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UI Center offers training and support to professors and graduate students

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Tom Rocklin and Carolyn Lieberg of the University of Iowa Center for Teaching like to tell the story of the graduate teaching assistant who was worried about her first teaching assignment:

The teaching assistant showed up at the center the second or third week of class. She was nervous and apprehensive.

Lieberg and the student met infrequently over the semester as the graduate student worked out the kinks in her new role as teacher.

When the second semester began, the graduate student showed up again at the center. This time she brought a request from several of her fellow graduate teaching assistants that the center present a workshop for them.

"That graduate student has gone from being scared to death about teaching to being a leader of educational improvement in her department," Rocklin says. "She's gotten the message that she will be supported in her efforts to become a better teacher.

"I think that's a great message," Rocklin says.

It's a message Rocklin, the first director of the center, and Lieberg, associate director, hope is slowly filtering throughout campus. The center, which formally opened with the fall 1996 semester, is getting the word out that teaching is a valued skill that needs to be supported and nurtured at all faculty levels.

Located in the Iowa Memorial Union, the center is a resource for faculty and teaching assistants interested in ideas and information about teaching. The center offers programs, training sessions, critiques, as well as forums to discuss pedagogical issues.

Rocklin, an educational psychologist who is a professor of quantitative and psychological foundations in the College of Education, says he's been pleasantly surprised at the interest faculty and graduate students have shown.

"The nightmare of the director of a new Center for Teaching is that you give a party and nobody shows up," he says. "That hasn't been the case at all."

The center is an example of a growing interest at the UI and nationwide about the importance of teaching at research universities. The center -- an idea first discussed in the 1980s by the Council on Teaching and other faculty -- was approved by the administration and the Board of Regents in 1995.

President Mary Sue Coleman says the ultimate goal of the center is to improve the quality of education for students.

"A Center for Teaching is one tool that universities can use to focus attention on the teaching mission," Coleman says. "Faculty will be able to learn about new teaching tools. Graduate students will get help as they acquire teaching skills. But mostly, undergraduates will see improvements in the overall quality of instruction throughout the university."

Rocklin says the balance between research and teaching may have tipped too far toward research since World War II but that doesn't mean teaching has been ignored.

"There are a lot of excellent teachers here," he says. "What the University lacked was the mechanism to talk about teaching and to share ideas and interest in teaching."

He hopes debate moves beyond "teaching vs. research." "If we do our jobs well, we'll start thinking about them as integrated, and we'll start thinking about our jobs in terms of 'knowledge' rather than in terms of teaching and research," Rocklin says.

Since last fall, the center has begun a number of initiatives, including:

-- A series of brown bag lunches for faculty and graduate students to discuss issues surrounding teaching; an electronic discussion group that currently has about 125 regular subscribers; a newsletter that goes to 4,000 faculty and teaching assistants every other month; a series of papers on issues in teaching also is being published.

-- Regular workshops on topics such as technology in instruction, teaching basics (for TAs), using active learning techniques in large classes, and others.

-- Individual, confidential consultations; training, evaluation, and critiques of teaching for individual faculty and graduate students; and help in locating resources of interest to individual faculty.

-- The first Norwest Bank Summer Fellowships for Curriculum Innovation for three faculty in summer 1996.

-- Plans are under way to offer a new initiative this summer to lead workshops on the use of technology for 100 faculty members.

Lieberg, who leads some of the center's sessions on teaching skills, says one of the center's goals is to give teachers new ideas.

"A lot of what we have been bringing people are things they haven't been doing at all, or didn't know they could be doing," Lieberg says. "It's not an oppositional attitude. We have time to mine resources for helpful ideas."

Rocklin says the center also tries to give teachers a framework to improve their skills, rather than to giving a "one-size-fits-all" solution.

"Quality teaching can only be defined within disciplines," Rocklin says. "What works well in physics won't work well in music, and something else entirely will be needed in mathematics."

He likens the craft to cooking."Faculty are bright, talented people. You don't have to give them the recipe. You tell them which ingredients might be relevant and then they make their own dish."