July 17, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 19

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    Two doctoral students design, teach, adapt courses that garner new pedagogical award

    By Laurie Davis
    News Office

    Photo by Dan Dry

    Clare Sammells

    If Clare Sammells inspired her students to become better global citizens, she would know her course, “Tourism and Capitalism,” had made a positive impact. If Nate Zuckerman furthered his students’ curiosity about the nature of knowledge and the mind in critical response to the Critique of Pure Reason, he would know his course, “Kant and Skepticism,” was on track.

    These graduate student teachers have personal measures of success for the coursework they designed and taught, and they added that Chicago students are never shy about sharing their opinions in course evaluations. But beyond these reviews, staff members in the Center for Teaching and Learning also scrutinized Sammells and Zuckerman’s courses and recognized them with the new Graduate Student Teaching Award for Excellence in Course Design.

    The center created the award to offer graduate students formal recognition of their accomplishments in practicing and learning about teaching during their doctoral studies.

    “Many teaching awards do not specify a teacher’s special accomplishments, and award winners are left wondering what they did right,” said Elizabeth Chandler, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. “We wanted to acknowledge the accomplishments of graduate students in producing one piece of teaching, which is, perhaps, the hardest first step in college teaching—coming up with a syllabus that works.

    “Student assignments can be critically evaluated in light of the learning goals articulated in these plans. With these documents, Graduate Student Instructors learn exactly what they got right and what missed the mark in their teaching efforts and can go on, accordingly, to make improvements and to adjust the syllabus,” said Chandler.

    Working with the staff in the Center for Teaching and Learning and attending the center’s seminars and workshops have allowed Sammells and Zuckerman to personalize their teaching philosophies, which their respective disciplines in Anthropology and Philosophy have helped shape.

    Nate Zuckerman

    Zuckerman, a doctoral student in Philosophy, said the courses he’s developed use strategies for teaching students how to “do” philosophy. “When you’re first starting out, it’s really hard to know what a philosophy course is supposed to be like. What kinds of things are you supposed to say, and what should you be thinking in response to the text when you’re reading? After you’ve read the text, what do you do with that? How do you formulate a philosophical argument and write a paper that supports your own ideas?”

    Sammells, a doctoral student in Anthropology, views teaching her discipline as a means of broadening her students’ attitudes about the world that surrounds them. “I hope to teach my students how to think about their own interactions within a larger global system. Most of them won’t become anthropologists, but I hope they will become more informed citizens who make decisions and vote thinking about the global impacts of local and national policies.”

    Sammells, who conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Bolivia for her dissertation on archaeological tourism, translated some of her accumulated knowledge into the course she taught to second- and third-year undergraduates in International Studies.

    “I wanted students to think about how tourism works on a large scale, that of infrastructures created to move people and goods through spaces. But I also wanted them to consider how they can take control of their existences as tourists, because we’re all tourists at some point.

    “We looked at tourism as multifaceted, rather than as just the stereotype of the tourist with the camera.” Sammells noted that “tourism as a system to move people, goods and ideas is one that has long antecedents in the past, including ancient Roman society and the Grand Tour of Europe. There also are other processes that we can analyze with similar frameworks, even though we often think of them as being different from tourism, such as pilgrimage.”

    Zuckerman’s scholarship is focused on metaphysics and epistemology, he noted.

    Specifically, he’s interested in Martin Heidegger’s philosophical method of phenomenology. “Rather than thinking about the problem at hand such as ‘what is the human being or what does the world consist of,’ and rather than thinking about it from an already constructed theoretical point of view, phenomenology is an attempt to pay close attention to what it is like to live your everyday life and to see the structures, patterns or relationships that constitute the meaningfulness of that everyday life.”

    The 2,000-level undergraduate course, “Kant and Skepticism,” focused on the skeptical challenges that Immanuel Kant’s predecessors, René Descartes and David Hume, raised, and Kant’s response to skepticism in his Critique of Pure Reason.

    In this “bread-and-butter” philosophy course, said Zuckerman, students were encouraged to think about the nature and origin of knowledge by asking: “What can we know about the world if we know anything, or how can we prove that we have knowledge of the world rather than just dreaming? How do epistemological questions get intertwined with metaphysical questions or metaphysical assumptions about what the mind consists in—what mental faculties do we have that structure and make knowledge possible? For instance, the ability to make judgments, use concepts, the ability to have sensory experiences and be affected by the world and to have representations of it, and the imagination?

    “So, we looked at the way each of those three philosophers gave their own versions of kind of the map of the mind,” said Zuckerman. “How they were different and how those differences affected their response to these skeptical questions about the possibility of knowledge about the world.”

    A key component in Sammells’ course was the students’ quarter-long process of analyzing a tourism case study, including proposing a short research question, a literature review, outline, rough draft and class discussion of the students’ work in progress.

    “U of C students are experts in the making,” said Sammells. “They’re really amazing students, and I try to bring that out in my classes. I tell them that I don’t need them to tell me what I already know; I want them to become experts on something, even if it’s something very small. That’s where everybody starts. And then they come to class and tell us about it. It’s been very positive to see them make the transition from being students who are just learning what’s being told to them, to actually producing knowledge for themselves.”

    Zuckerman’s course required close reading of the assigned texts. “The trickiest part was getting far into Kant’s critique, because it’s long and it’s dense, and it has a lot of tricky vocabulary that’s very technical. To make that easier and to force them to read and re-read the text, and really work on close interpretations, I’d assigned a glossary to them. Every week, I’d give them a certain set of technical terms that Kant used, and I’d say, ‘write your own version of what you think it means and cite somewhere in the text where he uses it, where he defines it.’”

    An example would be the distinction between a priori and a posteriori, noted Zuckerman. “The a priori is that which we know independently of experience, such as two plus two is four, without having to go and observe anything or to experiment. The a posteriori is that which we know by going out and seeing it in the world, for example, whether all swans are white or what kinds of people work office jobs. You can’t know that prior to going out and experiencing that in the world.”

    Throughout their courses, both teachers modified the syllabus, altering reading lists to adapt to what was working and to eliminate what wasn’t working—an approach to teaching they learned through the Center for Teaching and Learning.

    Added Sammells: “The center helps us think critically about teaching in such a way that prepares us to go on the job market, so we can explain what kind of teachers we are. It’s one thing to be in the classroom, and it’s another thing to explain to people what you do in the classroom.”

    A teaching philosophy statement has become a standard requirement of scholars seeking teaching positions, said Zuckerman, “especially if it’s for a job at a small liberal arts school with a large undergraduate population. It can turn into the kind of generic statement about accommodating diverse learning styles and teaching students critical thinking, but it also can be—and this is what the Center for Teaching and Learning stresses in their seminars—an expression of your personal approach to teaching and how that’s shaped by what you’ve learned by getting things right or getting things wrong.”