An expanded version of this story will appear as part of an article on excellence in teaching in the next issue of Conduit, our research and alumni news magazine.
Assistant Professor Paul Valiant of Brown University’s Department of Computer Science (Brown CS) has just received a Sheridan Junior Faculty Teaching Fellowship that will enable his participation in the Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning’s Certificate 1 program. Throughout this seminar, faculty will refine their teaching and assessment strategies, give and receive peer feedback, and explore their own practices and beliefs about teaching. The end goal is to enable participants to improve the learning of their students and their own experiences as teachers.
The circumstances leading to Paul’s pursuit of the fellowship, if not universal, are certainly widespread. “When people begin an academic career,” he explains, “their levels of teaching experience vary. This could be a function of the funding or even the size of the program where they obtained their PhDs. In the humanities, for example, or at a state school, teaching might be a necessity for doctoral candidates.” Valiant also mentions a possible tension between teaching and research, citing some post-doctoral fellowships that specifically forbid the student from serving as a teacher.
Since joining Brown CS two years ago, Paul’s efforts as a new professor have been marked by close attention to his own methods as well as careful analysis of feedback and evaluations received from students and colleagues. “Working with students has to change your worldview,” he says. “If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong! People ask why I have so many chairs in my office, and it’s because I need them for my teaching assistants. They’re my peers, and they’ve really helped shape my efforts to make meaningful changes in tests, homework, and my lecture style.”
Even as he began testing new techniques and adjusting his teaching, Paul saw value in the rigor and interactivity of a formal certificate program. “At the time I applied for the fellowship,” Valiant says, “I was asking colleagues for their advice, and among other things, they pointed me back to information I’d received about the Sheridan Center. I like that Brown faculty members are known for continually refining their teaching methods, and this program came very highly recommended.”
The five-module program begins in September, and Paul expresses a great deal of enthusiasm to get started. It’s clear from even a brief conversation that he’s thought carefully not just about classroom style or homework format but education at large. “Any computer science curriculum should include writing,” he notes. “Think back to eighth grade, when your work for Math class is just a series of equations, but in History or English, you’re expected to use language to address complex ideas with sophisticated arguments. We’d gain from asking students to apply that same sophistication here.”
He offers a theory about education that applies to teachers as well as students, and one that he can put into practice in the Certificate One program: “Arguably, when we’re asked to explain something in writing, or to teach it, we understand it better. If you can go beyond the textbook example, extrapolate, then communicate convincingly, you’ve probably learned successfully.”