03/27/2013 10:27 am ET Updated May 27, 2013

Stanford University's Teagle Humanities Courses Promote Collaborative Faculty Graduate Teaching

Stanford University's Graduate Student and Faculty Collaborative Teaching in the Humanities is a teaching initiative funded by the New York City-based Teagle Foundation, which provides higher education grants to improve undergraduate student learning in the arts and sciences. Throughout 2012-2013, Stanford faculty and graduate students have been offering a series of eight team-taught courses that will help prepare grads for careers as liberal arts educators.

Liberal arts has commanded much public discussion, including official efforts to define and promote this long-standing approach to education. When mentioned in policy discussions of any sort, controversy usually ensues. For example, education advocates attacked President Obama's scorecard for undergraduate education in his 2013 State of the Union Address. Surely, the ideals of liberal education have transformed since their origins in ancient Greece and remain highly contested. Yet, most observers agree on several key elements: small classrooms, dialogue and debate between teachers and students on topics that develop critical reasoning, evaluative understanding of texts, ideas and quantitative data, and strengthen communication skills.

The liberal arts aspire to promote nothing less than active undergraduate engagement at the university as well as in the larger public sphere beyond the bachelor's degree.

The Teagle Initiative at Stanford University builds on the university's established liberal arts curricula, drawing faculty long dedicated to undergraduate teaching. The project's leadership includes Russell Berman, Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies, who directs Stanford's Thinking Matters Program and the Introductory Seminars Program.

Course titles include:

Professor Dan Edelstein - Winter - Revolutions in Prose: The 19th C. French Novel
Professor Gabriella Safran - Autumn - Russia: Literature, Film, Identity, Alterity
- Winter - Why Do We Like (to Read about) Vampires: Folklore, (Mostly Russian) Literature, Film
Professor Edith Sheffer - Spring - Emotion, Power, and the Making of Modern Europe
- Spring - Economic Miracles: Crisis and Recovering in Modern Europe
Professor Laura Wittman - Winter - The Mafia in Society, Film, and Fiction
Professor Lisa Surwillo - Winter - Advanced Critical Reading in Spanish
Professor Marilia Librandi-Rocha - Winter - Brazilian Songs
- Spring - Voices in Brazilian Fiction
Professor Vaughn Rasberry - Winter - Introduction to African American Literature
- Winter - American Culture and the Cold War
Professor Russell Berman - Autumn- Contemporary German Politics
- Spring - War and Warfare in Germany

Each of these courses endeavors to engage students in larger questions about culture, learning and public citizenship.

As a pedagogical program that serves undergrads while training graduate students, the Teagle Initiative consists of both teaching and seminar components: Teams of one faculty member and two graduates teach a course, in which they meet and discuss course materials, student progress, and pedagogical strategies. Additionally, all eight Teagle teams meet together and discuss current scholarship on teaching and learning that will promote graduate student careers in the liberal arts. Insights from these discussions will promote innovative techniques in the Teagle project classrooms.

The first course to be profiled is "The Mafia in Society, Film, and Fiction" taught by Laura Wittman, associate professor of French and Italian, and Alessandra Aquilanti and Dylan Montanari, Ph.D. students in Italian. This course compares both Italian and American fantasies of the mafia to its history and impact on Italian and global culture.

In an interview Professor Wittman, Aquilanti and Montanari answered questions about their collaborative effort:

This course sounds like it attracted a lot of interest. Who are your students and what have their expectations been this quarter?

Professor Wittman: We have a mixture of students, some freshmen, and some more advanced students. The most unusual thing is that most of them are not Italian majors or minors; rather, if they have declared a field, they are working in sociology or communication. In other words, their interests are primarily in cultural and social history, as well as in political and economic analysis.

As a team, how have you helped direct student understanding of the material and course discussions?

Aquilanti and Montanari have been involved in planning the syllabus and collecting materials as well as in teaching, working closely with me as we prepared each class. Their input on materials was invaluable in broadening my range of options and bringing fresh ideas to the course.

In terms of class preparation, I planned a gradual increase in their participation, which has worked really well. In the beginning I taught most or all segments of each class, but we did discuss strategy together, which was very helpful, and they also gave me feedback on how it was going. This resulted, in particular, in the creation of more activities that involved commenting on a new reading/film/situation using the readings they had been assigned, and less direct commentary on the readings. This was quite helpful in keeping the students' interest.

Later in the quarter, Aquilanti and Montanari have taken over more of the teaching, eventually being in charge of whole week (two classes) each. Both of them have been very creative and intelligent in designing their classes, and the students have definitely benefited from hearing different voices and approaches to the same issue. Aquilanti organized team discussions of stereotypes about women and/in the mafia, and Montanari supplemented a discussion about protection and dispute settlement in the mafia with a creative activity involving improvised protection scenarios.

