Teaching heroes: Morton adjusts course to the temperament of the class

Thomas Morton


Thomas Morton aims to make teaching a new experience every year.

For his Ancient Roman Architecture in North Africa class in the History of Art and Architecture department — where students create digital mockups of ancient Roman cities, based on archaeological evidence — Morton found “you have to vary it depending on the students in the course.”

Recently, he says, “there were a lot of introverted students in the course who would have been very happy if they didn’t have to say a word.” That semester, his large seminar morphed into smaller groups to encourage everyone to contribute.

On day one of class each semester, Morton has students build paper towers together. Yes, they begin to think about form, structure, aesthetics and a building’s context — all important considerations in architecture. However, he explains, “this is my opportunity to observe my new batch of students. Are they willing to work with each other? Are they willing to accept their classmates’ ideas? Do I see students give up? Do I see others who love the problem and keep working, working, working? And probably more importantly, do I see the students engaging with a new creative problem?

“I don’t have a singular teaching philosophy,” adds Morton, a lecturer in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences department. “Higher education should be a time of exploration and discovery, with a deep engagement of diverse ideas and opinions. I love the energy of the classroom and to bring new material to the students and deeply engage with the ideas behind the material.”

Although Morton has already brought a new class to Pitt (on Islamic architecture) since he joined the faculty in fall 2017, he has taught the history of architecture in one form or another at Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore and Arizona State University, where his teaching was recognized with several awards.

Keeping up with new scholarship, which can put class material in a new context, is crucial, he believes: “There will be things in your teaching career that you will be teaching dozens and dozens of times. When do you engage with that material so you can teach it freshly?”

In a recent proseminar for department students — a class that prepares them to do well in other courses and to seek a career following graduation — Morton asked students to discuss the most important factors when giving oral presentations. Dividing students into pairs and trios, he roamed the room, glancing over shoulders, looking at the resultant lists.

“Keep going. Doing good,” he told one student. Noticing another momentarily cowed by his gaze, he said “Relax! Relax!”

“Lengthy lists are appearing literally all over the room,” he announced. “It means everybody has things to say.”

Everyone has things to say about teaching in his department, Morton says — and that’s been a boon to how he handles his courses as well.

“I’m delighted to be in a department where teaching is taken very seriously and we have very open and deep discussions about teaching. These are regular conversation. I think that’s fantastic. That’s another way to keep your teaching fresh.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.