For the students sitting in the back row of Foellinger Auditorium, history professor Mark Micale feels your pain.
But it's not so painless behind the lectern either, says Micale, who has been teaching History 142/Western Civilization in the cavernous lecture hall since he arrived at the U. of I. in 1999. At up to 380 students, it's among the largest general education classes on campus.
"Taking over a class that size was a completely new experience," he said. "Suddenly I had a microphone and nine teaching assistants - but there just wasn't any guidance about how to tackle a course that huge."
This year's Distinguished-Teacher-Scholar, Micale will use his title to address the challenges professors face in trying to connect the front of the general education classroom to the back.
"I'm generalizing my predicament and addressing it as a universitywide challenge," he said.
Back then, Micale developed ways to make his course more interesting and accessible to the hundreds of students taking it.
Now, backed by that experience and perennially high marks from students for his attention-holding presentations, he has embarked on a research project to study which approaches on campus have been most successful in teaching large groups of students. The information he gathers will be used to create an abstract and to develop a resource guide sharing best teaching practices and techniques that can be duplicated in any large-class setting.
"My goals are specific and targeted," he said. "There is very little official training that keeps us on our toes as teachers, and there have been no campus resources directed specifically toward teachers to help improve their teaching in 100-level general education classes."
If Micale is successful, the stigma of the sometimes ill-attended and often disrespected "blow-off" class could be lifted for student and professor alike.
Micale already has assembled a 25-member team of "all-star" large-class professors from across the U. of I. campus whom he selected using classroom statistics, the Chancellor's Senior Survey rankings and other measurements including "extensive undergraduate hearsay." These "master Gen Ed instructors" will spend the next year comparing notes and experiences through a series of meetings with Micale that he will videotape.
"Instead of dwelling on what's wrong with general education classes, we're going to look for the striking exceptions to the rule," he said. "There are a handful of these instructors across campus who have been brilliantly successful. I'm getting them together and asking them, 'What are you doing that explains your unique success in this teaching format?"
Micale plans to post the instructor interviews on a website of "Best Teaching Practices," giving everyone on campus an opportunity to share their insights. He's also starting up a regular meeting of a cohort of general education teachers to address instructional challenges and forge new relationships.
"There are over 800 listed Gen Ed courses at the U. of I. and we can't just write these courses off as a pedagogical wasteland," he said. "We don't have to be circus entertainers, but students in this setting need something distinctive to keep them engaged and serious. My hope is that this will be a consciousness-raising exercise that can be applicable to all teaching. I'd like to try to isolate that winning formula."
The Distinguished Teacher-Scholar Program award, which is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, includes a stipend for expenses related to the project and for office assistance. None of the money may be used for faculty salaries, though the recipient is granted extra time to work on the project. The title is permanent.
"The objective of the (program) is to offer talented faculty members not only recognition, but also the opportunity to engage in an in-depth analysis of the craft and art of teaching," says information on the provost's website.