In both cases, I really saw these graduate students benefit from Teagle discussions of pedagogy, applying the insights discussed there to class, in particular as regards giving students a reason to care about what they are learning, a "why" in the real present-day world. This resulted in the undergraduates being more engaged.

Having a teaching team has really helped get the students to work more in teams as well. They have done many activities that are designed to enliven the material and make its relevance more apparent. For example, they did short impersonations in which they played a character we had studied in the course, be it a famous mafioso or investigator, a character from a mafia movie, or a literary character: In character, they had to evaluate film clips and explain what they looked for in representations of the mafia. In another instance, they were divided into teams, each of which investigated a different aspect of the use of mafia informants by the United States during the invasion of Sicily at the end of WWII; after their investigation, they had a debate, pro or con U.S. use of such informants. In these cases, and many more, Aquilanti and Montanari were invaluable in guiding students and teams in a far more personalized manner than I could have done on my own.

What kinds of projects are the students writing?

They are investigating various aspects of the mafia: teams of two to three students are working on a single general topic, creating a cluster of materials around that topic. Topics include: women and the mafia; impact of the mafia on perception of Italian-Americans; a historical view of the mafia's connection to politics; major figures in anti-mafia activism. For each topic, there will be two to three essays on specific issues (e.g. a political crisis, or a figure in the anti-mafia), but the students will also create a webpage that has links to relevant sources, images, and video on that topic. We are creating a course website that will last beyond this course into the future and, we hope, be used by students that take the course when it is offered again, but also by students in mafia courses taught by my colleagues at other universities. The website aims to be come a center for serious scholarly investigation into the mafia.

How has the course changed graduate student approaches toward teaching?
I should let Aquilanti and Montanari answer that in more detail, but what I have observed is that their approach to a class has become more interactive, and less about going over the assigned reading. They have both become far more comfortable at inventing activities that make the material come alive.

Montanari -- This was the first course I had formally assisted.

First and foremost, watching Aquilanti lead discussion was helpful to me, since she has more teaching experience than I do. She has a natural ease with undergraduates and a good sense of how to manage the ebb and flow of discussion, sometimes changing what had been her plan to better suit the students' inclinations.

I had been Prof. Wittman's student before, so the virtues of her pedagogy -- clarity, pace, and precision -- were well-known to me. Being able to discuss lesson planning with her before a given class, even one that I would not be teaching, helped me better understand how teachers assess their options beforehand and can recalibrate as the course develops, based on the students' evolving capabilities and needs.

Ultimately, I learned that a course is very much always a work-in-progress, especially if it is one that aims to live up to its promise of seizing student interest. I found that the "off-script" moments of my teaching were by far the most stimulating.


Co-teaching this mafia course was an eye-opening experience even before our first class in January. As naive as it sounds, I was not aware of the sheer amount of preparation needed to craft what one hopes will be a successful course. Furthermore, as the subject of "mafia" is only tangentially related my area of expertise, I quickly realized that I would first have to take my own crash course in mafia studies if I was going to carry my weight in our three-person team.

During our first classes I was tentative, unsure of myself as I spoke to a classroom of bright undergraduates, not to mention a fellow Ph.D. student and my advisor. What were they all thinking?

But it was soon clear that these insecurities were getting in the way of effective teaching.

By mid-quarter my mind was flooded not only with materials pertinent to our course, but new pedagogical approaches. I began to see our 90 minute classes more holistically, with each lecture, discussion, and assignment as part of a larger narrative that I would help elucidate for the students. I realized that discussions rehashing readings were less effective than more hands-on activities using what the students had gleaned from the at-home assignments.

Thanks to this project my approach to teaching is both more refined and more creative. I have a better sense of what a class should achieve, and have gained the tools to help different students reach this goal.

How have the Teagle discussions with the plenum group influenced your course delivery?

The discussions have been most useful when we have traded stories and tactics for teaching. I have learned a lot from how my colleagues, both faculty and graduate students, think about their courses, and go about engaging students. It has also been very useful to do some reading and be more informed about the latest education research -- a field we need to know more about but rarely have time to delve into.

What is the next step for faculty and students after this course?

I will continue working with Aquilanti and Montanari, as a faculty advisor, which means that I will be there to discuss future teaching plans as well as research plans; whether they teach other courses at Stanford, or are preparing syllabi to send out as part of a job application, I will continue to work with them to make sure this collaborative teaching experience is made the most of.

Personally, I would welcome the chance to co-teach again with graduate students. Though it takes more time than the usual course preparation, I feel I have learned a lot about my own teaching from our discussions, and Aquilanti and Montanari have told me they have benefited a great deal as well. This sort of "apprenticeship" also is allowing me to develop a much fuller relationship with my advisees, which makes me a better advisor, and I hope, gives them a much stronger preparation for the future.