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Professor erases stigma of being a good teacher

April 30, 2002

Chemistry professor Jim Taylor had an award named after him, but that’s not something he wants to talk about. Taylor won’t boast about his own achievements, but he readily touts the other exceptional teachers at the university.

Taylor, who has taught analytical chemistry at the university since 1966, says a person’s ability to become an outstanding teacher depends on two fundamental characteristics: having enthusiasm for the subject and caring for the students. “Couple those together,” he says, “and students will always have a good learning experience.”

Despite Taylor’s early observance of these traits in many of his colleagues, he says the university didn’t encourage the discussion of such quality instruction. “The perception in the state and at our sister institutions is that Madison has always been more interested in research than teaching,” he explains.

Proof existed in the fact that until recently only five teaching awards of $2,500 each were distributed annually. Faculty could receive them only once during their careers at UW–Madison, and they gained no salary increase from them, as they would have from research awards.

But, as is usually the case, perception wasn’t reality. In 1991, Taylor headed up a University Committee-appointed council called the “Teaching Quality, Evaluation and Rewards Committee” to assess instruction on campus. “We found that, by and large, faculty cared deeply about teaching,” he says. “Yet, we also found that they were more likely to talk about their research.”

Why? Taylor answers, “Teaching was considered a subversive activity.”

To change such attitudes about instruction, Taylor and the committee recommended to the Faculty Senate many changes. “One was to identify and reward the good teaching going on here,” Taylor says. To do this, the committee suggested that departments allocate 20 percent of the annual merit award to faculty with excellent teaching records. Some departments and colleges are doing this today.

Another key proposal was to establish the Teaching Academy, where recipients of teaching awards could encourage improvements in the classroom through seminars, workshops and general discussions.

“We wanted to bring outstanding teachers together, share good teaching and learning techniques, and develop ways to recognize others,” Taylor says. By doing these things, teaching could be viewed less subversively.

The Faculty Senate accepted the recommendations for creation of the academy. Over the years, the Teaching Academy, or what Taylor would prefer to call the “Learning Academy,” has discussed ways to improve the quality of student evaluations and encourage peer review, a process to evaluate research.

Through the Teaching Academy, Taylor did help change the campus’s attitudes toward instruction. “Jim has provided extraordinary leadership in advancing the scholarship of teaching,” says professor Arthur Ellis, a chemistry colleague. “He has shown us the importance of assessing and evaluating our teaching.”

When the Teaching Academy fellows meet, they also discuss classroom experiments — ways to improve student learning. Taylor has performed a few of these experiments himself.

“I’m interested in whether what I’m doing and saying is being communicated,” he explains. “It’s really important to have feedback from the students, so I tell them to nod, shake their heads, look quizzical.” If Taylor can’t observe their expressions, he can’t teach. In fact, one Halloween, when all his students came to class wearing paper bags on their heads, Taylor told them, “Class dismissed!” (But, he does say, “If it had been any other day, I would have told them to take those things off.”)

Some of Taylor’s most successful experiments have involved cooperative learning, where students work on problem sets and experiments in small groups. Ironically, Taylor says that when he uses these group activities, proven to increase learning depth, he generally receives lower student evaluations. “They think I’m not doing my job.” He adds, “This is when peer review can be so helpful.”

Through his class lessons, Taylor has taught his students something he says is more important than scientific knowledge. “The facts may someday become obsolete, so we need to teach students something that will last them for the rest of their lives. We have an obligation to teach them how to learn.”

Taylor says he’s no different from other outstanding faculty on campus, particularly in the Chemistry Department. Maintaining the mission of the Teaching Academy, Taylor wanted to find ways to celebrate such excellence in teaching. One day in 1992, in a casual conversation with Tony Taraszka, an alum from the Pharmacy School and a vice president at the pharmaceutical company Upjohn, Taylor mentioned his desire to reward outstanding faculty in chemistry.

“Tony said, “If I gave you $5,000 for an award could you set it up?’ I thought, “Good Lord! That’s more than the campus award!'” Taylor says. From the money, the Chemistry Department created two annual prizes. Upjohn, now part of the company Pharmacia, continues to support them.

“Pharmacia has an invested interest because they hire students from here at all levels,” Taylor says. “Few companies see the direct link between the quality of learning and the product that comes out.” Whether or not Taylor likes to admit it, the award was recently renamed the Professor James W. Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award.

Ellis says, “Jim’s desire to recognize outstanding teachers, his interest in enhancing the quality of education, and his own excellence in mentoring and in the classroom has helped broaden our teaching perspectives.”

Taylor, who officially retired last June, comments, “The things that brought me to Wisconsin were the research and teaching students. I’ve had 48 doctoral students in the 35 years I’ve been here, and I’m extremely proud of every one. They have all been different and learned differently, but they’ve all succeeded.” Their success probably has a great deal to do with Taylor’s commitment to their education.

Tags: learning