Bok Center coordinator Shelley Westover (from far left) and teaching fellow Anita Nikkanen join Bok Center Associate Director Marlon Kuzmick (shaved head) as he teaches a class about multi-modal communication and how it can be used in the classroom. GSAS health policy student Ankur Pandya is seen on the monitor practicing his teaching methods.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Teaching the teachers

8 min read

Faculty, fellows improve after visits to Bok Center

They’re the sort of questions that keep public health officials up at night. How can the health care system balance the rights of someone with a potentially deadly disease against the rights of the public? Can the sick be detained, or even jailed, to avoid or limit outbreaks?

They’re also the questions students in one global health class at Harvard are working to answer. As a teaching fellow (TF) looks on, students work in small groups to address the case of an American tourist who knew he’d been infected with drug-resistant tuberculosis, but insisted on flying from Rome to the United States, against the orders of public health officials.

Despite appearances, the scene is not playing out in a regular classroom. Instead, it’s taking place at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Called micro-teaching, each “class” is actually made up of teaching fellows, each of whom takes a turn at the head of the class, followed by a discussion with Bok Center staff and experienced teaching fellows about what parts of their lesson worked, and how they might improve.

Established to enhance the quality of undergraduate education in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the center annually hosts dozens of programs, seminars, and events that bolster the teaching and learning priorities articulated by FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“I’ve used the resources of the Bok Center since was I graduate student,” said Evelynn M. Hammonds, dean of Harvard College and Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies. “The teaching techniques and good advice I got there have stayed with me all these many years, especially the invaluable lessons about teaching sections.”

“For me, the Bok Center is absolutely critical,” Donner Professor of Science John Huth said. “I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for their feedback and help. It’s tremendously important to have a resource like that if you really care about your teaching, because no matter how intrinsically good you are, they can make you better.”

Huth came to Harvard in 1993, following five years conducting research at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, and sought out the Bok Center for assistance with his lectures because, he said, “I felt like I was bombing.” Their solution was to videotape a lecture and have him to view it with center staff.

“Just 10 minutes of filming and sitting down with the staff there for 30 minutes vastly improved my lectures,” he said. “To this day, I remember the tips they suggested to me, and I still practice many of those same habits.”

Huth regularly turns to the center with a variety of questions. Most recently, he worked closely with staff to develop his popular “Primitive Navigation” class, and he insists that all teaching fellows in his courses take part in at least one micro-teaching session before the start of the year to ensure they have some experience leading a class.

Caroline Light, lecturer on studies of women, gender, and sexuality and director of studies, stumbled onto the Bok Center four years ago, while searching for information about creating multimedia assignments. She has tapped the staff’s expertise many times since.

“Looking back, I wish it was one of the first places I had gone to when I landed at Harvard,” Light said. “Certainly, I feel as though I’m a much better teacher than I was before encountering the Bok Center, but I’ve also discovered it has been a wonderful resource, in my role as director of studies, to direct our visiting faculty to for support.”

Though it may be more widely recognized as a resource for graduate students and teaching fellows at the start of their classroom career, the Bok Center has much to offer to those, like Light, who have more experience in the classroom.

As an example, Light cited an assignment in which students created their own version of “makeover” reality shows as a reflection on the complexities of contemporary citizenship. Before giving the assignment to her students, however, she had extensive conversations with Bok Center staff on how to make the assignment more interesting to students, as well as how to ensure they understood what was expected of them, how to get help if they needed it, and what she wanted them to learn.

“Students today are so ensconced in media and have access to resources that I never dreamed of when I was an undergrad,” she said. “The question for me is: How can I adapt my pedagogical approach to these changing conditions? I have to learn to be more creative so my students will find it more challenging and interesting to learn from me.”

“The Bok Center is an invaluable resource for all those involved in undergraduate teaching,” Smith said. “Whether it is helping faculty members enrich their classes with new materials, methods, and technologies, researching innovative pedagogies and assessment tools, or notifying faculty of important developments in higher education instruction, the Bok Center continues to offer and develop core programs and services that foster the fundamentals of good teaching. Harvard’s faculty bring extraordinary creativity and zest to the development of new courses for undergraduates, and the support they receive from the Bok Center plays a critical role in that work.”

To underscore the importance of that support, this fall Smith is launching a search for the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Together with the executive director of the center and his colleagues, the faculty director will be responsible for articulating the teaching mission of FAS and elevating its profile on campus, as well as managing the center’s growth and collaborating with staff to develop programs and courses on innovative pedagogies, course and programmatic assessment, and development of teaching skills among FAS instructors.

As a way for teaching fellows to hone their skills and to ease their nervousness before stepping into a Harvard classroom, micro-teaching sessions are a valuable tool, but they’re only part of what the center does. It also sponsors conferences on teaching in the fall and winter, and offers services that range from videotaping classes for faculty to holding workshops on teaching in English for international teaching fellows and faculty. Each year it recognizes outstanding teachers with certificates of excellence.

Now in the final year of work on her Ph.D. in human evolutionary biology, Katie McAuliffe first came to the Bok Center four years ago to attend a two-day introductory seminar for new teaching fellows. Over the years, she has taken part in micro-teaching, relied on the center to interpret midsemester feedback from students, and had an entire class videotaped to improve her teaching.

“One important message I got from the Bok Center early on was that I was doing a better job than I thought I was doing,” she said. “For instance, when you’re teaching and you ask a question and wait for a response, typically a TF will wait for about one second for an answer, and they think, ‘Oh my God, no one is answering it!’ But when I saw myself on video, I realized that I could have waited much longer for an answer. I also realized that my section was actually going much better than I thought, and I don’t know what I was so stressed about.”

McAuliffe’s experience at the center has been so positive that, as head teaching fellow in several classes, she encouraged other fellows to take part in programs — particularly micro-teaching — as a way to gauge whether they may need additional support over the course of the semester.

“The Derek Bok Center does so much to support teaching’s central role in our mission,” said Allan M. Brandt, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “Teaching closes the circle from one generation of students and scholars to the next. Great teaching is at the core of what makes Harvard great. So it is critical that this community respect, and nurture, and honor great teaching.

“I have always said that our graduate students are not just excellent scholars; they are some of the best teachers at Harvard,” Brandt added. “Through their teaching, our graduate students make vital contributions to the outstanding educational experience offered by Harvard College to its undergraduates. Our best graduate student teachers, the ones nominated each term for the Bok Center’s teaching awards, are innovative in their lesson planning, their classroom style, and their embrace of technology, and they are devoted to finding creative ways to elucidate the toughest concepts. The Bok Center supports them in all of that.”

“We are at a turning point in how we think about teaching and learning,” said Terry Aladjem, executive director of the center and a lecturer on social studies. “We have wonderful scholars at Harvard who are the leaders in their fields, but as a University we haven’t yet engaged as fully as we might in a common discussion about teaching. I believe faculty members are eager to have that conversation, and our role is to become a place where that conversation can happen.”