From gatekeeper to guide: One professor’s experience with the Alda Center
Gail Langellotto, a professor at Oregon State University, was getting burnt out by her career in academia.
She loved her research about the effects of planned landscapes on pollinators, and enjoyed working with her graduate students in her lab, but was struggling to connect with students in her classes.
“Before this semester, I acted like a gatekeeper (of knowledge) but now I see myself as a shepherd. That sounds like a cliche, but when I was brought up in academia, teaching was treated almost like a gauntlet,” Langellotto said. “I’m no longer looking at my students as people who have to prove themselves to me, but building an environment where they all feel welcome, regardless of how they are doing in the class.”
For years, Langellotto had been trying to improve and clarify how she taught a required introduction to entomology course. When she discovered that every one of her graduate students was better at simplifying science than she was, she decided she needed help.
“I knew what I needed to do but I had no idea how to get there. I would try to be more entertaining, but it wasn’t genuine. I thought maybe if I talk louder or gesticulate more, maybe it would help,” she said. “I had admired the work of the Alda Center for a long time. After I made full professor, I felt that I’d earned this time to myself and I signed up for the STEM Immersion workshop in January.”
The two-day program, offered by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, helps scientists learn to speak about their science by helping them learn to pay attention to their audience, to identify goals for every talk or conversation, and to practice those conversations. The trainings are not focused on tactical communication, but focus on blending improvisational theater exercises with storytelling strategies to help participants communicate clearly and vividly.
And after the two-day program, Langellotto said, she started giving her students a chance to tell her what they understood, rather than trying to get through as much of the course material as possible.
“When I’m teaching a class or giving an outreach talk, I do a lot more real-time assessment,” said Langellotto. “I’ll stop the class to do a mini quiz or I’ll stop the talk and ask questions and see what the group is taking in, and I’ll adjust based on what they tell me. It diminishes the amount of content I can present but I think it enriches the experience.”
Because her intro course is held at 8 a.m. three days a week, Langellotto also started making breakfast for her students once a week, usually baking at home or bringing in yogurt and granola. Though she started feeding students as a bribe to improve attendance, she committed to it when a student told Langellotto that there wasn’t a lot of food at home.
“That really changed everything. I wanted to feed them all the time,” she said. “I wanted to make it clear that everyone was welcome in this class, even if they didn’t see its applicability to them or they were struggling. I was trying to build the trust between all of us.”
And her techniques seem to be working. Attendance went up and not just when there was going to be breakfast. At the end of the semester, her students applauded - a first for her, in decades of teaching.
Langellotto is the first to admit that simply attending a two-day workshop wasn’t enough for her to make such a significant change. The Alda Center’s STEM Immersion program encourages participants to truly empathize with an audience - whether it’s a public lecture of hundreds or a one-on-one conversation - and that kind of deep listening and willingness to put the other person’s needs first is the opposite of how most people approach a conversation, an email, or a public lecture.
“When I catch myself drifting away from that teaching, I try to recalibrate and listen, even if what I’m hearing isn’t always the easiest thing to hear,” Langellotto said. “In the beginning it was exhausting. With practice it becomes easier. It’s part of my daily practice.”