History Department
History Department

Dr. Restad receives inaugural Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award, grant proposal funding

Mon, August 24, 2009
Dr. Restad receives inaugural Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award, grant proposal funding
Dr. Penne Restad selected for inaugural ROTA award and receives grant funding

She is the first non-tenure-track faculty in the department to win such a prestigious teaching award. Although her excellent teaching was recognized in fall 2003 when she was chosen to receive the Dad’s Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship.

Restad has been teaching U.S. History courses at the university for over ten years. She began teaching the same year that her book, Christmas in America: A History (Oxford University Press, 1995), was published, and she was soon recognized as a creative and committed instructor.

For several years she taught in special programs for students from historically underrepresented high schools: students who were high achievers but often the first member of their family to attend college and often among a small number of their peers to be college-bound. At the same time, she taught the large sections (200-300 students) of both HIS 315K and 315L: "U.S. History: Pre-Columbus through the Civil War" and "U.S. History: Reconstruction to the Present."

Restad continues to teach those large classes, but she also teaches an intensive seminar of HIS 315L and 315K in the Plan I Honors Program and upper-division seminar courses in American social and cultural history. Two examples include “Myth and the Construction of American Identity” which deals with how we have explained ourselves to ourselves, what characteristics and events drive our self-perception and how that has changed. She also teaches “Consuming America,” a look at how Americans became devoted to, and even defined by, their interest in consumption.

Effectiveness in the large U.S. history survey courses is hard to come by, and it wasn’t that long ago that even the enlightened wondered if scholars of the female persuasion could hold the attention of 300 undergraduates taking courses required for graduation.  But Restad is serious.

She says of her teaching that she believes that “students need to be taken seriously and treated as thinking adults,” not as “objects to be infused” with whatever knowledge of U.S. history she can impart. It follows, then, that she takes her work as a teacher seriously. Restad’s students can tell, and they respond. One of her less conventional tools of engagement in these large classes is what she calls her “doodling.” 

Sometimes while lecturing, she writes or draws on the document camera, the 21st century version of the overhead projector. She notes key words and names, draws diagrams that indicate causality and relationship, and even draws pictures.

In a lecture about changing notions of womanhood that took hold between 1890 and the 1920s, she drew a picture of a “Gibson Girl” and a “Flapper.” Her students are drawn to the movement projected on the large screen. They are attentive; they lean forward to see what the writing, the drawing will reveal.

Even as Restad had been nominated by the department for the Regents’ Award, she was working on new ideas for the U.S. history survey courses. While teaching HIS 315L to a class of 300 in fall 2009, she noticed—not for the first time—how passive the students were. As Restad says, “I kept trying to get them to talk, and sometimes they did. But the fallback was always absolute quiet!”

She knew that students would learn more if they were more directly engaged, if they were working with the historical material first-hand rather than just hearing about it. In other words, “students needed to be doing something rather than just listening to the lecturer.”* Restad thought about what it would take to have students doing something, so she studied the latest breakthrough reports on effective pedagogy.

She wondered what would happen if the instructor created the setting and the questions for study and then had students work cooperatively in small groups to create their own knowledge base. If learning is taking “multiple passes over the same material,” this would provide students with that opportunity.

For example, if studying the consolidation of industrial capitalism in the late-nineteenth century, these student teams would read various sources, primary and secondary, about leading industrialists. The instructor remains active during every class, checking in with groups to discover points of difficulty or confusion to be clarified or amplified with mini-lectures.

All groups would be presented the same questions to consider such as, “were Rockefeller and Carnegie ‘captains of industry or robber barons’” or “why weren’t labor unions more effective?” Each group, working collaboratively, would review the materials, debate the question, pass over the same sources several times assessing it from different angles, come to different conclusions, and, in the process, learn something about the United States in the late-nineteenth century.

With this idea, Restad wrote a proposal for funding to develop a curriculum and applied to the Regents’ new initiative called “Transforming Undergraduate Education.”  Restad learned that her proposal would be funded on the same day that she learned she had been awarded one of the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards. 

Her proposal is based on “team-based learning”—a pedagogical method used in the sciences for several years but just now being considered by instructors in the humanities.  Michael Sweet, Faculty Development Specialist for the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment (DIIA), who has published on the subject of team-based learning, and Restad will work together to implement this innovative curriculum. 

She will work with a seminar of UTeach-Liberal Arts students preparing to teach social sciences at the secondary education level. These future teachers will help develop, test and evaluate the curriculum.

In the spring 2010 semester, the new curriculum will be tested in a HIS 315L section that will include the UTeach students. They will be in the class to observe, participate, and evaluate. As Restad says, “no one has done this before.” She will be implementing cutting-edge pedagogy. We’re betting that the students get involved and forget that they are taking the course as a graduation requirement.

Dr. Megan Seaholm, Lecturer and Newsletter Editor, History Dept., 512-472-3261, seaholm@mail.utexas.edu

Related Links
Dr. Penne Restad
ShelfLife@Texas book blog features: Historian Unwraps Origins of Christmas Traditions
UTeach-Liberal Arts

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