Q&A: Dr. Lenore Wright

Academy for Teaching and Learning director Dr. Lenore Wright says Baylor faculty can receive expert help to become even better teachers

April 5, 2023
Dr. Lenore Wright, director of Baylor University’s Academy for Teaching and Learning

Baylor University’s world-renowned faculty are well-versed in their fields of study, but how do they keep abreast of new methods and technology that allow them to shine as teachers and researchers? For the past 15 years, Baylor’s faculty has received expert advice and instruction in these areas from the University’s Academy for Teaching and Learning (ATL).

In this Q&A, Randy Fiedler, director of marketing and communications for the College of Arts & Sciences, talks with Dr. Lenore Wright, director of the ATL and an associate professor of philosophy in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, about the Academy’s goals and the resources it can offer.

Let’s start at the beginning — how did Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning get its start?

The Academy for Teaching and Learning grew out of a University Strategic Proposal approved by [then] Provost Elizabeth Davis in 2008. Baylor had been long recognized for teaching excellence, but there was no centralized unit overseeing teaching-related activities. 2008 was an apt time to reimagine teaching support and development in light of the University’s commitment to increased research. Also, Baylor was the only Big 12 institution without a center for teaching and learning.

What is the target audience for the ATL?

Our resources at the Academy are available to everyone who serves in an instructional capacity — undergraduate peer instructors, graduate student teachers of record, instructional staff and faculty adjuncts, and full-time faculty of all ranks. Provost Davis secured our inclusivity by making us a freestanding institute. As a result, the ATL is positioned to develop materials, workshops, seminars, projects, collaborations and programs that support faculty and units within every school or college. We therefore operate as a clearinghouse for teaching-related endeavors. Instructors here on campus know where to turn when they need teaching support.

Academy for Teaching and Learning director Dr. Lenore Wright

Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning empowers current and future faculty to flourish…we are a one-stop shop for professional development.

Dr. Lenore Wright

Is using the ATL required or optional? In other words, is there some sort of requirement that before someone starts teaching at Baylor, they have to use the ATL to be trained for the classroom? Or, is the ATL something that faculty must seek out on their own?

The ATL is voluntary and formative in nature. Our mission is to support and inspire a flourishing community of learning by forming faculty for excellence. Baylor’s faculty can develop excellence as teachers by engaging in various developmental activities, such as evaluating diverse teaching methods, practicing new pedagogies, pursuing teaching-related grants, participating in teaching seminars, workshops, and conferences, and so forth. We provide instructional support for Baylor faculty and units on a voluntary basis.

Do you use faculty members who have gained teaching experience in the classroom to help implement the programs you offer in the ATL?

Yes — Baylor faculty have always played essential roles here. We model the ATL on an academy, a place where scholars share their expertise to enhance teaching and learning. We repeatedly say to faculty, “You are subject experts within your disciplines. You also know appropriate instructional methods and accepted pedagogies for your fields. So, come and share what you know with others, and lead and participate in ATL programs.”

Do faculty members ever bring ATL ideas for new programs to offer?

Absolutely. We are fortunate to have faculty reach out regularly and say, “I have an idea for the ATL. I’ll take the lead or help recruit participants. What do you think?” Or, they will write us and say, “I want to participate more consistently in ATL events because I am ready for new ideas, or I want to adopt new approaches, or I am eager to meet new faculty.” Many of our programs were first envisioned and pitched by faculty, which is exactly how it should be — because ATL is an academy.

Isn’t one of the reasons that something like an ATL is needed at universities is that while faculty have earned their advanced degrees and done a lot of research, before they begin teaching a classroom full of students they haven’t necessarily received instruction in how to actually do that?

Yes. We consistently hear from new faculty members that they were not formally prepared to teach during graduate school. Their amount of reported teaching experience during graduate school varies dramatically, too. Sometimes faculty say, “I know nothing about pedagogy. I don’t know how to create an exam or assess student performance with confidence. What help can you provide?” Or they tell us, “I’m learning on the ground. Although I have absorbed what I saw my former teachers doing, I now want to understand course design and pedagogical choices on a conscious, intentional level.” Our staff members in the ATL strive to provide the relevant support that will enable Baylor faculty members to perform their teaching roles with confidence and effectiveness.

Are your services available only to full-time faculty at Baylor?

No — we welcome all instructors, regardless of their classification or rank. Anyone who serves in an instructional role — from students, to adjuncts, to permanent, fulltime faculty — is eligible to seek support from the ATL. We have adopted an inclusive stance toward Baylor teachers that seeks to engage all our instructors in ATL events.

Are there certain problems or skills that faculty members come to you needing help with most often?

