by Cami Yates
The Faculty Innovation Center announced Associate Professor Louis Waldman and Assistant Dean in Instructional Continuity and Innovation Julie Schell as members of the 2021 cohort of Provost Teaching Fellows. The Fellows program empowers faculty to advance education in two ways: through individual initiatives that improve teaching and learning at UT, and through participation in campus-wide events that promote the quality of education and its status in campus culture.
We recently caught up with Waldman and Schell to discuss the program, their work and their passion of teaching.
What does it mean to you to be a Provost Teaching Fellow?
Schell: I prepared my application to serve as a teaching fellow in the fall of 2020 while my colleagues were knee-deep in the field of having transitioned nearly 100 percent of our more than 1,000 course sections to online arts and design education. As a professor of design pedagogy, I was also experiencing firsthand the challenge of needing to take a face-to-face, studio-based course and transform it into a two-dimensional, distance learning class. And in doing so, I was struggling to ensure that my students would have a positive, meaningful learning experience. Taking the humanistic elements of what we do and breathing life into them through the Zoom app to ensure student learning was a herculean ask for everyone. Our faculty and students rose to the occasion. I was ecstatic to learn that I would join the Provost's Teaching Fellows because it will enable me to share the incredible innovations our Fine Arts faculty create with the larger UT Austin community. Moreover, I am over the moon at the opportunity to do my favorite thing of all time with like-minded colleagues: learning about teaching and learning.
Waldman: The privilege of teaching. To me, it is a way to connect with people who love and care about making the student experience at the University of Texas the best possible experience. But also, it's an opportunity to make connections between other people to help other people find their community as well. We become students again in the PTF program. I feel like I found the family that I was always longing for, where everyone is as about reinventing, keeping, making students feel better as I've always been.
What have you learned about teaching that you wish you'd known earlier in your career?
Schell: As an educational researcher and scholar, I wish I had known that learning was THE wicked problem that I was compelled by earlier in my career. I have come to conclude that all learning is the making of memories. Our memory, especially our working memory, is pretty fragile. There are many things educators do, unintentionally, to inhibit and harm the working memory. I am completely fascinated by how memory works in learning and how to protect it and cultivate it. I am so enthralled by it, I regret not having had more time earlier to learn even more about memory and its role in collegiate learning. That said, I would not trade a single moment of my venture to discover the heart of learning as memory-making. For me, learning is the holy grail.
Waldman: The importance of being accessible and available to students. For instance, when COVID-19 hit, I sent my students a new syllabus for the online version of the rest of our class, and I said, “We have a new policy for office hours. Here's my cell phone number, and you can use any time, day or night, if you want. Here's my email. Here's my Facebook profile, if you want to send me a friend request. Here's my address, if you want to sit on my porch and talk. We can six feet apart with masks in a socially distanced and prudent way.” Students did reach out to me in a way that they had never done before because I handed them an invitation that they knew was genuine. It helped a lot of students to get through the really tough times over the past year and a half, but it also helped me find the meaning of my life, because it galvanized something that I've always sort of known but wasn't able to articulate before. It gives meaning to my life helping people in any way that I can, and if I can do that, I feel satisfied at the end of the day or when I look back on a big piece of my life, I think how much have I been able to help people and how can I do it better? But it doesn't end with me. It doesn't end with the teacher because the teacher creates teachers.
What excites you most about this program?
Schell: Certainly, all the learning that I will experience due to exposure to such incredible UT Austin teachers. When it comes to learning new pedagogical approaches or anything related to learning or cognitive science, I am like a kid in a candy store. There are so many things about teaching and learning that I do not know, and I am very eager to learn from my peers and try out new techniques in my classroom.
Waldman: I think a lot of us, at times in our career, have felt a little bit isolated, not because there aren't great teachers in our college, but because we don't have the forums, we don't have the spaces of community to come together and share about that side of our work. When we do have those spaces, spaces like the activities of the PTF, which I've been part of, long before joining the PTF myself, those are spaces where you can find people who are willing to listen to your crazy idea for a new class or your off-the-wall idea that you've been testing and improving for a new kind of exam or a new kind of assignment.
What teaching techniques or visions are you hoping to bring to the program?
Schell: Since I teach design pedagogy, I hope to offer some of the ways of thinking and doing that designers engage in more generally to the design of teaching and learning specifically. For example, one of the core approaches in design is empathy. Designers use empathy as a strategy, not merely to be nice people. They observe what human beings need, identify with their pain points, study the workarounds people devise to make their lives easier and so on. Designers also prototype a lot, getting mockups into the hands of users, making observations and then iterating and making tweaks to their designs before they go live. Finally, designers draw on precedents of effective and ineffective design to build novel and successful user experiences. I am fascinated by the question of how we might use these design-centric approaches to enrich learning in our classrooms. Taking a designerly approach to instruction that involves empathy, prototyping and precedents may improve teaching in unique ways. I hope to bring these designerly ways of working to the Provost's Teaching Fellow community.
Waldman: I want students to be a part of this community in as many ways as possible. So we have teachers at every level from graduate student teachers through professors. And I don't know if it's been done before, but my faculty learning community will include a series of fellowships for graduate students who are teachers in the College of Fine Arts. It feels very appropriate that my project, like many PTF projects, involves creating a community that lots of people will join, and it'll be a diverse community. I envision a community that will bring together people who share a common passion for helping students in new and daring ways. It's in discovering the real power of teaching—we unleash it through creativity, empathy, respect, love and dialogue. I want to bring people together. I want to build bridges because even though we are a relatively small college, sometimes it feels like that distance from one department to another one program to another, or even just the offices across the street, is like crossing the Grand Canyon. We have many opportunities to communicate about our research, but we don't have nearly enough opportunities yet to communicate better teaching.
Why do you love teaching, and why is it so meaningful for you to work with students?
Schell: I think I surprise many people when I tell them that it is actually learning that I truly love! When I started on my journey as an educator, my experiences as a student and novice scholar convinced me that teaching in higher education was broken. As such, I decided to dedicate my life to working on improving instruction. I went to Teachers College, Columbia University and focused on trying to "fix" teaching. Indeed, I ended up dedicating my dissertation to teaching improvement efforts. However, through the dissertation research and my postdoctoral studies, I met thousands of teachers who would change my mind. These educators were from universities all over the world and from across the disciplines. I have since had a complete change of heart. I no longer think teaching is broken. I do, however, think that learning is very broken. Because I genuinely love learning, it is painful for me to see it not function well in our classrooms. It's heartbreaking to know that students spend more than 12,000 hours in learning environments, yet still struggle with learning itself. Any opportunity that I have to help learning in my classroom and beyond puts me precisely where I want to be.
Waldman: It's one of those powerful things that a person can do to make the world better. The power of the teacher to build up a person's life and their sense of self or to damage it. We have a tremendous responsibility in teaching our subjects in effective and meaningful ways. That's another part of teaching that has always been enormously important to me: How can I make things as clear to others, as real to others, as meaningful to others as they are? I have a sticker on my car that says “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.”