What I Learned From a Teaching Award

Thomas Hallock describes four insights he gained as both a recipient and a judge.

February 5, 2019

The prize came with a $1,000 check and a glass trophy. I blew the money on a 1980s Pioneer receiver-amp, with Sonos wireless, so I could spin my Bob Dylan vinyl while washing dishes at home. The trophy gathers dust on a file cabinet at work.

The next year, the dean asked me to judge the College of Arts and Sciences teaching awards. Having enjoyed the amp, I said yes. A half dozen colleagues, from across the disciplines, submitted the lengthy application. I asked the dean's office about evaluation criteria, but the answer came after I had read the applications. In fact, I had already learned a lot about teaching from them by that time.

No one tells you how to apply for a teaching award, no less judge one. Groomed for research in graduate school, most professors learn to teach ad hoc. Sure, I saw commonalities in each of my colleagues’ takes on complicated subject matter and how they overcome intellectual or emotional resistance from students. Evaluations glowed, and the syllabi described courses I'd like to take myself. But still, how to choose?

Lacking strong guidelines, I focused on the narrative reflections. And I began to see deeper connectors -- points I had never articulated myself -- that were relevant to not just the award but to any teaching life.

What specifically did I learn?

Archive projects and papers. Although each of my colleagues claimed "student-centered" pedagogy, the winner of this year's glass trophy (a criminologist) provided actual evidence. Her application included hand-drawn, graphic narratives by her majors that documented their learning. The art was not great. But the point is simple. We cannot chart student success -- or failure -- without first collecting a body of work.

Chart your own professional growth. Hubris and job pressures often keep academics from admitting that, at first, we pretty well sucked in leading a classroom. A teaching narrative, like any good narrative, takes readers from point A to point B. We go somewhere; we learn something. A pedagogical reflection should start from what did not work and then trace a path to improvement.

Theorize. That professional path must follow an idea, some North Star that has led the teacher-scholar to deeper insight. Who did the candidates look to for insight and inspiration? With the stronger applications, I found myself jotting down the names of thinkers in psychology and the sciences whom I should read myself.

Contextualize a classroom. Each of my colleagues could point to a capstone teaching experience -- the anthropologist who involves students in archaeological digs or the environmentalist who takes them on field trips to the Everglades. But could the teacher situate such a signature experience within a broader curricular context? Apart from the seminars -- where evaluation numbers balloon -- had my colleagues covered foundational courses?

And how do signature lesson plans fit within the overall course design, major and aims of the university? My colleague in criminology, whose research focuses on women's prison movies, could explain the challenges of bringing film studies to her male-dominated, quantitative major.

As a winner and then a judge, I stumbled onto those four steps. Save student work. Theorize your approach and learn the history of your discipline. With evidence and ideas at hand, think about your own story. I, for one, could live without the glass trophy, and my thousand bucks are now long gone -- blown on the Pioneer amp. But along the way, I picked up something definitely as lasting for me in its own way as Blood on the Tracks. I became a better teacher.

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Thomas Hallock is a professor of English at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.


Thomas Hallock

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