Beyond seeking help with the basics of course design, assessment and teaching methods, the faculty we work with want to become more familiar with current trends in higher education. Reimagining STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education, for example, has been trending in higher education. Consequently, we often hear from our STEM faculty who say, “I don’t want to lecture only. How else can I reach students?”

Speaking of new ways to reach students, is there a lot of interest among faculty right now in learning how to incorporate new technology into their classrooms?

Yes. Lately, our faculty have been interested in flexible learning spaces that allow them to deploy alternative teaching strategies, such as active learning, or to try out innovative technologies, such as classroom polling. In essence, Baylor faculty want adaptability —they want to reconfigure classroom spaces so that their students can engage in group work. Or they want to teach in technology-equipped rooms where students can project their small group work onto screens for others in the class to see. Our faculty want to send and show information in ways that capture the imaginations of their students.

A quick look at the Academy for Teaching and Learning website shows the large number of programs and services that you offer. Let’s briefly talk about some of those now to find out just what they involve. What are the Seminars for Excellence in Teaching?

Dr. Christopher Richmann, the ATL’s assistant director, oversees these seminars and does an excellent job of capturing topics faculty care about. Some Seminars for Excellence in Teaching tackle contemporary concerns — like difficult topics to navigate in the classroom — while others address recurring themes such as classroom strategies or technology in the classroom. Today, the ATL hosts these as hybrid seminars so that faculty can attend in person or on Zoom. And unlike some other ATL programming, our Seminars for Excellence in Teaching are always led by Baylor faculty.

What are some recent topics these seminars have covered?

Recently, Dr. Coretta Pittman — a faculty member in English and a Baylor Senior Fellow — led a seminar on teaching race in a writing course. Hearing her approach to teaching sparked the imaginations of our faculty in other disciplines and inspired them to consider how to integrate important topics like race into their courses. Other recent Seminars for Excellence in Teaching have  included “Integrating Digital Humanities in the Classroom,” “Parting with the Textbook,” “Engaging Social Issues in STEM Courses” and “Is it Working? How to Evaluate Your Teaching after Trying Something New.”

Members of the team at Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning (L-R): Dr. Michelle Herridge, Dr. Craig Clarkson, Dr. Lenore Wright and Dr. Chris Richmann
Members of the team at Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning (L-R): Dr. Michelle Herridge, Dr. Craig Clarkson, Dr. Lenore Wright and Dr. Chris Richmann
What is the Baylor Summer Faculty Institute?

Our Summer Faculty Institute, or SFI, is an intensive, five-week institute available to full-time Baylor faculty. Although the SFI is currently administered by us, the Institute precedes our founding in 2008 by 45 years. When it began in 1978 it was called the Summer Teaching Institute, but the name has changed to reflect the fact that today’s Summer Faculty Institute also disseminates best practices in research, service and collegiality. It is thus Baylor’s longest-running faculty development program. The Institute has evolved to meet the contemporary needs of faculty and align with Baylor’s institutional goals.

Exactly how has the Summer Faculty Institute evolved?

The Summer Institute empowers our faculty to excel in research, teaching, service, and collegiality, not just teaching, as it was originally designed to address. Originally, SFI Fellows received 20 percent of their respective salaries for participating. If Baylor faculty back then wanted summer employment, they could choose summer teaching, or attending the SFI. Today, SFI Fellows receive a $10,000 stipend and can pursue other opportunities, such as teaching, leading programs or grant work during non-SFI summer weeks. The central aim of the Institute over the last two decades has been faculty flourishing — that is, to help our faculty thrive in all areas of their professional lives. The SFI is capped at 20 Fellows per year, and it’s an in-person institute.

Is it typically newer faculty members who attend the summer institute?

Yes. While the Summer Faculty Institute attracts a mix of faculty, a majority of Fellows are relatively new to Baylor. In general, it attracts pre-promoted faculty members — assistant professors who are not yet tenured, associate professors who are pursuing promotion to professor, and lecturers who are on the path to becoming senior lecturers. Many of the pre-promoted faculty who attend are seeking guidance on how to navigate departmental culture, understand Baylor processes  and master their professions.

Besides learning new information, do participants get feedback on their teaching skills?

Oh, yes — the SFI is a demanding, hands-on institute. Every SFI Fellow must give a microteaching demonstration — a 20-minute teaching demonstration of their teaching before their cohort colleagues, who will then give them both written and oral feedback. Each microteaching performance is also recorded so that the Fellows can study themselves later and make desired changes. Most college faculty have not received formal instruction in teaching, nor have they seen themselves teach. Microteaching can be eye-opening.

I see you have added an ATL podcast recently. What does that involve?

