareness about what I had been doing. They introduced tools and techniques that would never have occurred to me. Over Labor Day weekend of my first semester at URI, I destroyed the syllabi I had planned to use that semester and literally re-wrote everything as a result of that one week with Bette.”

“All of the work we do in the IDP is research-based,” explains Erickson. “There’s a lot of research now on college teaching, on what works well and what doesn’t.” The IDP uses a variety of formats to share this research with the faculty. There are the Course Planning Workshops that run every August before the start of the academic year. There is an intensive Teaching Fellows program, which brings together 12 to 15 faculty to meet regularly over the course of an academic year to explore various topics related to teaching and learning. And there is the opportunity to work one-on-one with Erickson.

“Individual consultations are really the heart of the IDP,” she says. “That’s where improvement happens.” She first meets with faculty members and then observes them in the classroom, often videotaping them so they can see themselves teaching. “I also get student feedback, and then the instructor and I sit down and talk about what’s working well and what could improve. And then the process continues,” Erickson explains. The consultations often continue over several semesters as the instructor works out issues or experiments with alternative ways of doing things. Erickson estimates that the IDP has worked with about half of the faculty at URI. Most are brimming with praise for the amount of pedagogical improvement that resulted, and point to the support they found through the IDP as crucial to their scholastic journeys.

Professor Libby Miles, a writing and rhetoric professor and 2010 URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award winner, describes the Teaching Fellows Program as transformational. “The program catapulted my teaching to another dimension. It really guides us to practice collaborative learning, to imagine different ways of getting students to learn from one another and interact meaningfully and deeply with each other.” The Teaching Fellows Program itself models the types of collaborative interactions that a good teacher learns how to foster. “I made the best connections with colleagues from all over the university through IDP,” says Miles. As a result of her time with the IDP, she teamed up with Professor Jose Amador, a soil scientist, to teach an inter-disciplinary course on communicating science to the public. “During the Teaching Fellows program,” she says, “we became interested in how our disciplines could talk to each other. And the students loved it!”

After all, the great end of pedagogy lies with the student. Erickson affirms this as well. “Good teaching matters to students,” she emphasizes. “When you care about students, this work is a way of helping. I care about faculty too. No one wants to be ineffective. If I can support them in becoming more effective, that’s how I like to spend my time.”

Excellence in pedagogy is something that the IDP ensures will always remain at the heart of the URI experience. “There is a timeless quality to good teaching,” says award-winning professor Cheryl Foster [see sidebar]. “Yes, we now have new technologies and new techniques, and the IDP helps faculty keep pace with the classroom changes emerging from that. But the IDP experience also reaffirms the timelessness of the teacher-student relationship, helping faculty to re-channel our passion for our subject matter and to imbue our students with equal excitement.”

— Bethany Vaccaro ’06