Student Spotlight: Claire Dillon, PhD Candidate in Art History and Archaeology
Claire Dillon is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. She studies the intersections of visual cultures, identities, and faiths in the medieval Mediterranean, focusing on the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. Claire served as a Teaching Observation Fellow (TOF) for the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) from 2019-2020 and as a Teaching Consultant (TC) during the 2020-21 academic year.
TOFs participate in supportive, formative, peer-to-peer teaching observation activities and Teaching Consultants provide teaching observations, facilitate microteaching sessions, and run mid-course reviews for their graduate student peers who request these services.
In this spotlight, Claire discusses her motivation to participate as a fellow and a consultant, and how these experiences helped with her own pedagogical development and provided her with new perspectives on teaching practices. Claire also shares teaching strategies for graduate student instructors.
“Being observed was one of the most useful experiences that I’ve had as an instructor, and the continuous peer-to-peer engagement provided by TOF was invaluable. During a class, observers have greater capacity to take note of the smaller details in instruction and students’ responses to it, and observers see your teaching materials with fresh perspective. The observation process also forces you to become more conscious of your approach to instruction; my teaching transformed from an intuitive practice to a methodical and strategic one.”
PhD Candidate in Art History and Archaeology
Role at the CTL: Teaching Observation Fellow (TOF), 2019-20, Teaching Consultant (TC), 2020-21
What motivated you to apply for the Teaching Consultant position at the CTL? What did you gain from the experience?
I became a Teaching Consultant to further develop my skills as an educator, and to continue my momentum as a former Teaching Observation Fellow. Over the years, the CTL has provided me with so many new strategies to create welcoming and effective classroom environments, and I hoped to share some of what I learned with my peers. Having previously worked with students in different capacities—as a museum docent, managing high school and college interns, running art education workshops, and so on—working as a consultant was a great opportunity to continue refining my skills within the context of higher education.
I especially wanted to continue this work in an interdisciplinary setting. Meeting with instructors and undergraduates in different departments provides new perspectives on teaching practices, diverse instructional materials, and more. For example, my observations of literature courses helped me reconsider how I use texts in my art history classes. Working as a consultant often provided me with as many new ideas as those I tried to share with my peers, and I wanted to participate in this collaborative and interdisciplinary community.
Prior to becoming a Teaching Consultant, you also had extensive experience as a participant in the Teaching Observation Fellows program. Both of these programs have emphasized peer-to-peer observation in a variety of formats. Could you elaborate on what you have enjoyed most about your engagement with these peer-to-peer observations?
Being observed was one of the most useful experiences that I’ve had as an instructor, and the continuous peer-to-peer engagement provided by TOF was invaluable. During a class, observers have greater capacity to take note of the smaller details in instruction and students’ responses to it, and observers see your teaching materials with fresh perspective. The observation process also forces you to become more conscious of your approach to instruction; my teaching transformed from an intuitive practice to a methodical and strategic one. Through these experiences, I learned to revisit the pedagogical models I’d experienced as a student, and to pay closer attention to students’ body language and other subtle cues while teaching. Working out these ideas through observations and debriefs helped me become a better teacher and observer: in both settings I gained a broader perspective of what instruction looks like and how it can be evaluated and discussed.
Looking back on your engagements with the CTL, in what ways have your own teaching practices been strengthened by your sustained pedagogical development through observations, the TOF experience, and/or the TC position?
In addition to the practices mentioned above, my experience as a fellow and consultant helped me better articulate my own pedagogical development. This was especially useful as I completed the advanced track of the Teaching Development Program (TDP) this year, and began to consider how these skills can be leveraged within and beyond academia. The CTL provides so many opportunities to cultivate teaching strategies not only by learning and implementing them, but also by analyzing, discussing, and presenting them in a range of settings, from programs with sustained cohorts of graduate students to private consultations for the job market.
My experiences as a TOF and TC also allowed me to implement the strategies that I had learned in the Innovative Teaching Summer Institute, the Inclusive Teaching Seminar, and all of the other CTL programs I’ve attended. Working with peers created unique opportunities to reflect on and expand our knowledge by exchanging ideas and trying out new techniques, and this community was all the more valuable after we were thrown into online instruction and had to quickly adjust our methods of instruction. Teaching is always a work in progress, and this collaborative experience allowed me to fully take advantage of that process.
Additionally, please provide 1-2 strategies that you use in your own teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice.
Decode your discipline: The process of decoding your discipline entails identifying obstacles that students will encounter when beginning to learn the skills of a given field. Since graduate instructors have years of experience in their disciplines, it can be difficult to anticipate the challenges of approaching this material for the first time. A decoding interview is one way to address this issue: presenting a disciplinary task to someone outside of your field can provide new insight to identify gaps between an instructor’s expectations and their students’ abilities to meet them. Breaking down expectations in an interdisciplinary conversation helps instructors clarify their language and lessons to better support their students throughout a course.
Implement backward design and scaffolding: Backward design begins by identifying a course’s learning objectives and determining how they will be assessed throughout a course, before designing the rest of the class around these components. By moving backward from the goals and assessments, it’s easier to design all lessons and assignments so that they cumulatively prepare students to meet their objectives. This allows instructors to scaffold, or create additional supports for students, as they gradually learn to master specific skills and concepts. While many instructors do this instinctively, practicing backward design and scaffolding as deliberate strategies helped me identify gaps in my instruction. For example, after a decoding interview about the first assessment of many art history courses—the formal analysis paper—I used backward design to create new scaffolds for my students before giving them this assignment. I decided to incorporate more deliberate, in-class practice with this skill, and designed a shorter preliminary assessment to help prepare them for the paper assignment. After writing the paper, students provided consistent feedback that practicing these skills in and outside of class enhanced their capabilities and confidence when writing the paper.