By Craig Chamberlain
With a recently minted doctorate from the UI, Nancy Ma began her career as a professor just two months ago.
Just as important, she has begun her career as a teacher.
Hired by the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Missouri, Rolla, Ma says her transition onto the faculty was surprisingly smooth, at least compared with the experience of some colleagues. "I wasn't in the shock or the panic that I see a lot of people in," she said that shock or panic resulting from many new professors essentially learning to teach on the job.
Ma, on the other hand, was well-prepared, and feeling "very, very fortunate" for the training she received during her time at the UI. That included extensive experience as a teaching assistant (TA) and even experience in training other TAs. She also got nothing but encouragement to improve her teaching from mechanical engineering professors John Walker and Richard Buckius, who advised and supervised her.
As a result of that encouragement and her completion of specified requirements, Ma received one of the university's first 25 Graduate Teacher Certificates (GTC), issued for the first time last year.
That was appropriate, because producing more professors like Ma is the main goal of the certificate program, says Marne Helgesen, head of the Division of Instructional Development in the university's Office of Instructional Resources, where the program was started and is based.
Adapted from a program started at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the graduate teacher certificate is still a relatively new idea, Helgesen said. There are few programs like it in higher education.
This year about 100 graduate students already have signed up to work toward the GTC, Helgesen said. They also can seek the new Advanced Graduate Teacher Certificate, which includes many more requirements.
The point of the certificates is not to train graduate students as teaching assistants, though that is a side benefit of the program. Instructional orientation programs, required of all first-time TAs, are offered at the campus level through Helgesen's office and by some colleges and departments. Some have been in place for more than 35 years.
The certificate programs were started in response to growing interest in promoting excellence in teaching by graduate students, faculty members and the administrators who hire them, Helgesen said. "At some campuses, when they're hiring people, a lot of times they not only ask you to give a seminar on your research, but also they may ask you to teach a lesson in your field; they may ask you for a teaching philosophy."
Developing a philosophy is one of the things required in obtaining the advanced certificate. It's also one assignment in Teaching in the College and University Setting, a course started several years ago for graduate students and faculty members.
As evidence of a movement toward greater attention to teaching, Helgesen likes to cite the recent letter she received from a former student in that course. The student, working toward a doctorate in civil engineering and an academic career, had written an excellent statement of his teaching philosophy, Helgesen remembered, but said in his letter that he'd doubted he would ever need it outside the course. When he arrived at Auburn University as a professor, however, he discovered that a teaching philosophy was required of all professors up for tenure.
The certificate program and the course are only two programs initiated to promote excellence in teaching. In the spring of 1996, the campus also established a Teaching Advancement Board, which in turn created the Provost's Initiative on Teaching Assessment, the latter to develop innovative means for assessing quality teaching. Several individual colleges and departments also have started their own teaching improvement programs for faculty members and TAs.
Helgesen described it as a "groundswell of activity interested in teaching," though she cautioned that the campus is not moving away from its primary mission of research and scholarship. "We want to promote good teaching, but a faculty member must get tenure, and their research and scholarship must be of a caliber to get it," she said.
"What is happening is there's this critical mass that's gathering of graduate students who are being exposed more and more to the groundswell of activities on campus [related to teaching] that we never saw before."
To receive the GTC, a student must attend one of the several instructional orientations required of all first-time TAs; teach at least two semester-long classes; attend several hours of instructional workshops, classes or seminars during the semesters they are teaching; participate in an exercise in which they are videotaped or observed in class by a faculty member, followed by consultation afterward; review student evaluations of their teaching and write a self-assessment; and complete additional documentation.
The advanced certificate, to start with, requires twice as much teaching and time in workshops, but it also adds time teaching other TAs; at least a semester being mentored by a faculty member and being a mentor to a junior TA, all related to teaching issues; time using their discipline in community service; and investigation into teaching and learning issues, and instructional technology. They also must develop a teaching portfolio, and demonstrate excellence in teaching, determined through classroom observations and student evaluations.
The advanced certificate deals with more than just teaching, and can be described as an early apprenticeship for the future academic, Helgesen said. Faculty members, at least at major public research institutions such as the UI, are expected to devote time and energy to research, teaching and public service, "and the advanced certificate gives graduate students the kind of opportunity to experience the juggling of those three things before they become an assistant professor," she said.
"We believe it's our responsibility to provide them with experiences,
activities and programs that will responsibly prepare them to hit the first
day running when they take their first job as a college professor
to be one leg up."