Not Just Teaching By Numbers

June 24, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

April Brayfield and Ronald Landis have something in common--they both teach statistics. And what's remarkable about their teaching this dreaded, dry subject is that their students still love them.

winnersTheir ways with numbers and students earned them the highest teaching honors that Tulane bestows at university commencement--the President's Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Brayfield, associate professor of sociology, received the award for undergraduate teaching.

Landis, associate professor of psychology, got the top honor for graduate and professional school teaching. Brayfield has taught at Tulane since 1992.

She's had the "amazing" experience of having students whose names she can barely recall contact her years after they've taken a class to tell her what a great teacher she'd been.

"It chokes me up," she says. Brayfield's success teaching undergraduates writing, research analysis and statistics boils down to a simple Philosophy--students can be producers of knowledge, not merely consumers. Her students design their own websites and their own research projects. They learn to write collaboratively, and they learn to talk about statistics in a low-risk environment--her classroom. "The more they can talk about it, the more they understand it."

She tries to "spark their imaginations" and figure out what captivates them. In the meantime, the students are developing statistical and research skills that can be transferred to the workplace. Brayfield's current scholarship deals with children in society.

"Being actively engaged in research makes me much more enthusiastic about teaching. I'm always sharing, here's what I found out."

Brayfield recently went to Budapest, Hungary, to study and photograph childcare centers there. She displayed the photos in her classes, and she's always bringing new readings and new technologies into her teaching to keep it fresh and exciting. Brayfield cares deeply about teaching.

She says, "It's central to my identity as a scholar." For the 15 weeks that an undergraduate class lasts, "the classroom is a learning community." She tells her students, "We're going to go on an intellectual journey together." Brayfield and Landis both teach undergraduates and graduate students. The big difference in the two endeavors is that teaching undergraduates is "bounded by the temporal reality of the semester," says Brayfield.

Teaching graduate students is a much longer-term enterprise. Graduate students essentially are junior colleagues, says Landis, a faculty member at Tulane since 1996.

"I view them as part of the program. When they go out, you want to make sure they are as well prepared as they can be and that they reflect positively on the program."

Landis' field is industrial psychology. He studies the relationships of individuals and organizations, including issues such as personnel selection, training and performance appraisal, and job satisfaction and work motivation. He takes seriously his position as a role model for graduate students in his department.

"I know they look to faculty for how you behave when you interact with others. If you go to a colloquium, what kind of questions do you ask? What sort of respect do you afford to speakers? If somebody says something strange or awkward, how do you critique someone in a positive way?"

He welcomes intellectual give-and-take with his students. He challenges them by saying, "This is what I know. I'm telling you everything I know. What am I doing wrong? What is the field doing wrong?" When Landis thinks back to professors who influenced him, he realizes that much of what he does in his teaching is tied to way he was taught.

And just as he warns students about the danger of chasing jobs by tailoring their academic coursework to "hot" areas that could end up as fads, he sticks to what he knows will be meaningful in the long run. He doesn't willy-nilly change things to be trendy.

He says, "You get used to delayed gratification. You might be inclined to think, well, nobody appreciates what I do. But you have to give it time." Students often don't see the immediate benefit of what Landis is teaching. Years later, though, they do. He sees former students at conferences, and they say, "I use this stuff all the time."

When he got the call that he'd won the award for teaching, "It was humbling. I sort of feel it's not justified because I've taken so much from other people. They're the ones who shape what I do." Landis adds, "It's nice to acknowledge a single person but you don't want to lose sight of the fact that there are lots of people doing lots of the same things."

To him, the awards show that the university values teaching. That's what is important. "We pick somebody symbolically." And being visible in the Tulane community in this way, "spurs you to do better."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000