Speaker exhorts faculty to see students as more than ‘blank slates’

Regional Faculty Symposium


The second annual Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium drew hundreds from the Pennsylvania area and beyond to the David Lawrence Hall on March 11.

The event, which was organized by the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, drew roughly 260 paid attendees, a hundred more than last year, said Erik Arroyo, director of academic support services for the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

Attendees came from schools in Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Kentucky, Maryland and even Canada, Arroyo said, for the one-day conference for faculty, teaching assistants and graduate students from regional schools.

Arroyo said feedback so far has been “extremely positive,” according to surveys sent out.

“We were very, very pleased at how it went,” Arroyo said. “We kind of deemed it a success from start to finish.”

The sessions this year were themed around the research of the event’s keynote speaker, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, associate director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College.

Cavanagh, a psychologist and professor, wrote “The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion,” which was published in 2016. This book, Arroyo said, inspired many Pitt professors, who pushed for Cavanagh to be this year’s keynote speaker.

The book challenges professors to harness emotional impact in their teaching to help students learn more effectively.

Cavanagh hopes this year’s attendees will be more “aware of our students as people with their own emotions and their own lives that are coming to the classroom.”

“(They’re) bringing all of that, rather than just kind of blank slates,” Cavanaugh said, adding that she hopes professors will have “an awareness of that and appreciation for our students as authentic people.”

Throughout the conference, Cavanagh was able to interact with the attendees in the various workshops that took place.

She said she was even inspired by the “Lightning Rounds” toward the end of the conference, where professors presented complex ideas and teaching methods to other attendees in five minutes.

Following a presentation on how 3-D printers can help students understand the structure of the human brain, Cavanagh said she would talk to the provost at her school to try and get a 3-D printer on her campus.

“I always love traveling to different campuses, talking to new faculty,” Cavanagh said. “I told them at the beginning of my talk, that I feel like I learned more from them then they’ve learned from me because at all these events, they’re sharing so many ideas about what they’re using in their own classrooms.”

Arroyo said he and the other organizers are focused on the “student impact” after the event.

“And our hope was that that, let’s say each of these attendees was in position to influence 20 students, be it as a faculty member right now, or someone supporting the faculty member or designing an online course …” Arroyo said. “Our hope is that if each of the attendees had at least one tangible takeaway, one good idea or one good suggestion or one good handshake that might lead to something down the road, then this event has potential to impact 5,000 college students enrolled right now.”

The next Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium is at Chatham University, Arroyo said. And it may be “a while” before it comes back around to Pitt.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.