Impromptu: Robin Cresiski
Director of the Center for Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching
Robin Cresiski joined Goucher in 2016 to head the new Center for Advancement of Teaching and Scholarship, devoted to studying and sharing the latest developments in the field with professors. Originally from Northern Virginia, Cresiski got her undergraduate degree from Haverford College, and a Ph.D. in immunology from Yale.
Goucher Magazine: Tell me about yourself. Where are you from?
Robin Cresiski: I grew up in Annandale, Virginia, and had a really lovely experience in public schools in northern Virginia. Somehow got bitten by the bug that I wanted to go to a small private little arts college, so I went to Haverford College just outside of Philadelphia and loved it. I feel like I really blossomed there, and so I decided I wanted to be a professor at a small liberal arts college and went on to graduate school. I did my Ph.D. in immunology at Yale. The Ph.D. was incredibly intense and I was very fortunate, I had an advisor that supported my aspirations of being a teacher-scholar, but I would say I was unique in that way compared to most other people I was with.
GM: What do you mean by a teacher-scholar? As opposed to …
RC: I really wanted teaching to be a very big part of my life and career. And most of the graduate students and post-docs that were in the labs I was working with or collaborating with, they all had aspirations of being researchers at big R1 universities.
Whereas I really wanted to go back to having teaching be a significant part of my life. Another thing happened to me while I was at grad school, I became very aware of what we call the “town gown” dynamics, and Yale University had a very tumultuous relationship both with its employees and with the city in which it was housed. I got really inspired by the workers and community members that were fighting for Yale to be a better citizen to its local community, and started spending a significant amount of time working with the community and the local union.
So, I became a union and community organizer while I was a grad student and it really changed my trajectory, I mean, I at that point was a little bit jaded about institutions like Yale and decided that I wanted to teach somewhere that was very connected to the local community. I did do a one year visiting professorship at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, but I really had my eyes open for something different and, honestly, something warmer. I was genuinely … I was slowly moving northward for my education and career and needed to change that, so I ended up getting a faculty position at a public access college in Nevada.
Nevada State College opened in 2002. It was an access institution, so anyone with a 2.0 out of high school or higher could get in. It was a commuter campus. A lot of non-traditional students. Most of its students were first generation. Most of its students were ethnic or racial minorities and it was a startup, and so it was really fun to go be at a place that was trying to reimagine what college could be and did not have longstanding traditions, for good or for bad.
I was there for eight and a half years, and over time moved from being a faculty to member to a faculty senate chair to a department chair to a vice provost, and for a very short time before I came to Goucher, I was interim provost, and then I came here in January.
RC: That’s a long answer to one question, I’m sorry.
GM: No, that’s perfect. People don’t want to hear me talk. Tell me about your position here, tell me about CAST (the Center for Advancement of Teaching and Scholarship).
RC: I’m really excited about the position here. It’s a new position. The center’s brand new. The idea is that I am here to help support faculty in their teaching and scholarship, to be as excellent in those endeavors as possible, and while almost all of my role with be interacting with faculty, I really view this operation as a student success initiative.
I think that faculty have so much passion for their areas of expertise and their disciplines and for teaching, but a lot of faculty haven’t had support and training in pedagogy, and so my goal is to learn about what faculty are already doing extremely well in the classrooms and help them disseminate and share that with other faculty so we can spread around many of the good practices that already exist.
I also want to introduce faculty to the latest research about what’s working that maybe they haven’t heard of yet, and help them figure out ways to introduce those new practices successfully. I think that my experience in the last four months has been that faculty are really excited about that. They’re very enthusiastic about taking their teaching to an even higher level than where it is now.
I have been so impressed with so many things that faculty are doing here. I really want to create a community around that so that there’s an exchange of those ideas and experiences and documentation of that so we can highlight it around campus.
GM: In my limited experience teaching, there was always a bit of feeling like I was doing it in a vacuum. Like once I closed the door, no one really knew what I was doing until grades were due.
RC: I do think that to some degree you can easily be isolated in your teaching, and that’s not to say that no one cares about it—because I very much think people do—but if there aren’t some structures in place, then it would be very easy for no one to really know what’s happening in your classroom.
There are times where students are so excited about what’s happening that they will share, and there are other times where students are so disappointed that they will share.
RC: What we’re trying to do is create more of a community, so, for instance, I’m hosting lunch-and-learns throughout the semester, where faculty can just get together and share something that they’re trying in their classroom. I did lunch-and-learns about active learning techniques, for example, and faculty could come in and say, “This is what I’m trying to do in lieu of simply lecturing. This is a different approach that I’m trying and this is how it’s going and sometimes I run into this. Does anyone else run into that?”
