Student Spotlight: Allison DeWitt, Ph.D. Candidate in Italian and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society

by | Apr 2, 2018

Allison DeWitt is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Italian and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society with a certificate in Feminist Pedagogy from the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality. Her dissertation is on representations of geography in Medieval Italy with a specific focus on Dante’s Divine Comedy and the world beyond Europe.

At Columbia, DeWitt has taught Italian, Introduction to Women and Gender Studies, and a summer course of her own design called Reading Dante Now. Next year she will be teaching Literature Humanities. In her interactions with the CTL, DeWitt participated in and later helped organize the four-day, cross-disciplinary Innovative Teaching Summer Institute for Columbia graduate student instructors. She also served as senior fellow and mentor for the CTL’s Teaching Observation Fellowship program.

In this Spotlight story, DeWitt shares how these experiences strengthened her own teaching practice, especially when approaching a class with students from a range of academic backgrounds or disciplines. She also shares teaching tips for engaging and motivating students, collecting feedback, and giving students more active roles in the classroom.

“Almost all of the major lesson plans or syllabi I have designed have been through institutes and fellowship programs where I received targeted feedback in a supportive environment. The connections we make through these programs almost always continue beyond the CTL’s offerings and create an ever-growing network of teachers and colleagues throughout the university.”

Allison DeWitt

Ph.D. Candidate in Italian and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University

After having participated in the CTL’s Innovative Teaching Summer Institute (ITSI) during the summer of 2013, you stepped up to help organize the event in 2016 and 2017. During ITSI, participants share ideas with each other in interdisciplinary groups in order to develop innovative and well-designed teaching assignments. What is the value of these peer-to-peer interactions?

I’ve seen many of the bonds that are formed at ITSI continue beyond the summer. I believe the Institute gives graduate students an idea of how effective interdisciplinary collaboration can be and inspires them to continue to seek those types of interactions on their own and through other CTL offerings.

For many participants, ITSI is the first time that they have interacted with graduate students outside their departments in a professional setting. We carefully group students based on the goals set forth in their proposal in the hopes that all table members will share some common ground, but they often come from very diverse academic and pedagogical backgrounds. One participant told me that she had actually come with an assignment that she had run many times in class, and as soon as she presented it a groupmate pointed out a digital tool that would allow for more student interaction.

Since first participating in ITSI, you have worked closely with the CTL to plan and develop this program. How have these various experiences with ITSI impacted your teaching?

A lot of the work that goes into planning the Institute is very similar to the work that goes into lesson planning. However, instead of designing activities to help students prepare for a final paper or exam, my work planning ITSI necessitated that I present pedagogical strategies that can be broadly applied across disciplines. I needed to provide examples that are relevant for participants in both the humanities and the sciences but also speak to the specific challenges different disciplines face.

This approach to lesson planning, taking into account where your students are coming from and their specific strengths, is not something that I had focused on greatly in my language and literature classrooms. However, it is rare that I will teach a classroom full of majors in my discipline. As I go forward with my lesson planning I am more conscious of my students’ academic backgrounds and look for opportunities to allow them to share their specific expertise with the class.

ITSI participants can apply to the Teaching Observation Fellows (TOF) program. You went on to mentor TOFs as a senior fellow in that program. How does the TOF program help graduate students build on their experience at ITSI?

The TOF program teaches Fellows to focus on how a lesson plan or assignment helps student learning and what we can measure in order to judge how effective it is. TOFs focus on these skills over a full academic year, looking at them in diverse disciplinary and pedagogical settings. Observing my peers’ teaching made me more aware of what was going on in my classroom. Strategies that I use when conducting observations (surveys, focus groups, etc.) can also be used with my students.

The same philosophy goes into ITSI, but the fast-paced, intensive environment at ITSI can make it hard to get it all down. When participants return to the classroom in the fall they can face some challenges in implementing their assignment. Fellows in the TOF program can actually have a peer come observe the class (or classes) in which they try out their assignment to get targeted feedback on what improvements could be made.

Looking back on your various engagements with the CTL, in what ways has interacting with peers strengthened your own teaching practices?

My work with the CTL has been so important to me during my graduate career because it has validated that seriously focusing on your teaching is acceptable for a PhD candidate. Connecting with like-minded peers who are also dedicated to improving their pedagogy is really important when we’re often told to prioritize our research and not spend too much time on teaching.

Almost all of the major lesson plans or syllabi I have designed have been through institutes and fellowship programs where I received targeted feedback in a supportive environment. The connections my peers and I make through these programs almost always continue beyond the CTL’s offerings and create an ever-growing network of teachers and colleagues throughout the university.

Teaching Tips

Below, DeWitt offers her own tips and suggestions for engaging and motivating students, from collecting feedback to giving students more active roles in the classroom. Consider using some of these approaches in your own teaching practice.

On Collecting Student Feedback…

I collect a lot of anonymous feedback over the course of the semester. I usually start the semester by asking students about their goals for the course, what they are looking forward to, and what they are worried about. In the middle of the semester I ask for feedback on what has been going well and what they would like to see done differently. Sometimes if I introduce a new kind of assignment in class I have them fill out a quick notecard at the end to hear how it went for them. I always make sure to address the feedback in class so that they feel their voice has been heard even if I can’t follow every suggestion.

On Research in Teaching…

As graduate students, we’re not often able to teach syllabi that we design, but there are still many ways to incorporate our research and interests into the courses we teach. Students generally respond positively to learning more about their TA or instructor and our enthusiasm for our subject matter is often contagious. When I teach Elementary Italian, I use examples from medieval literature whenever possible to discuss grammatical structures. When I teach Dante, students are often fascinated by the debates surrounding Dante and Islam, which are relevant to my research.

On Reflective Teaching and Learning…

After students have taken the midterm, I ask them to privately reflect on the quality of their work and effort so far, how they prepared for the midterm, and how they felt it went. This way, if they are shocked with their midterm results, we can use these reflections to talk strategy for the rest of the semester.

On Learning Through Leadership…

I’m a very strong believer in putting students to work as leaders in the classroom. In my Elementary Italian class, I had two students each week who were responsible for creating a wiki page documenting important rules and creating practice examples for the grammar covered during class. By the time we got to the end of the semester the students had a review packet ready to prepare for the final. You can also have students serve as discussion leaders and ask them to design activities or write prompts to get at the heart of the materials. They often have great ideas and learn a lot from approaching the class from the perspective of a teacher. When trying an assignment like this, it’s important to emphasize for students the pedagogical rationale and how the class benefits from being shaped by a range of perspectives, rather than just the teacher’s.