Student Spotlight: Chas Firestone East, PhD, Department of Italian

by | Oct 11, 2023

Chas Firestone East, PhD, Department of Italian
2023 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching
CTL Teaching Observation Fellow, Senior Teaching Observation Fellow, and Teaching Consultant

Chas Firestone East was awarded the 2023 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. In this spotlight, Chas shares what they emphasized about their teaching in the award process, a focus of their teaching and how the CTL helped them pursue that focus, and their experiences in CTL fellowships. Lastly, Chas shares strategies that they use in their teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice.

What did you emphasize about your teaching in the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching process? 

In my teaching statement, I highlighted my approaches to inclusive teaching and active learning. These are very common terms in the scholarship of teaching and learning that can be applied in many ways, so I made sure to emphasize what these big ideas have meant in my own teaching practice. Inclusive teaching for me is about treating every student as a true individual with their own background and ways of understanding that can contribute to everyone’s learning in the classroom. It also means being aware of how my own background affects my interactions with the material and how to best adjust my methods to meet the needs of the different individuals I encounter. My idea of active learning plays into this practice of recognizing each student as an individual because it encourages me to change how material is being conveyed even in a single class session. Rather than make assumptions about how students were taught in the past or what their learning preferences are, I think about how I can incorporate visual, auditory, and interactive assignments into every lesson plan (and also how I can have people stand up and move around when possible).

What is an important focus of your teaching that the CTL has helped you to pursue or develop?

Whatever offerings you pursue at the CTL, you are going to learn new vocabulary about teaching practices and as a result help put into words what you have been experiencing as a student and instructor up to that point. While you tend to encounter this language for the first time in the CTL, I made a point to bring it very directly into the classroom, involving students in periodic discussions about how they are being taught in class that go beyond “wellness checks.” College students are at a stage where they can have a thorough metacognitive awareness about their own strengths and weaknesses and how a class is being conducted, so I use these discussions to tear back the curtain on my own methods when explaining activities and make students more self-aware learners.

Looking back on your engagement with the CTL, you’ve participated in workshops and served as a Teaching Observation Fellow, Senior Teaching Observation Fellow, and a CTL Teaching Consultant. These opportunities have all demanded close work with colleagues from across campus. In what ways has interacting with peers strengthened your own teaching practices?

One of the main benefits of working with other graduate students as a Senior Teaching Observation Fellow and as a Teaching Consultant has been the highly interdisciplinary nature of our discussions. I have worked with graduate students in about every subject imaginable, and, as a consequence, I have been exposed to a variety of different practices in these disciplines. Obviously, I was not able to incorporate all of their tactics directly into my teaching, but these discussions have been important for me because they all revolved around how people form and communicate knowledge, regardless of the exact subject matter. In other words, working with graduate students in the CTL has made me aware of new perspectives and my own pedagogical blind spots. I also enjoyed the opportunity to share my own experiences in return and provide feedback to my peers, which has increased my confidence in my teaching philosophy and practices. While you are always interacting on a peer level, my time as a STOF and TC in the CTL has made me feel like an expert at least in my own brand of pedagogy.

Additionally, would you provide 2-3 recommendations from your own teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own pedagogy?

Pull back the curtain on your teaching: When you are implementing a pedagogical strategy or simply setting up an activity in class, explain what you are doing and why, especially if you can make it a moment to talk about how people think and learn. Students may only have experience being a receptacle of knowledge and then later a regurgitator of it. If you share all the thought you have put into the practice of teaching, students will feel respected and more capable as learners of whatever approach is commonly used in your field.

Do some educational research: There is a large field of scholarship about teaching on both general and discipline-specific levels. Whenever you feel lost on a particular issue, try diving into a few articles for ideas. You will be surprised by how much your comfort and knowledge about teaching can be changed just by being conscious of key terms and issues in the scholarship on teaching and learning.

Don’t go it alone: It is entirely possible to view yourself at the front of a classroom or the end of a seminar table as completely alone facing an audience. One can easily become entirely isolated in their teaching practice, especially when you have gotten into the groove of things. Get feedback from students, be observed by your peers, and attend a lecture or seminar every so often to make sure you are not the only voice and example in your head when you think about how teaching is done. Perhaps this is advice more for when you have been teaching for a while, but making it a habit early helps make it fundamental in your teaching practice.