Preparing Graduate Students to Teach: Another Yale Legacy 50+ Years Strong

In his 2013 inaugural speech, President Peter Salovey emphasized that Yale’s educational mission exists “in the midst of a teaching and learning revolution.” As the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning leads this revolution both outside of Yale and within its walls, it is appropriate to reflect on how we have trained graduate students in the past.

In 1964, the late Dr. John Perry Miller, former Yale economics professor and Dean of the Graduate School, described the challenge of graduate teaching training while writing for the Magazine of the Yale Graduate School.* Dean Miller criticized both himself and the school’s administration in their usage of graduate students as teaching assistants:

…policy concerning the use of teaching assistants is dominated, not by philosophy of education, but by considerations extraneous to educational objectives. Specifically, there seems to be a tacit conspiracy between the Graduate Dean and the central administrative officers at the expense of the true interests of the students, both undergraduate and graduate. Graduate Deans and Graduate Faculties are, too often, more concerned with recruiting and supporting graduate students than with training them in the art of teaching… Likewise, the central administrative offices, who are often trying to do more than they can do well with the available resources, are more than occasionally attracted by the budgetary advantages of using teaching assistants to staff some of the larger courses.

Currently graduate students may face a plight similar to what their predecessors faced 50 years ago; your department and/or your supervisor do not train you how to teach, but you are certainly expected to do so. However, the graduate students of today now have a proverbial “ace up their sleeve”- the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

The development of programs for graduate student teaching fellows has taken nearly half a century to culminate as the modernized CTL. Prior to 1964 graduate students in the sciences primarily taught laboratory sections, and it was rare for humanities and social sciences graduate students to teach at all. In 1964, Dean Miller presented a program to expand opportunities for graduate students to teach at Yale:

A new program for teaching interns made possible by a recent grant to Yale by the Danforth Foundation reflects a major reorientation of the University’s policy with respect to the training of college and university teacher the use of graduate teaching assistants. In such a program the Graduate School must reconcile its responsibilities to initiate into the art of teaching those who will constitute college and university faculties in the future with the responsibility of the College to provide excellent undergraduate instruction. A university which would fulfill its mission must assume these twin responsibilities. The new program attests to Yale’s determination to do so. If successful, this experiment may prove to be of wide significance.

Dr. Miller’s approach to improving graduate teaching was innovative both in its admission of a problem with graduate teaching and its painting of a rich picture of the future of education at Yale.

Today, Yale recognizes that professional development in the academy must include teaching and has taken great efforts to improve the quality of teacher training for graduate students. It is now almost universally true that Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students teach at some point in their careers at Yale. Since Dean Miller’s original proposal in 1964, teaching opportunities for graduate students have been expanded in notable ways at Yale. In 1998, the Graduate Teaching Center was founded and now operates part of the CTL. With support from the McDougal family, a dedicated staff of twenty-two trained Graduate Teaching Fellows across Yale disciplines is trained to provide teaching consultations and facilitate workshops for their peers, including Fundamentals of Teaching workshop series and Advanced Teaching Workshops. These workshops and programs provide training on diverse and important topics in higher education, from how to use instructional technology to the role of teaching fellows in the undergraduate experience. Given opportunities like these, many students complete the professional development necessary for the Certificate in College Teaching Preparation (CCTP) program, which is recorded on transcripts. Additionally, in 2009, the Associates in Teaching (AT) Program was developed to provide graduate students opportunities to develop new courses with faculty teaching partners. This program is unique in that graduate students are involved in every aspect of course design, from planning new courses to overhauling old courses. Just last year, Yale revised its teaching fellow policies. The new system accounts for five-types of teaching (grader, tutor, discussion section leader, lab leader and part-time acting instructor) with compensation based on two levels of time commitment. This system provides flexibility for departments to imagine new ways for graduate students and faculty members to teach. Expanded teaching opportunities coupled with CTL training, and the CCTP program now provide the professional development many graduate students need to be competitive in the academic job market.

Yale remains reflective and poised for change. In 2014, with the leadership of Dr. Scott Strobel, The Deputy Provost for Teaching and Learning, various units that support teaching and learning efforts across Yale merged to become the newly branded Center for Teaching and Learning. The CTL unification brought together human resources from all over campus, including instructional technologists, writing and language specialists, tutoring services, and training programs to create a stronger culture of teaching and learning at Yale. In addition to increased support through collaboration, the CTL is expanding in order to better support its faculty and future faculty. Of note, Dr. Nancy Niemi has joined the CTL as Director of Faculty Teaching Initiatives and, for the first time, with support from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, four Teaching Postdoctoral Scholars starting teaching at Yale in the fall of 2015. The teaching postdoc is a new breed of post-graduate training that is expanding nationally.

Yale is a national leader in undergraduate instruction, relying on evidence-based teaching strategies. Initiated in 2004, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, CTL staff offers The National Academies Summer Institutes to train faculty in evidence-based teaching models annually. In 2015 alone, 247 instructors representing 103 colleges, universities and institutions including Yale participated in Summer Institute training. Fifty years ago giving up valuable research time over the summer in lieu of pedagogical training would be unfathomable, perhaps laughable. However, this is the way in which Yale leads the conversation about teaching. It took 50 years to get this far, and the next 50 years hold even greater potential for innovations in higher education and better preparation for future faculty.

Written by Robert Wickham with Kaury Kucera and Elizabeth Morse Luoma

*John Perry Miller, The Teaching Assistantship: Chore or Challenge?, Ventures Magazine of the Yale Graduate School Fall 1964, 1-5.