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April 3, 2003

ON TEACHING: Mariolina Salvatori and James Seitz

Two Pitt award-winning English professors, Mariolina Salvatori and James Seitz, have spent their careers thinking and writing about the art and profession of teaching, or pedagogy, in addition to performing their teaching duties.

Both professors have been named Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Program Scholars, winning a national competition for the awards, which support teaching scholarship. (Pitt’s English department is the only department of any kind nationwide to have two Carnegie scholar awardees.)

Both professors also are strong proponents of writing across the curriculum, a program that seeks to improve the teaching and learning of writing in all academic subjects.

Salvatori, associate professor, teaches and does research in the areas of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation), composition, literacy and pedagogy. Her publications include: “Pedagogy: From the Periphery to the Center”; “On Behalf of Pedagogy”; “The Teaching of Teaching: Theoretical Reflections,” and “Difficulty: The Great Educational Divide.”

She teaches undergraduate composition and literature and graduate courses in the teaching of composition, literacy and pedagogy, and reception of knowledge theories.

She is a member of the committee on pedagogy and difference as well as the composition committee at Pitt.

Seitz, also an associate professor of English, teaches courses that explore the connections between composition, literature, literacy and education. His publications include “Motives for Metaphor: Literacy, Curriculum Reform, and the Teaching of English” and “From Dismay to Collaboration: Reimagining the Student in Higher Education.”

Seitz has taught a wide range of both graduate and undergraduate courses. He is the director of composition, chair of the University Writing Board, and a member of the CAS curriculum implementation committee.

Seitz is a 2003 winner of the Tina and David Bellet CAS Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes outstanding and innovative teaching in Pitt’s arts and sciences.

Following are highlights of a conversation on teaching Salvatori and Seitz had recently with University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

Teaching strategies

“First let me say that the term ‘teaching tip’ really turns me off,” Mariolina Salvatori said. “There are some methods and strategies that you can transport from one context to another, but they should be the distillation of the theories that the teacher uses in his or her own scholarship. I think of tip as the tip of an iceberg, so what you see is something you can only understand if you know what’s underneath it.”

She cited as an example an assignment she uses frequently in her classes called the difficulty paper, which asks students to write on what they find to be difficult about a reading assignment, rather than what they think the reading means or to draw conclusions.

“The purpose is to teach the student not to move away from complexities. It’s a strategy that forces them to recognize the difficulty, to name it, so it becomes something that can be analyzed and interpreted, so that moment of difficulty becomes, really, a step toward understanding it.

“And it is the student’s difficulty, so the teacher is not importing knowledge to the student; that knowledge is really being produced by the student.”

“Both Mariolina and I are very involved with the training of new teaching assistants,” said Jim Seitz. Both have directed the teacher training program for TAs in the English department. “What I constantly say to TAs is that there are no panaceas in teaching, no strategy is fool-proof,” Seitz said. “Change is happening socially, historically, institutionally, so a method that might have been apropos 20 years ago may no longer work with today’s student.”

Seitz is heavily influenced by educational literature that suggests there are a variety of learning styles. “Some students, for instance, tend to be more visual learners,” he said. “I like to use the board to draw maps and make things visual for students who find that useful. Other students really learn a lot from writing something down themselves before they articulate it. I’m like that,” he added. “You have to consider the heterogeneity of the classroom. You have students in introductory writing and lit courses who are not just different majors from CAS, but from different schools across the campus.”

Students come to courses with different expectations, Seitz pointed out. A student with a technical background might view writing simply as a means of communication, while a literature major may want to express an artistic side.

“These two students in the same class are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, and you might not find yourself necessarily in agreement with either of these two reduced versions of what writing can be. A good, self-aware teacher is constantly thinking about different ways that students learn, not just their different vocabularies, and how that can enter into their teaching plan.”

Picking up on Seitz’s point, Salvatori described a related scenario, where students represent various disciplines.

“Say you have three or four students in an introductory literature class, one from music, one who aspires to be a writer, one an engineer,” she said. “If the teacher uses the term ‘voice,’ how are these three students going to hear that term? How will they understand it? That’s the moment I think the teacher has to stop and ask them, what do you think I mean by that? And that’s also the moment when the teacher can learn to transform the meaning of voice because the concept may be enlarged or made more complex by the input of the student. But you need to be open to that additional layer of meaning as a teacher.”

“To go back to what Mariolina was saying about tips,” Seitz said, “you could say, ‘Okay, that’s a great tip: Think about your students’ various learning styles.’ Then when you get to actually doing it, that makes it so particularized that as a teacher you are constantly re-learning how to do it. You never walk out of a course and say, ‘Boy, this semester I finally solved it: I know how to work with a heterogeneous population.’ Instead, the next semester your students are different in different ways, and you have to start from scratch. That’s why we’re wary of tips, because they tend to de-contextualize the situation.”

