Teaching takes the spotlight during Faculty Bulldog Days

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Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway sat at the head of the table in his role as a student in Kathryn Lofton's "Religion and Popular Culture Class" during the inaugural Faculty Bulldog Days. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Striding confidently along College Street on a spring afternoon, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway was nearly at the steps of Harkness Hall when he realized he’d forgotten his laptop.

The computer was back at his office, a block down the street. For a moment he considered going to retrieve it, then decided to keep moving forward. He smiled as he opened the heavy door.

“I don’t want to be late for class,” Holloway said.

Indeed not. Across the university last week, faculty and administrators found themselves entering different doorways and navigating new classrooms — all in the interests of academic exploration. Like Holloway, they were taking part in Yale’s first Faculty Bulldog Days, which invited professors to sit in on colleagues’ classes and experience different ways of teaching.

There were economists taking Shakespeare, French professors learning engineering, and chemists studying decorative arts.

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley attended Paola Bertucci’s class on “The Scientific Revolution,” which focused on early microscopes. “It was fascinating to hear about reactions to the first images produced of microscopic organisms,” Cooley said. “Paola’s lecture tied together cultural and scientific threads in an interesting way. Today’s scientists struggle with how to engage non-scientists in their work, and Paola’s lecture showed how it can be done.”

More than 100 faculty members opened their classrooms to colleagues for the five-day event, and there were more than 250 faculty visits to classes. “It was really strong participation for our first year doing this,” said Jennifer Frederick, executive director of the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, which organized Faculty Bulldog Days. “I’d count it as a success.”

As for Holloway, recently named the Edmund S. Morgan Professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies, he attended Kathryn Lofton’s “Religion and Popular Culture” class. “I’ve known Katie as a colleague for years, but I’ve never had a chance to see her lecture or teach,” he said.

Holloway sat near the front of the class, as students filtered into the room. The Beyoncé song, “Drunk in Love,” played in the background. A student parked himself next to Holloway, looking over and saying, “Hey there!” before Holloway returned the greeting cheerfully.

Lofton took charge effortlessly, in a session that blended professional wrestling, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and the writings of anthropologist Clifford Geertz. But Lofton began with Beyoncé.

“Anyone have any idea why ‘Drunk in Love’ has been playing?” she asked. She looked at Holloway, who explained he was unfamiliar with the song.

“You’ve never heard this song?” Lofton asked. “You’re learning something already!”

There were lessons galore. Scott Strobel, deputy provost for teaching and learning, and one of the guiding forces behind Faculty Bulldog Days, said his favorite moment of the event was when he saw a quartet of professors huddled after a class, chatting. If the idea was to stimulate conversations about teaching, Strobel said, it worked.

Jeffrey Park, professor of geology and geophysics, went to three classes: Paul Freedman’s “History of Food and Cuisine,” Peter Purdue’s “China: From Present to Past,” and Michael Donoghue’s “Principles of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.”

“I have been teaching undergraduate courses mostly in seminar format for the past few years, so it was interesting to attend courses in lecture format,” Park noted. “All three lectures I attended were stand-alone performances that didn’t regurgitate textbook material. Instead, Donoghue riffed on the themes of the class reading with cool examples from species evolution. Purdue ruminated on the role of the state in protecting a nation from famine. Freedman lectured on the rise of natural foods as a movement rooted in the 1970s. I am thinking of lecturing intro-geology again, and these kinds of lecture riffs away from textbook material would make my lectures more interesting.”

Likewise, Park said, it was enlightening to have colleagues sit in on his “Earth System Science” class.

“The faculty who visited my own seminar class made many comments afterwards and told me they might borrow some of the pedagogical ideas on display in the class,” Park said. “During my classtime Q&A with students, I noticed that one prof was scowling ‘No!’ in response to one of my questions, and I scolded him for giving the answer away to the students. The class liked that.”

Ruth Koizim, professor of French, also saw both sides of Faculty Bulldog Days. She attended Eric Dufresne’s “Engineering Innovation and Design” course and said she was “thrilled” to see the degree of interactive teaching and learning Dufresne brought to the course. An added treat, she said, was seeing a former student in the role of professor.

Koizim’s turn to teach would be the next day. “I’m fairly sure that they all have some knowledge of French,” she said of her visitors, “although one has already made me promise not to call on him!”

She looked forward to the class. “I hope that this program will be offered again next year,” she said. “It was great fun and really can break down barriers between disciplines and departments.”

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Jim Shelton: [email protected], 203-361-8332