Teaching Harvard Instructors How To Teach

The Danforth Center Puts Teachers on T.V.

To explain its functions, the staff of the Danforth Center for Teaching and Learning shows videotapes of Harvard instructors that are all-too-familiar to students who have sat through incomprehensible and poorly delivered lectures or have tried to learn from nervous and unprepared section leaders. Some of the teachers who consented to be taped for an evaluation of their teaching ability are so bad they are almost humorous. An economics section leader tangles himself up hopelessly in supply-and-demand curves, stares pitifully at the blackboard and stumbles on through a now useless explanation. A French section leader twirls her hair anxiously, prods a student for an answer and then says disgustedly, "We're just going to skip you." An Expository Writing teacher tries to carry on a class discussion while returning papers, but loses the attention of the class as they flip through the papers to find their grades.

After section leaders have seen the first tapes of themselves during evaluation sessions with the staff and/or their departmental peers, the Danforth people retape them. On these tapes, the section leaders have abandoned nervous habits, their speech is more forceful and energetic, and their classes participate enthusiastically in discussion.

Dean K. Whitla, director of the Danforth Center, holds up these tapes as proof that the center's techniques improve teaching measurably. And he points to a packed schedule of taping and reviewing sessions that have spilled over to Sunday nights this semster as indication that more and more people at Harvard are coming to realize, albeit slowly, that the Danforth Center can work for them, too.

The center, squeezed unobstrusively into two rooms on the third floor of the Science Center, was established three years ago with a $205,000 grant from the Danforth Foundation, an organization whose goal is the encouragement of education and teaching. The foundation also set up four other centers at colleges across the nation. Whitla admits that the organization was hesitant at first to locate one of its centers here because of Harvard's reputation for burying teaching low on its priority list. Despite its inauspicious start, the center now is doing just fine, thank you--sponsoring frequent seminars and luncheons on different aspects of teaching, supporting departmental training programs for teachers of introductory courses and tutorials, and running the busy video center. Most recently, the center has been working with Natural Sciences professors to find ways to improve the writing of science students. On deck for next year is a videotape study of sophomore history tutorials.

"We're quiet. We're low-profile, but we're infiltrating in our own way to get a lot of people interested in the teaching process," Whitla says.

That interest will soon be put to the test because the original grant for the center runs out after this year and no other funds have yet been found. Whitla says President Bok has been contacting other foundations to seek grants for the center, and the center "has a place" in the impending fund drive for the College. "My feeling is we will be in operation next year," Whitla says. "Everyone has said they want us to stay."

Whitla claims the secret behind the center's success in improving teaching lies in the nature of the videotape itself. "There is enormous power in the medium to get people to be self-reflective," he says. "We are not trying to make you put on a teaching style that is the Harvard teaching style, but rather the teaching style that is appropriate for you and your discipline."

Katherine Krupnick, director of the video program, says the experience of seeing oneself on videotape for the first time can be traumatic--people look older and fatter and their voices sound funny. Krupnick, who has been largely responsible for developing the center's video techniques, has learned not to let someone sit alone while watching a tape of himself. "It's like standing and looking at yourself in the mirror for an hour. It's very distracting. It is helpful to be able to turn around to someone and ask a question or try to sort out your thoughts."

But after the initial feelings of strangeness wear off, many people spot their own teaching flaws and come up with ideas to correct them, Krupnick says. Teachers who change their style often immediately evoke favorable reactions in their students, or receive better ratings on student questionnaires. One teacher who came to the center to brush up on his lecture style before accepting a prestigious teaching post at another university received substantial criticism from evaluators of one of his taped lectures. Nevertheless, he decided not to make any changes in his technique, and soon after he began his new job students dropped out of his course in droves. He subsequently lost the post.

Granted, the center does good work--but does it do enough good work? Virtually the only program at Harvard seeking to improve teaching skills, the center has been called a mere token, something Harvard can proudly point to when critics accuse her of harboring a single-minded passion for research. Krupnick explains that the center is small because administrators were initially skeptical about the experiment. "They were waiting to see if it would just be a trendy thing that would fall on its face," she says.

Since its birth the center has taped hundreds of teachers; most, however, are graduate students and non-student teaching assistants. Some junior faculty agree to be taped, but Krupnick can only recall about five to eight senior faculty members who requested the center's services. Some departments--Economics and Romance Languages, for example--require all teaching fellows to be taped, but most of the taping participants come voluntarily. Whitla says, "Most of the people we see tend to be above average teachers already. They are highly motivated. Perhaps we ought to be working with a group that is not quite so good." Krupnick agrees, but says more people will come in when they see their peers improving and when they realize the center keeps all tapes strictly confidential unless the teacher permits their release.

Krupnick has often heard about the alleged trade-off between teaching and research ability, but does not believe in it, although Harvard seems to value research over teaching. "Research gives life to the University," she says. "Research grants create an intellectual atmosphere and bring new fun's in. Good teachers create an intellectual atmosphere too, but they don't bring new funds in." Krupnick finds, however, that belief in the tradeoff is disappearing as good teaching ability looms larger as a criterion for employment at many universities, if not at Harvard. Besides, Krupnick says, people here value teaching ability more than is rumored. "I have never heard anyone say, 'Oh, he's nothing but a good teacher.'"