Seeing Yale from the other side of the lectern

Each year Faculty Bulldog Days encourages faculty to step out of their own classrooms to observe how colleagues across campus practice the craft of teaching.
Professor Larry Gladney sitting in on an organic chemistry lecture by Scott Miller during Faculty Bulldog Days in 2023.

Yale physics professor Larry Gladney sitting in on an organic chemistry lecture by Scott Miller during Faculty Bulldog Days in 2023. (Photo by Tobi Makinde)

One day last spring, Yale professor Larry Gladney stepped into a lecture hall off Prospect Street, and found a seat in a part of the classroom where he seldom sits: among the students.

Even more unusual, Gladney, a physicist who studies the intersection of particle physics and cosmology, was visiting a class at Yale Divinity School (YDS) called “New Testament Interpretation.”

The topic of discussion that day was the Epistles of Paul, the books of the New Testament attributed to the Apostle Paul. During the discussion, Yii-Jan Lin, an associate professor at YDS and Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), highlighted notable sections from Paul’s letters, juxtaposed with pieces of art from the first century. The combination effectively demonstrated, among other insights, why Paul’s words would have been interpreted differently by his contemporaries than they might be by today’s readers, Gladney said.

These aren’t questions or concepts that Gladney will ever explore in his own teaching, but that wasn’t necessarily the point of his visit to Lin’s classroom. He was there as part of Yale’s Faculty Bulldog Days, an annual program that encourages faculty to step out of their own classrooms to observe how others on campus practice the craft of teaching.

For Gladney, who has been a university professor for more than three decades, visiting the YDS classroom was a reminder that scholars across campus are grappling with many different questions, and using just as many strategies to reach students.

We all get wrapped up in the hard questions that we’re tackling, but there are people dealing with a universe of questions across campus — and in very, very different ways,” said Gladney, who is also the dean of science and the Phyllis A. Wallace Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development for the FAS. “As usual in a university classroom, I found myself become engaged in new questions and thinking about things that I hadn’t before.

Taking the time to shut off thoughts about your own questions, even for just 45 minutes, and to contemplate how others are dealing with their questions, it can’t help but inform how you think.”

Professor Juliana Ramos-Ruano sits in on a class during Faculty Bulldog Days in 2015
Professor Juliana Ramos-Ruano sits in on a class during Faculty Bulldog Days in 2015. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Since 2015, the Faculty Bulldog Days program, coordinated by the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, has encouraged faculty to experience the classroom from the other side of the lectern.

(The 2024 Faculty Bulldog Days will be held April 8-12. Faculty interested in participating can register here.)

The program’s name is a variation of Bulldog Days, the popular program offered to admitted undergraduates. Each spring, students who have been accepted into Yale College are invited to campus to get a better sense of university life, including within Yale’s classrooms.

The concept of offering a similar opportunity to teachers was first suggested by Scott Strobel, who is now Yale’s provost but at the time was deputy provost of teaching and learning.

At the time, it occurred to him that visiting students experience more of a Yale education than most of the faculty who teach here,” says Jennifer Frederick, executive director of the Poorvu Center and associate provost for academic initiatives.

Faculty Bulldog Days creates new, low-stakes opportunities for faculty to engage with colleagues and encounter interesting teaching practices across the Yale campus.”

Every year, Tamar Gendler, the dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, tries to attend a few different courses during Faculty Bulldog Days. Gendler, who is also the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy and professor of psychology and cognitive science, says she loves having the chance to see her colleagues, who are some of the world’s leading thinkers in their fields, do what they do best.

One year she decided to join economist William Nordhaus’s “Intermediate Economics” class, and was struck at his sheer mastery of the content. While he spoke with what seemed like a “casual effortlessness,” it was nonetheless evident that he’d composed each sentence with perfect precision.

Expertise is one of the things that we offer,” she said. “Just seeing what all these other forms of expertise look like is also something we can all benefit from.”

Last year Gendler signed up for four different classes: sociologist Julia Adams’s seminar on “sociological imagination”; a lecture by professor Frank Griffel from the Department of Religious Studies; a course on artificial intelligence taught by Tesca Fitzgerald, an assistant professor of computer science; and a marketing course taught by Yoshinori Fujikawa, a visiting professor at Yale School of Management.

And I have never gone to visit somebody's class without coming out with an idea of what I want to do in mine,” she said.

A chance to step away

Each year, dozens of Yale faculty members from departments across campus — from chemistry to philosophy, computer science to art history — open their classrooms to colleagues during Faculty Bulldog Days.

The variety of courses offer just a glimpse of the broad range of expertise — and subjects taught — across campus: “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky” (LITR 245); “Race, Medicine, and Technology” (SOCY 351/545); “Introduction to Nuclear and Elementary Particle Physics” (PHYS 442b); “Vampires, Castles, and Werewolves” (ENGL/WGSS 163).

And dozens of participants from across campus — including faculty, but also administrators, graduate student fellows, and university librarians, among others — take advantage of the opportunity to visit one or more classes.