Similarly, Seitz said, teachers should not overestimate the usefulness of teaching models.

When TAs are struggling with how to comment on students’ papers, Seitz might use examples of remarks he has written on sample papers. “But I don’t want them to treat that as a model and say, ‘Presto, I’ll just do what Jim did.’”

“It’s impossible to generalize on how to teach graduate students what they should do as teachers,” Salvatori added. “The problem though is that the difficulty of teaching teachers has been taken historically as a reason for not teaching teachers.

“People say, ‘You go figure it out.’ Now that is both true and false: You can figure it out, but it’s also true we have to realize how much time graduate students have, what kind of pressures they have, are they really committed to learning about teaching?”

“Does the institution support it? Reward it?” Seitz added.

“Right,” Salvatori said. “Now the other version is that teaching is inspirational, and if I am an inspired teacher, then you just watch me, and imitate me.”

“I’m passionate! I’m charismatic!” Seitz chimed in.

“And another layer to consider,” Salvatori continued, “is that when Jim and I talk about the importance of establishing a rigorous and serious approach to teaching, we are often told: ‘Where is the passion, where is the love?’ As if passion and love were antithetical to rigor and discipline. They are not. The components that really should be together are divided; it is much easier to say I’m either this or that.”

Seitz also has been guided in his 10 years at Pitt by colleagues in the English department. With freshman writing, for example, he said the general philosophy here is not simply teaching students grammar or sentence structure — “or a neat paper wrapped up with a little bow” — which is how composition is often taught elsewhere.

“We try to teach a kind of inquiry among students that wouldn’t necessarily result in more polished writing, but in a kind of writing that was more deeply involved, engaged, invested, committed, and that sometimes means sloppy to begin with,” Seitz said. “It’s all right for students to say, ‘I’ve got myself into difficulties here, because in really thinking about this, maybe I can’t tie it up neatly in a few pages.’”

Salvatori said, “Teachers need to learn that an error can be a productive area of inquiry, rather than a reason to punish or deride. Sometimes I think we don’t spend enough time questioning why we do something in the classroom, particularly with undergraduates. Approaches are not just chosen on a whim. They come from something very deep in a teacher’s heart and mind. I teach the way I do because of the kind of person I am, and that includes my experiences as both a teacher and student.”


Seitz and Salvatori, colleagues for 10 years, had never discussed what inspired them to become teachers themselves.

For Seitz it was his high school senior-year English teacher, “a stern, strict fellow, who was the most rigorous teacher I ever had.”

Rather than rehashing plots of the works they read, “he taught us how to read, how you stop and look at a paragraph, for instance, and stay with it maybe for a day or two,” Seitz said.

“But, most of all, I learned that the works by these writers who were long dead and gone were shedding light on my own confusion as an adolescent, and I found that I wanted to be able to help students think about their lives in the context of language and literature.”

Seitz quickly added that, while this teacher was inspirational, Seitz does not imitate him.

“We were just talking about the charismatic teacher, and it’s very tricky to tell this story and not have it echo in that way. Because in fact I later came to reject all the specific techniques he used. He was extremely authoritarian; he had the answer to Hamlet. You had to try to get there. He was a strict grammarian, correcting all our errors without explaining them.

“It’s an interesting paradox,” Seitz continued. “He used techniques that I now would not endorse, and so I feel very ambivalent about the sources of my own inspiration as a teacher.”

Salvatori came from a long line of teachers in her native Italy. “But, as I was listening to Jim’s story, I was thinking that actually my inspiration was a negative inspiration: It was a teacher I hated, and she hated me because I didn’t comply with her rules,” Salvatori said.

The rules included memorizing lots of text, which was not Salvatori’s strength.

“You were called out of your seat and asked to recite a whole canto of Dante or a whole poem. But my question was always, why do we have to do that? What are we achieving?”

She recalled a passage in Dante’s “Inferno,” involving two lovers who are put in Hell. “But they are lovely characters who are always pictured reading. And they float in the air and they dance. What does it mean? If they’re sinners, why do we like them? This is what I wanted to ask, but of course you were not allowed to ask that.”

So, Salvatori’s negative experience turned into motivation for her. “I’m naturally introspective, and because of that I’ve studied theories of education. And now I’m able to see I was right and my teacher was wrong, because it is very important and pertinent to ask these questions. I was ahead of my time, and I didn’t know it.

“And now I’m sweating. Those are images that give me goosebumps to think back on now,” she said.

Seitz said, “I still think of my teacher as a positive influence and example, but I had many negative examples along the way.”

As an undergraduate, he sometimes found himself spending more time critiquing his teachers than learning from them. “I found myself writing in the notebook, not notes on the teacher’s lecture, but: ‘Why is he going about it in this way? If he really wanted to get us going, he’d ask that, or he’d have us do this.’ I found myself really thinking as a future teacher in my classes, because I didn’t like what certain teachers were doing.”