Yes. The podcast, called Professors Talk Pedagogy, is the brainchild of our assistant director, Christopher Richmann. Back during COVID when we had to suspend all face-to-face events, Christopher had the idea to create a podcast and asked if I would support it. I thought it was a great idea and a novel way to engage faculty asynchronously in teaching development — so I said, “Go for it!” Professors Talk Pedagogy posted its first episode in February 2021.

How do you decide the topics and guests for each podcast?

Christopher suggests potential guests, most of whom are Baylor faculty members, and we confer about whom to invite and when. From there, he interviews selected teachers across the disciplines about how they teach, what they know and like about teaching, how they define great teaching and other teaching-related topics.

ATL offers something called the Summer Ethics Seminar. What is that?

The Summer Ethics Seminar, or SES, began in 2022 and is a collaboration between the ATL and Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. It’s a week-long, interdisciplinary and thematic seminar designed by Dr. Paul Martens, the director of interdisciplinary studies in Arts & Sciences and an associate professor of religion. One SES aim is to provide faculty across campus with a vocabulary for ethical thinking and speaking — in other words, to increase faculty fluency with ethical language. A secondary aim is to increase faculty self-efficacy when tackling ethical issues. When faculty have a strong facility with ethical theories, categories and concepts, they’re better equipped to navigate ethical issues that emerge in their work. For instance, STEM instructors who participate in SES may now integrate ethical discussions into their courses. SES encourages faculty to think along these lines — to develop new teaching or research projects informed by ethics. SES also boosts faculty confidence discussing ethical issues in class.

So, the second seminar on ethics will be held in the summer of 2023?

Yes — and this news is hot off the press! Dean [Lee] Nordt has dedicated resources for a second iteration of the Summer Ethics Seminar. Dr. Paul Martens, in partnership with the ATL and faculty colleagues in Arts & Sciences, will direct it. This year’s seminar focus will be on the environment — so stay tuned for more details.

Our mission is to support and inspire a flourishing community of learning by forming faculty for excellence.

Dr. Lenore Wright

I understand that the ATL provides two financial grants — the Teaching Development Grant and the Teaching Exploration Grant. What are those?

ATL’s older grant, the University Teaching Development Grant, seeks to support the development of our faculty by funding activities that enhance them individually as teachers. For example, it pays for faculty to attend pedagogy conferences in their fields. Our newer grant line, the University Teaching Exploration Grant, supports projects that enrich the scholarship of teaching and learning. Projects approved up to $5,000 are expected to disseminate results in a journal publication. Projects approved up to $10,000 are expected to apply for additional, external funding.

The ATL hosts a Foundations for Teaching Workshop for graduate students. What is that all about?

The Foundations for Teaching Workshop is a two-day teaching workshop for graduate students. Modeled on the Summer Faculty Institute, this workshop offers a comprehensive examination of teaching from course design to classroom delivery. The participants receive guidance from Baylor faculty and staff, and also engage in microteaching with a brief, filmed teaching performance. The graduate students who complete the workshop tell us they have greater confidence in the teaching enterprise. They’re able to say to themselves and prospective employers, “I am ready to teach.”

Do you have any other programs for graduate students?

Yes. Graduate students are eligible to attend the Seminars for Excellence in Teaching, the Adjunct Teaching Workshop and other ATL programs. They may also request a teaching observation. ATL also supports Baylor graduate students through departmental teaching colloquies and preparatory courses for graduate students. For example, within the College of Arts & Sciences, the Department of Religion has a long-standing and excellent teaching colloquy. The Departments of Philosophy and Sociology offer well-designed pedagogy courses for graduate students as well. ATL staff regularly make presentations to their respective students.

Let’s look ahead a bit. Are there some new things for either this summer or the following academic year that the ATL has on the burner?

Several things, actually. For one, we have been collaborating with the College of Arts & Sciences on a newly formed Teaching Innovation Awards program. ATL serves ex officio on the selection committee. Arts & Sciences Dean Lee Nordt’s advancement of teaching is remarkable, and he has been a steadfast supporter of the ATL. I am grateful for the high value he places on teaching. In 2023, we will also add a new permanent staff member to the ATL — assistant director for STEM education. The new assistant director will support faculty development and innovation in STEM teaching and curricular development.

Finally, let me ask — if you ran into a faculty member or graduate student who has no experience with the ATL and is wondering what it can offer them, what would you tell them in a nutshell?

Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning empowers current and future faculty to flourish in their professional lives. Our resources are evidence-based and practice-informed — the scholarship of teaching and learning informs ATL recommendations and shapes programming. Although we are primarily teaching-focused, we situate teaching within the holistic context of academic life — a life that includes teaching, research, service and collegiality. In short, we are a one-stop shop for professional development. Please reach out to us!