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What Does Excellent Teaching Look Like?

By Eric Sean Weld

Good teaching can be life changing. At Smith, good teaching -- pedagogy that instills deep, inclusive and practical understanding -- has always been a priority, and those who join the faculty here commit not only to acquiring expert knowledge in their subject areas but also to increasing their understanding of learning itself.

Likewise, attracting and retaining faculty of excellence and distinction is a foundational commitment of the college’s new strategic plan. Smith is dedicated to recognizing and encouraging superior pedagogy by annually presenting four faculty members with the Kathleen Compton Sherrerd ’54 and John J. F. Sherrerd Prizes for Distinguished Teaching. The award is given in recognition of exceptional teaching records and demonstrated enthusiasm and excellence.

But what does excellence and distinguished teaching look like in the classroom? NewsSmith recently visited the classes of three Sherrerd Award winners to take a snapshot of outstanding teaching.

Kevin Quashie

Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies
Contemporary Topics in Afro-American Studies: Toni Morrison, Wright Hall 230

Kevin Quashie’s fondness for Sula, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the friendship of two women, Sula and Nel, is apparent.

“I love this book,” he announces to 10 students seated around a table. “What makes Sula so compelling as a character is that she seems compass-less, as if her desire alone is her compass. This is a hard way to live, costly and not likely to produce many meaningful connections. But it is also a generous way to live since it inspires others to live big, too. There is no character in literature that moves me more.”

Quashie’s enthusiasm for the novel Sula spreads to his students and invigorates their interpretations as he leads a discussion touching on identity, black culture, slavery and existentialism.

“I’m nothing, therefore I get to be everything,” Quashie interprets the character Shadrack saying as Shadrack views his reflection, during a turning point in the novel, in the water of a toilet. “Blackness is so particular, black people don’t get to feel that -- that there’s such freedom in letting go. Fearlessness.”

Quashie’s class warms up as it progresses. It peaks toward the end, and after 35 minutes, his students, with him, are digging deep to discover characters’ motivations and inspirations and determine what meaning the experience of the novel has in their own lives.

Mary Harrington

Tippit Professor in the Life Sciences, Department of Psychology
Brain States, Bass Hall 209

Mary Harrington blends well with her students. Seated with them in a circle of comfortable couches and chairs, she sets them at ease with her good humor and personable manner. She seems to speak their language.

Though Harrington’s subject -- the study of the brain and its reaction systems -- can be technical and rich with complexity, she makes the abstruse information accessible. Her class repartee is loose and intimate and carries the feel of a friendly conversation in the living room of a campus house.

“Imagine you’re sitting around after Thanksgiving dinner, when you’re winning at Monopoly,” she assigns one group of students in an exercise of creating a stress profile. A contrasting group projects stress levels just before a final exam.

Throughout her class, the mood remains light, though the analysis is deep on subjects such as digestion, the storage of stress hormones and naturally released chemicals that affect stress levels. Occasional silences as students grasp for answers are expected and never feel uncomfortable.

With Harrington at the teaching helm, learning appears to be an enjoyable, natural experience. There’s no reason scholarship and levity cannot coexist, she would say. With her method, it’s as though her students are learning without realizing it.

Sam Intrator

Associate Professor of Education and Child Study
Education in the City, Seelye Hall 312

Sam Intrator is always on his feet. His energy in the classroom is overt and electric. He orchestrates his two-hour class like a frenetic conductor, constantly turning from student to student as they call “Sam?”

In this way, Intrator demonstrates his excitement for the discipline to the more than 25 students in class. As Intrator makes the subject at hand spellbinding and compelling, his students follow with engagement. They readily give forth their opinions and ideas when asked. As they do, Intrator deftly teases their comments toward further depths, guiding his students to arrive at their own insights.

“Imagine this,” announces Intrator to begin the day’s discussion about the small-schools movement in urban districts. He describes a scenario in which it is decided to divide Smith College into five distinct, autonomous colleges, and his students are immediately intrigued. “How do you think that would go over with alums, students, the Smith community?” he asks.

For the next two hours, Intrator commands his students’ attention with animated discussion, reminiscences, statistics, multimedia, easy exchange and energy -- lots of energy.

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