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Center for Teaching Excellence Combines Teaching Tech Resources

Center for Teaching Excellence Open House 10/16, 3-5 p.m.

 CTE Director John Rakestraw
“If we agree that excellent teaching is at the heart of Boston College, then it should follow that excellent teaching is not something confined to the classroom. It should be present in all aspects of a student’s experience at BC.” –John Rakestraw (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 16, 2014

Boston College’s recently opened Center for Teaching Excellence aims to help faculty members refine their craft in the most comprehensive way possible, focusing on the “why” as well as the “how” of teaching in 21st-century higher education.

Housed on the second floor of O’Neill Library, the CTE brings together existing resources in academic technology and professional development – Instructional Design and eTeaching Services (IDeS), the Connors Family Learning Center, and the Faculty Microcomputer Resource Center – in one administrative bailiwick.

The result, say administrators, will be a comprehensive array of tools available for BC faculty to improve and advance their teaching while also gaining a fuller appreciation of their role in a Jesuit, Catholic university. The University community can get an introduction to the center and its features at an open house today from 3-5 p.m.

“A lot of universities and colleges have a center for teaching as well as a center for academic technology,” says CTE Director John Rakestraw. “But there is real value in having all those aspects and functions in one place. As the use of technology in academia continues to grow, it’s all the more important that alongside the technological resources is the expertise and interest in pedagogy – the very language and philosophy of teaching.”

“The name ‘Center for Teaching Excellence’ really says it all,” adds Vice Provost for Faculties Patricia DeLeeuw, who spearheaded the two-year effort to create the CTE. “Rather than call it a ‘center for teaching resources,’ we wanted the name to directly relate to BC: ‘Excellence’ evokes both our motto, ‘Ever to excel’ and the idea that excellent teaching is a feature of BC, something we continually strive for.

“So now, here is the place – which is almost literally at the center of the University – where we can talk publicly about how to be excellent teachers.”

A major, and immediate, part of that conversation will concern the design and operations of CTE, says Rakestraw, who came to BC after 10 years as director for faculty programs at the Georgetown University Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. While some exceptional programs, resources and services are already in place, such as those of IDeS and the Learning Center, notes Rakestraw, he is assessing what other needs CTE can fill, and has spent much of his first weeks at BC speaking on that topic with administrators, faculty, graduate students and staff.

“I want a center that works for BC,” he says. “For that to happen, I need to know the concerns, questions and interests across the University, so we can develop the appropriate programming and resources.”

In his experience – which also includes a four-year stint as assistant director for technology at the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a decade on the faculty of Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., teaching philosophy, religious studies and the humanities – Rakestraw has found that adding technology to teaching often creates excitement and anticipation, but also a number of questions for the faculty member.

“In many instances, the easy thing is getting the technology,” he explains. “What’s more difficult is to figure out how the classroom changes. If we have access to a particular technology, how can I, as the professor, use that technology to deepen my students’ learning? When and why should I not use the technology? And does this particular technology actually aid my rapport with students, or does it get in the way?”

Rakestraw says his time at Georgetown provided an enlightening view of Jesuit education, which – especially with its liberal arts tradition – resonated with him.

“In Jesuit education, there is strong investment in the individual teacher working with students that speaks to my own experience at Wesleyan,” he says. “The opportunity to build on that special dynamic at a place like Boston College, with its own legacy of academic excellence, is an exciting one for me.”

A hallmark of Jesuit education, says Rakestraw, is the intersection of academics with student formation. For that reason, the center aims to encourage not only cross-disciplinary efforts among faculty but also engagement with the Student Affairs and University Mission and Ministry divisions, and to support the University’s core curriculum renewal initiative.

“If we agree that excellent teaching is at the heart of Boston College,” he says, “then it should follow that excellent teaching is not something confined to the classroom. It should be present in all aspects of a student’s experience at BC.”

Rakestraw graduated from McMurry University in Abilene, Tex., with a degree in philosophy and history, and earned a doctorate in religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Says DeLeeuw, “John emerged from our search process as an experienced and thoughtful person who is well-suited to lead the CTE. Coming from Georgetown, he understands what working in a Jesuit, Catholic institution is all about. He’s also used to collaborating with different offices and programs, so we know he will work very well with our outstanding academic technology and professional development administrators and staff.”

Information on the Center for Teaching Excellence will be available at the center’s website, which is scheduled to be operational this week.