The Different Forms of Teaching

What the four recipients of this year's Trinity College Teaching Awards have in common is a knack for engaging students and seeking their opinions in the learning process.  How they do that, however, takes myriad forms.

Mohamed Noor, Earl D. McLean Professor and associate chair of biology, reaches out to 411 students in his genetics and evolution class, which takes place three times a week in Griffith Film Theater. The lecture, he said, "feels like some sort of a performance."

To personalize instruction, Noor, who won the David & Janet Vaughn Brooks Distinguished Teaching Award, visits each of the 28 labs affiliated with the class and talks briefly each week with every student, asking if there is anything he or she didn't understand. "The key," he said, "is you have at least some one-on-one interaction. I don't believe it would work as well if it was just based on what's happening in the lecture room."

Noor also relies heavily on technology to identify learning gaps. Before each class there's a reading assignment and an online quiz; during class he uses an application that allows students to use cell phones and computers to answer questions in real time; and after class he pays close attention to the feedback he receives via email and from his lab section visits.

At the opposite end of the class size spectrum is Michael Ferejohn, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and winner of the Richard K. Lublin Distinguished Teaching Award, whose largest class has roughly 45 students. The smaller and more intimate the setting, he said, the more conducive it is to discussions about the teachings of Plato, Socrates and Descartes. "Philosophy," he said, "is not a spectator sport."

To get students engaged, Ferejohn draws on a range of both teaching and conversational skills. "The most important one," he said, "is eye contact. In my classes, no matter what the size is, I'm talking to every student in the class."

Ferejohn also steers clear of rhetorical questions. "I don't ask questions I'm going to answer in a couple of seconds," he said. "I'm asking each of them a question because I want them to give me an answer, and it's not necessarily the person in the front of the room sitting with his or her hand up."

In fact, he goes to great lengths to bring the back of the room closer to the front, at times asking students to turn their desks to what typically is the side of a rectangular classroom. That way, he noted, the back rows are not as far away. "I try to avoid the free riding problem," he said, "where students in the back are letting students in the front carry the load."

Michael Valdez Moses, an associate professor in the English Department, said he wants his students to view learning not as merely serving an instrumental function, but rather as a way of life, an exalted mode of being in the world. "Teaching requires, above all, the capacity to communicate one's passion for thinking, for ideas and for living with a certain heightened sensibility, aesthetic pleasure and intellectual intensity," said Moses, who received the Robert B. Cox Distinguished Teaching Award. "That's a lived experience, and I think it's critical to communicate that to students."

Take for example, Seamus Heaney's poem "Funeral Rites," written during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which describes a funeral procession that ends in Megalithic Era passage tombs in Newgrange in Ireland's Boyne valley. "It's a wonderful and arresting image," Moses said, "but it's more powerful if the students can see what those tombs look like."

He made sure there were multiple images of Newgrange in the classroom, which, he said, served as an evocative reminder that the burial site was neither Protestant nor Catholic, but in fact, pre-Christian, and therefore one that all Irish living in the North could claim as their own regardless of sectarian affiliation.

Another class assignment focused on the Cold War, but as Moses noted, the majority of his students were born after the Berlin Wall came down, so he drew on his own childhood experience and told them about the duck-and-cover drills at his elementary school in Southern California.

Duke, Moses said, gives professors an opportunity to invent new courses that draw on various disciplines. "I've taught courses ... in which I can teach not only literature, but also film, political philosophy and economics. That kind of latitude at a research university is very unusual."

Winner of the Howard D. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Award, Laurent Dubois, a professor of French and history in the Department of Romance Studies, has a multifaceted approach, one that often taps into the tangible -- e.g., soccer -- to address much larger questions about politics and economics.

"It sounds simple enough to talk about soccer," he said, "but in the course of that class we covered the history of colonial and decolonial Africa, dictatorships in Latin America, and U.S. politics around gender and immigration."

"It gives it a grounding," he said. "You can get at those issues in a way that's more fun and interesting and gives them a lens through which you can talk about lots of different things."

He also uses what he calls "a variety of intellectual work" to inspire his students. Among other things, it includes debates, blogs, guest speakers, art projects, and the banjo. One particularly noteworthy debate, he said, focused on polygamy and took place between Visiting Professor Archille Mbembe, of Cameroon, and French journalist Philippe Bernard, who had worked in West Africa.

Bernard "thought there was a case to be made that these cultural issues were a problem for West Africa," Dubois said. "The colleague from Cameroon suggested that outsiders are obsessed with certain things like the idea of polygamy but pointed out that it is a minor phenomenon and affects a tiny number of people.

"I like to have things that are controversial," Dubois added, "so they (the students) can see how multifaceted these questions are."