Throughout the fall 2019 semester, Tobin Miller Shearer, a University of Montana history professor and director of the African-American Studies program, required students in his White Supremacy History/Defeat class to eat weekly meals together. The meals, along with group projects and students' ability to select course readings, are a few of the teaching methods that help Shearer engage students.
Those same methods led the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education (OCHE) and Board of Regents to recognize Shearer as one of 12 faculty members across Montana who will receive a stipend and support to develop high-impact teaching practices for student success and serve as models for others in higher education.
Shearer said he aims to bring such practices into general education classes, which are typically held in lecture halls because they have the most students.
"He adapts his teaching styles to the classroom setting so if he's in a larger lecture with anywhere from 50 to 75 people, he still finds a way to make sure that the students are engaged and working together and doing something active as opposed to just lecturing," said Jolie Scrivner, a first-year master's student at UM who has worked with Miller Shearer for the last three years. "It allows students to really engage in these 100-level classes and actually work with the material instead of regurgitating information."
Scrivner is pursuing a master's degree in history with a focus on African American intellectuals and identity politics at the turn of the 20th century. She said taking courses with Miller Shearer, such as an introductory course called "From Africa to Hip-Hop," was what led her to develop an interest and pursue a minor in African American studies.
The $1,500 award and $500 stipend will help Miller Shearer design and facilitate a faculty learning community at UM. Faculty members Lauren Fern and Sarah Schroeder were also recognized as Montana University System teaching scholars, and will work with their own cohorts to develop high impact-practices.
"Across the system, we are going to be inviting our colleagues into spaces where we can reflect together about how we can improve our teaching in those general education classes," Miller Shearer said. "I'm anticipating that everyone who comes in the room will be thinking, 'How can I increase the effectiveness of my instruction to engage students in ways that they may not have typically thought about doing before?'"
When discussing high-impact practices, Miller Shearer refers to the model he used for his White Supremacy History/Defeat class, which was held in secret locations on campus due to death threats he received from white supremacist groups.
"In that class, I bring a framework of the big three themes we're going to work with, but the students select the final readings," he said.
Students in the course worked in small groups for the duration of the semester, collaborated on projects and partook in weekly meals together. Miller Shearer said those practices, along with a "soup and pie" night that he hosts every fall for the African-American Studies program, help build a sense of community.
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"It's those kind of community fostering activities that increase students' engagement with the course content," Miller Shearer said. "It's about getting them to identify with the course, to increase their investment with the course content and to have far more academically rigorous outcomes because of those practices."
Miller Shearer will incorporate the high-impact practices he has used in the past, along with new ones he identifies from the learning communities, as he develops a new general education course for the fall 2020 semester called "God: Past, Puzzle, Present." The class will review humans' engagement with the divine across time and space, according to Miller Shearer.
On Friday, Miller Shearer joked in his office that he was trying to think of a way to make sure all of his students get As in the upcoming spring semester, but he was only half kidding.
Scrivner said Miller Shearer makes a concerted effort to get to know students and create a welcoming environment for students to visit his office.
"He always replies to emails almost immediately and he's the fastest professor when it comes to grading, which makes a big difference because students will either write a paper take a test and by the time they get it back two weeks later, they don't care about it anymore," Scrivner said.
Miller Shearer said the award is really about the students and emphasized that he is always learning from his students, especially in his role as the first white director of UM's African-American Studies program.
"I'm always just so excited to get in the room and have yet another chance to work with a group of students who want to be in the classroom and always amaze me with the thoughts and ideas that they come up with," he said.
Next week, Miller Shearer will meet with the rest of the Montana University System Teaching Scholars in Helena to brainstorm ways they can best bring the practices into the classroom.
“Our talented and dedicated faculty are in many ways the lifeblood of the Montana University System,” Brock Tessman, an OCHE deputy commissioner, said in a press release. “This is particularly true when it comes to providing a high-quality academic experience for our students. This program is one way our office can celebrate and support outstanding faculty who are committed to making student learning more innovative, exciting and meaningful.”