The program appeals to different people for different reasons, Frederick said. Some may just want to draw insights from others who teach classes in the same forum that they do, whether in the lecture halls or intimate seminars. Others want to get a fresh perspective on their own particular discipline.

And sometimes they’re interested in attending classes for purely intellectual reasons,” she said. “Maybe they’re a physicist but love music, so they attend a music history class. Or maybe they studied French long ago and want to visit a French literature class to see what they remember.”

In some classrooms, faculty deliver their normal lecture as if their guests aren’t there, offering an authentic experience. In others, the instructors make it a point to offer their guests some context about the day’s lesson, encourage them to join the discussion, or even break the class into groups so that the visitors can speak with the students.

One thing that surprises many people is just how much pedagogy you can pick up, even when you don’t know the content,” Frederick said. “Sometimes it helps to not be an expert in the subject matter. You may be more open to the teaching strategies being used.”

Jonathan Reuning-Scherer, a senior lecturer in statistics, has participated in the program since it was first introduced nearly a decade ago. “I thought it was such a great idea,” he said. “I love statistics, but what I really love is to think about how people can best learn about statistics.”

But that doesn’t mean Reuning-Scherer, who has appointments in the Department of Statistics and Data Science and Yale School of the Environment, visits just classes within his own discipline. He’s observed courses offered across multiple departments, alert for techniques, drastic or subtle, that might inform his own teaching. He watches for how instructors might use technology, such as video or online resources. Do they incorporate group exercises? How do they use lighting?

And if the class is a lecture, he tracks how long the instructor speaks before shifting gears. Do they ask questions? Do they introduce other distractions to grab the students’ attention? Do they attempt humor? If so, how does it go over?

I’m always drawn to a good lecture: I like to see how others keep students engaged in time and space,” he said. “Seeing how others teach offers a chance to see how much teaching comes down to things like your tone of voice and pacing. I’ve learned so much by just getting to see how other people adapt things to teach completely different subjects.”

Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, a professor of anthropology in the FAS, who studies the evolution of male-female relationships, monogamy, pair-bonding, and fatherhood, has also participated in the program numerous times, joining classes far outside his own expertise.

On one occasion, he visited a class taught by Michael Faison, a lecturer of astronomy and director of the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium. (“I had heard he is a fantastic teacher and wanted to learn from him,” Fernandez-Duque said.) On another, he took in a lecture by Robert Shiller, Sterling Professor of Economics and recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize. (“I had never listened to a Nobel Laureate teaching!”) And on another, he joined philosopher Shelly Kagan’s popular course, “Death” (PHIL 176). (“Here is a teacher who can sit on his desk — literally on the desk — and talk uninterrupted for 50 minutes about philosophy, and you cannot believe the hour is over.”)

Faculty Bulldog Days is a celebration of what a university should be,” Fernandez-Duque said. “Visiting my colleagues’ classes makes me feel like a student again. And I have opened up my classroom for the same reason: I love to share what I do with others.”

Having a chance to step away from the podium and simply observe a lesson, Gendler said, can be a transformative experience. A decade ago, she received a Mellon New Directions fellowship that enabled her to take a full academic year away from teaching so that she could attend classes taught by Yale colleagues — including courses in psychology and neuroscience.

The experience was so powerful that as FAS dean she created a program, Teaching Relief for Learning, that similarly allows senior faculty members to take a semester away from teaching to attend other classes on campus.

The opportunity to do that in an intense and focused way over an entire semester is transformative,” she said. “But even just the opportunity to do it for an hour is really astoundingly effective in causing faculty to understand what it feels like from the student perspective.”

Gendler finds that sitting in a classroom among Yale students — who she describes as the university’s “cross pollinators” — is not only intellectually interesting but spiritually sustaining. “Being able to experience the intellectual breadth of this place from the perspective of these students, who move from one space to another every day, is incredibly important — especially when we can get lost in our own world.”

Professor David Evans teaches his course, “Dynamic Earth,” during Faculty Bulldog Days in October 2016
Professor David Evans teaches his course, “Dynamic Earth,” during Faculty Bulldog Days in October 2016 with attendee Joseph Wolenski, Research Scientist and Lecturer in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department.

Celebrating the wonder’

While it’s hard to quantify the success of the program, Frederick said, the primary goal is to make teaching more public. So just having the program in place, and to have faculty members opening their doors to visitors, satisfies that goal.

It also raises the profile of teaching and its critically important role in Yale’s mission, she said. Importantly, it does this by highlighting well-known professors who have been teaching students for generations — and newer faculty members whose teaching might otherwise be observed by only a small number of students each year.

So we learn about people who might not otherwise come on our radar but who are doing extraordinary things,” she said.

For professors like Larry Gladney, it also offers a moment to take a step back and recognize the unique talents of colleagues working across the Yale campus.

It’s not often that we really engage in what we do and reflect on how wonderful what we do actually is,” he said. “It’s a reminder to appreciate how wonderful both the students and the instructors on this campus are. Really, to me, it’s a chance to celebrate the wonder of what a university provides.”

Registration is now open for the 2024 Faculty Bulldog Days. Faculty members can review a list of more than 80 classrooms that will be open to visitors, and register, at this site.

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