A dean’s perspective on how she learned to teach and how she is changing the way teaching is taught.
By Annie Soisson | Photo by Kevin Walsh
When you meet Lynne Pepall, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, it’s easy to imagine that she would be extremely comfortable and successful in the classroom. She is lively, personable, and engaging. But, like most other faculty, she came from the school of hard knocks, and learned to teach on the job. Being a disciplinary expert is necessary in PhD programs, and the traditional focus in doctoral programs is on the discipline and not necessarily pedagogy. This is a long-standing model that produces faculty in higher education, and one that Lynne hopes to change here at Tufts.
How did you become interested in teaching at a university?
I went to the University of Toronto, and I was one of the few women studying Math and Economics. For that program I was advised to take a course called ‘The History of Economic Thought.’ The course had a wonderfully broad perspective and I loved it. For the first time there was no math, there were no problem sets; it was a very open ended course. I realized through that course how much I loved economics. I was completely engaged by the course material. It was the professor of that course who suggested to me to continue my studies and go to the University of Cambridge. His suggestion really influenced my decision to continue on to do a PhD in economics. I don’t think professors realize the impact they can have on students. I was very lucky and received a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend Cambridge for my doctoral work.
When I got to Cambridge, it was a very different model of education. There were no classes for doctoral students. You were expected to form a relationship with your professors and design your course of study. It was also a kind of “sink or swim” approach. I learned to be very self-motivated. Indirectly, it was very good training to be an academic. There was no road map. I needed to know how to have conversations with faculty and to find my own direction. However, being in England did make it harder to re-enter academia back here!
When I did return to Canada I began to teach at Concordia University in Montreal. I was given a classroom and a course. This was very difficult at first, not having had any training in teaching. And yet it was through teaching that I really began to understand my discipline. Teaching really deepens your intellectual grounding in your discipline. Then I came to Tufts and I was pleasantly surprised by how supportive senior faculty members were of junior faculty. They understood that teaching is important, and they would talk to their junior colleagues about it and help mentor them.
What were your beginnings as a teacher like?
My style, when I first started teaching, was very constrained. I was like a robot – no sense of humor – I was an economist, and a woman economist at a time when there were not many. I felt I needed to be very serious, and wanted my students to see me as very skilled and knowing. In economics, there has traditionally been less emphasis than in other fields on experiential or active learning. The unwritten teaching principle in economics is “do unto others what you have had done unto you.”
However, when I worked with “Writing Across the Curriculum” at Tufts I realized that I could become a better teacher and through this program I began to think of ways that I could improve my teaching. This program is a cross disciplinary program. In order to get faculty to think about teaching and how to be a better teacher, it helps to get out from under your discipline. And that’s one of Tufts’ strengths – cross-disciplinary collaborations. Often the challenge is how to sustain those collaborative efforts over time. You probably need a critical mass of faculty involved to support this kind of programming.
Why is learning to teach important for graduate students?
Developing good teaching skills is an important focus in my role as the dean of the graduate school. It is part of why a graduate student might be attracted to Tufts. Research and career opportunities are clearly important. But another reason is that we have a fabulous cohort of undergraduates to mentor. We have the right kind of environment at Tufts to prepare our graduate students to be excellent teachers and it makes sense for us as a small scale research university to develop strong teaching and mentoring skills. This was the motivation for GIFT (The Graduate Institute for Teaching). GIFT allows our graduate students to develop their skills at teaching and mentoring and to be a part of an intellectual community across the schools. The partnership with CELT is extremely important to us. Being exposed to teaching and learning concepts in a carefully designed program is important for our students. When they come to face challenges in teaching, they will have a foundation to draw upon. Because we receive such strong applications each year, it’s clear that our graduate students and faculty think the program is important. We want graduate students to feel integrated into the teaching environment at Tufts and be supported in their efforts to become good teachers.