Reflections on the state of the art

The two professors agreed that teachers have a responsibility to change with the times.

“I can make a lot more headway with students by using examples from film, television and music, than I can by using examples from books,” Seitz said. “Instead of talking about a narrator’s point of view, for instance, I can say, ‘You know how when the camera does this….’ And that’s useful. I happen to enjoy [those other media]. But even if I didn’t, I would find it a responsibility of my profession to keep up, because I don’t think we have a reading public or student body that sees reading novels as what you do.”

Put another way: Faculty need to listen to their students, Salvatori said.

“What often happens is that faculty move in vertical and parallel lines, and therefore, my teaching doesn’t get to build on somebody’s else’s teaching. But I think we also are responsible for that, because we don’t find a way of letting students tell us what they learned from that other class.”

According to Seitz, doctoral training often discourages faculty from developing dialogues with students, while encouraging the faculty to feel intellectually superior. “The door is not open to students for making knowledge at the university. And I very surprised at how passive students are. They’ll complain about a professor in the course evaluations, when it’s too late.”

Seitz said students also suffer from a consumer-based approach to education, where they see the curriculum as a marketplace for comfortable products that afford the easiest ways to get through degree requirements.

“Students shop for courses like it’s a Chinese menu: ‘I’ll have beef with my chop suey,’ and if a teacher cooks up a dish in a certain way, that doesn’t have anything to do with what this other teacher does down the road.

“So there’s not a sense of the university offering an integrated curriculum, and no sense of a teacher having to account for how this course fits in with all the rest,” he said.

Partly that is due to the increased emphasis on specialization, where scholars work in untapped, often isolated areas, Seitz said. Another part of the lack of integration comes from the division of labor in a major university. “As we shrink the tenured faculty, more of them are teaching only in their areas of specialization at the upper divisions or graduate level of the academy. But the courses that drive you to think about the curriculum, more broadly speaking, are the lower division courses, the general education courses.”

“This is something we must fight against,” Salvatori said. “The introductory classes are the ones that really keep us in touch with the new generation of students; with their progress; what they read; with the kind of preparation they bring from high school.”

Seitz said, “A number of teachers in our department, in fact, make what I consider an ethical decision to teach at least one lower division course a year and they don’t have to. But we’ve moved from 500 majors in the English department three years ago to 800 majors, and we have not received any additional tenured positions,” forcing tenured faculty to teach more upper-division courses to accommodate the needs of majors.

These are age-old questions and not unique to Pitt, the professors agreed. Are there any solutions?

“What I’d really like to do is replicate the Carnegie experience in the English department,” Salvatori said, referring to her work as a Carnegie scholar. “To consider, for example, all our colleagues as if we were from another discipline. This would force us to explain to others what it is we are doing in our teaching and scholarship. What are our assumptions, what are our goals? So that when a student from a colleague’s class comes to my class and says something about what reading is or what modeling a sentence is, I would understand where they are coming from and I can help the student build on it and transform it.”

“Mariolina, I just love your idea, that we could replicate that within the department, because this is a big department and there are a lot of subdivisions and specializations,” Seitz said. “We would each try to articulate what it was we were doing in the classroom, and what our project was — I’m working on this book, I’m looking at this problem — and my relationship to that is to try to help you to complete it or refine it. You gave a brilliant answer because it’s actually doable (laughs).

“I’d like to suggest something more radical,” Seitz added, “which would be a restructuring of the way we set up teaching and learning in the University so that it would not be done in this Chinese menu format, where you come in as a student among 15,000 others and you carve out your own little individual path.”

Instead, the undergraduate curriculum would follow the living-learning community model, similar to Pitt’s honors college or the academic villages at the regional campuses.

“These learning communities are where both the professors across disciplines and the students are working together as a core group. So while you’re doing X in literature and we’re doing Y in chemistry, how might we establish a link between those things? Writing is often one way in which that can happen, as well as extracurricular projects, like: We’ll all go see this play. Or in English class we’ll read a book written by a biologist.”

This would de-emphasize the role of the department, as well as students’ tendency to carve out an entrepreneurial academic path, he said. “So my affiliation would not necessarily be with the English department, but might be more closely aligned with the 10 or 15 faculty members working in this core group, where we have 100 students we see outside of class and not just for 50 minutes three times a week,” Seitz said.

He acknowledged that there are forces that could defeat this kind of push, such as the fact that a research university values research over teaching and sees disciplines as the primary engines of research.

But Salvatori and Seitz agreed that pushing for a pilot version of this plan with the administration’s support would be worth the effort.

Seitz said, “If I were to go to fellow teachers from other disciplines who were already committed to writing across the curriculum — and they’re here at Pitt — if I were to get 10 teachers interested in joining me, and we were to get funding and try for a year or two to set up this kind of community with a group of students who would sign up for this on a voluntary basis, I see this as a very attractive idea.”

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