I do think, yes, we’re trying to help it be less of an isolated part of your career, but I think that we want it to be safe to share. I think there is some protection in not having anybody nosing around in your classroom, but my sense is that, again, here faculty are really interested in having some observations done or figuring out how they can solicit more student feedback at an earlier stage to improve their teaching or change some things mid-semester.
I think that faculty are very committed to this practice, and so they actually love talking about it. We’re even just trying to have wine and cheeses every once in a while to talk a bit about your courses, what future classes could you envision, things like that.
GM: And, I guess, part of this is the transitioning to this new curriculum and the different style of class that students will be taking, with the idea that it’s not necessarily based on content, but on process.
RC: Yeah, that’s a really good way to explain it, I think. Essentially students will take four seminars. The first-year seminar is a really neat exposure to an interesting topic, but I think there’s a large emphasis there on, “How do you learn in college?” And so there is some extra attention paid towards helping students delve deep into topics, synergize things at more of a surface level across many topics, how to communicate, but I think that there’s also a good emphasis on, “How do I time-manage? How do I study? What’s expected of me in the classroom?” And college is distinctly different than high school.
And then in the exploration classes, which are the additional three seminar classes that students will take, the emphasis is on students learning about the methodologies of different disciplines and getting to apply that learning to something that’s really of interest to them, some attribute of a complex problem that they really care about.
They still are learning about a discipline outside of their major, and there will be some content, there will be vocabulary, and there will be learning about the approaches, and tools, and frameworks of that discipline, but then there will be some guided inquiry where students really get to explore something that they want to pursue. I think that’s going to be a very different experience for the student.
It will be a different experience for the faculty member as well. Your students might choose avenues to explore where the faculty member really isn’t the expert anymore, and the student becomes a co-expert with you in that classroom. I think that that will be a really incredible experience for both the student and faculty member. I think that that will help students to build the kind of adaptability that they’ll need in the 21st century.
GM: Maybe you can address this—as soon as you say anything like “student-led” or students having a role in guiding where the class is going, people tend to freak out a bit. And not necessarily the faculty, but maybe the people who have gone through the more traditional classes, with the professor lecturing a large group of students, but is this way of teaching as rigorous as that older style?
RC: There is no doubt in my mind that this curriculum will be as rigorous. The standards that we will hold these students to are very high. I think that there are a couple of reasons why this is a better system of learning. I think giving some agency to the students keeps engagement incredibly high. Students are seeing the usefulness of what they are learning immediately. There is no longer the “Someday you’re going to be thankful that you learned the scientific method.”
I think that idea of “Someday this will be useful for you” is removed. Now it’s, “This will be useful for you for a project you’re starting next week.” And so there is a real practicality and we’re helping connect the content to contemporary issues. It doesn’t matter if that content is chemistry or biology or 17th century French theater, we are helping students to make a connection between what they’re learning in the classroom and contemporary issues that matter, and helping them to learn from the disciplines what they can and then apply it to things they care about.
There’s really great evidence in the research literature that students being able to pursue topics of interest to them leads to a deep learning that they just won’t get if it’s a cookie-cutter project that every student does identically. I think that’s one of the main advantages of this kind of system.
That being said, student-driven is correct. The students are participating in the direction of the course. There is a lot of faculty guidance still happening. I think the faculty members are incredible involved. One, they’re helping the students all get up to speed on the tools, practices, vocabulary, and the basic content, the foundation that the students are going to need as a jumping off point. Then the faculty member is a very active mentor to these students. They’re the ones who are going to be scaffolding the project in such a way so make sure that students are applying things correctly, are hitting benchmarks at appropriate stages of the class, and they will be prompting the student to think or consider things or integrate things, and so the faculty member remains quite active. They’re not sitting on the sideline while the student is driving, I think of them as kind of a copilot.
One thing I will mention is that I think it’s important that this method of teaching a class is beneficial for everyone. The data is, I think, very robust that this enhances the student experience and intensifies the learning that will happen for all of the students, but I also think it’s important to recognize that it narrows gaps between first generations students and continuing education students. The kind of practices that CAST will be helping faculty employ are really designed and have been shown to be successful in making a very rigorous accessible to all students from diverse backgrounds. I think that’s incredibly important, personally, but I also was really excited that that was so important to Goucher as a college, and that that was something that the President, the Provost, and the administration and staff and faculty generally, seemed to feel very passionate about. That was important to me.
GM: Can you say more about how it works that way?
