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Even professors need practice

Grad students at Tufts get together to learn how to teach better – a skill often overlooked in graduate programs.

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Hugh Long is used to talking in front of a crowd. He's an actor. But today he's doing a practice run as a university professor. Pacing in front of his laptop, his hands jammed in his pockets, he waits for the class to settle down before launching into a presentation on Shakespeare's use of theatrical swordplay.

His "students" – for now – are fellow PhD candidates at Tufts University, a classic campus perched on a hill with a view of the Boston skyline. For the past month, these 16 scholars from departments as diverse as mechanical engineering and history have been learning about the art of teaching. Now's their chance to try out the strategies and hear honest feedback before they step in front of undergraduates in the fall to co-teach with faculty mentors.

Earlier, Mr. Long had summed up a common lament among graduate students – and even junior faculty – who generally have very little preparation other than basic teaching-assistant jobs: "They just expect you to know – almost as if you walk in [to a PhD program] and being a teacher just automatically comes to you." By contrast, through the new Tufts Graduate Institute for Teaching (GIFT), he said, "I've learned ... some structure, some organizational skills ... and different ways of evaluating students. The other thing I got out of it was a large sense of confidence that I'm on the right track."

Tufts' approach is emblematic of a growing recognition among doctoral programs that they need to impart skills for teaching, not just research. As college classrooms diversify and the pace of technology quickens, there's a demand for scholars who have a flair for more than just a traditional lecture. More than 100 universities now have formal programs to prepare future faculty, many of them spawned by grants administered by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in Washington between 1993 and 2003.

"Some institutions are seeing this kind of broad preparation of their students as giving them a competitive edge in their ability to recruit the best [graduate] students," says Daniel Denecke, director of best practices at CGS. "Other institutions, unfortunately, are still in the mind-set of preparing their students for a handful of [research-oriented] jobs at a handful of universities.... But I think that that culture is on the wane."

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