RC: Sure. One of the things that I talk to faculty about in my workshops is the existence of what’s called “the hidden curriculum,” and so for students that are coming from a first-generation background where they have not had a lot of role models or adults close to them that have gone through college or other higher education, those students may not know what the social expectations of a classroom are, they may not know how to interpret directions from a faculty member that the faculty member might think are very clear. One really easy example is that a faculty member may say to the class, “I’d like you to read chapter one before the next class.” And I think for many students reading chapter one means, “My eyes look at these pages before I come to class.”
Someone who has already been in an academically rigorous environment or has had parents and adult role models that are academic, a student with that experience may know that reading the chapter means reading it carefully, taking some notes along the way, identifying some things that are confusing, thinking about a few questions to ask in class. They might try to naturally associate things that they’re coming across in that chapter with things that they’ve read in other classes or in previous high school classes. The instruction might be, “Read chapter one.” But really, the expectations on the student are to do much more than just glance at those pages before class, but right now, there are not many faculty that are necessarily trained at being very explicit about those instructions, and so I’m helping faculty think about, “How do we be very explicit and intentional in our directions to students so that even students from first-generation backgrounds know what to do, know what the expectations are?”
That’s one part of it, and then the other part of it is just simply the engagement piece. I think that for a lot of students at colleges that are not Goucher, they will be sitting through distribution requirements that are classes that they need to take, but are not directed at their majors or their career paths. Students perceive those as hurdles they have to get through. What we’re doing is that even though we are still mandating that students take a breadth of courses in the liberal arts and do get exposure to different topics and disciplines, we’re always helping students make that connection to things that they care about, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s their major or career path that they’re interested in. It might be the music that they’re interested in or something they enjoy doing with friends or a cause that they really care about, but we will always be helping the students find intersections with the things that they care about while they are getting that exposure to the breadth of the liberal arts.
The engagement simply is higher and therefore student success should go up regardless of a student’s background. They don’t have to play the waiting game to get to the exciting, good stuff, or that’s how I think some students perceive traditional requirements.
GM: Well, I wonder too, there is often a hurdle in getting students from the stage where they’re just absorbing information and sort of regurgitating it back, to something approaching original scholarship. Does this approach help them get over that hurdle?
RC: Absolutely. That’s such a good point. You’re right, I think a lot of traditional classrooms may really emphasize content knowledge, and so there is memorization. I don’t want to knock memorization because having a foundation of content and vocabulary is important and plays a role in your education, but I do think that we’re very quickly expecting students to participate in higher levels of learning and engagement, and so very quickly we’re asking students to integrate information, to analyze and compare and contrast, to apply something they’re learning to a new situation.
I think, you know, we haven’t created these courses yet, we’re in the process of getting that started, but I’m really hopeful that faculty are going to be really creative about the types of projects that students work on, and I think that students will not just be writing papers or giving an oral presentation or taking an exam. I think that in these classes students might be creating a video public service announcement or designing an infographic or making a short commercial.
I think that there will be some really great creative influences in these classes that I think will just be spectacular, honestly. I’m so excited to see what students build in these classes and I think it will really run the range of performance art to essays. I think it will be really diverse and captivating.
GM: Is working on this similar to working on the startup in Nevada?
RC: I think the connection for me is that there’s an openness to innovation. There’s a willingness to move quickly and I just think there’s no question that Goucher is moving very quickly to innovate, and I think that comes from tremendous leadership and also amazing faculty who are passionate about where we could be.
The connection for me, one of the similar veins between working at a startup public access institution and Goucher, is that there is a commitment to accessibility and there is a commitment to innovation and there is a genuine excitement among the faculty to consistently be better, and they’re not afraid to look inward and look at the research and adapt, and that’s very exciting.
GM: I think that covers what I wanted to talk about, is there anything that I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
RC: Because this is the alumni magazine, I would just say that I’ve only just gotten started putting together CAST. One of the first things I did was solicit input from the faculty about what kinds of support they wanted, both for their teaching and for their scholarship. We didn’t talk a lot about scholarship in this interview, but I am trying to assist faculty with their own research and creative endeavors as well.
My emphasis has been on learning from the faculty, what do they already do? What do they need? How do they want support? But I am interested as we just get some traction and get moving and build some momentum, I am very interested in hearing from alumni and from current students about how they think we can improve, what made their classes unforgettable, what made their experience at Goucher life-changing, and how do we make sure that we protect and continue those legacies for Goucher and integrate those amazing memories with the most current, evidence-based approaches in the field. To just give the next generation of Goucher students the best opportunities.