FAS Faculty Teach and Learn Together

July 26, 2018

In May, shortly after students departed from Yale for the summer, faculty members from across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had the opportunity to return to the classroom on the other side of the desk - as students. The Faculty Academy offered four mini-courses taught by and for FAS faculty members: Advanced Spanish Conversation taught by María Vázquez (Lector of Spanish), The Hype and Reality of Artificial Intelligence taught by Brian Scassellati (Professor of Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science), Afrofabulations taught by Tavia Nyong’o (Professor of American Studies and Theater Studies), and Teaching and Research with the R Language for Statistical Computing and Graphics taught by Jay Emerson (Adjunct Professor of Statistics and Data Science). These courses, with enrollments ranging from five to 20, took place as part of the Scholars as Leaders; Scholars as Learners (SAL2) initiative, which is a faculty enrichment program designed to nourish innovation and excellence, to build collaboration and community within and beyond departments and programs, and to celebrate and sustain the quality and distinction of the FAS faculty.

Advanced Spanish Conversation was offered to faculty members interested in further developing their conversational abilities in Spanish. Based on the advanced course typically offered to Yale College students at the highest level of the Spanish language program, Advanced Spanish Conversation provided faculty members with the opportunity to improve their language skills through the discussion of literary and cultural readings and films, as well as by participating in a variety of task-based activities designed to improve students’ accuracy and fluency. Lector of Spanish María Vázquez views her work in language instruction as impactful both in and out of the classroom.  “The ability to communicate in Spanish is becoming more and more important in an increasingly integrated global community,” she explained. “I believe that by teaching a second language I help my students develop empathy and cultural understanding that is critical to working—and living—in a global society.” Additionally, Vázquez said that she designed her Faculty Academy course with the specific needs of faculty in mind, explaining that although many faculty members do research in Spanish or in Spanish-speaking countries, they may have trouble making time to polish their language skills during the busy academic year. Professor of Anthropology Catherine Panter-Brick described how her participation in Advanced Spanish Conversation will help with her upcoming fieldwork on faith-based organizations and migrants in the US and Mexico:

“This short class presented me with a unique opportunity to see if I could still follow conversations conducted in Spanish, comprehend texts, and habituate my ear to slightly different pronunciations. I told myself ‘just do it!’”

Professor of Psychology Alan Kazdin, another participant in Vázquez’s course, remarked on the many opportunities for collaboration facilitated by the Faculty Academy:

“The course requires conversation and over the brief time, it was easy to discern each person’s major interests and passions and, as part of that, identify our commonalities. I made contacts with faculty in areas different from mine who can offer huge insights into my research agenda; whose work will help mine in truly novel ways.”

The Hype and Reality of Artificial Intelligence, taught by Professor of Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Brian Scassellati, covered a selection of topics in artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning, examining the impact of intelligent systems on industry, society, and everyday life, and the “hype” surrounding the possibilities of advancement in AI. Organized around lectures and discussion sections, the class allowed participating faculty members to engage with a range of topics including the development of autonomous vehicles, the role of AI in healthcare, and the fantastical automatons promised in works of science fiction. For Sonia Valle, Senior Lector II of Spanish, taking a class on artificial intelligence presented an opportunity to keep up with her students’ interests and diversify her own curriculum in her Spanish language classes. Daisuke Nagai, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, relished the opportunity to learn about AI, an emerging topic in his field of cosmology, as well as “to witness and learn about the teaching style of an excellent lecturer at Yale.” For Scassellati, one of the greatest strengths of the course was the diversity of perspectives brought by participating faculty members:

“Biologists in the group helped us to understand the impact of intelligent drug design algorithms.  Literature scholars kept our considerations of the impact of science fiction stories on AI development sharp and focused. Engineers have insight on what designs were possible and which were less likely. It was truly a collaborative course.”

Tavia Nyong’o, Professor of American Studies and Theatre Studies, offered a seminar entitled Afrofabulations. The course, accompanied by a film series which was open to the public, examined written and visual works engaging with themes of science fiction, fantasy, and the supernatural in modern and contemporary African American and African diasporic culture through the lens of fabulation, which focuses on “the poetics and politics of alternative world-building.” With this course, Nyong’o hoped to bridge the gaps between the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, using an interdisciplinary approach to shed light on “the black diasporic engagement with questions of science, technology, and utopianism.” Shiri Goren, Senior Lector II of Modern Hebrew, said that participating in the Faculty Academy offered the special opportunity for “faculty who represent such disparate areas of knowledge to come together and think through a certain set of issues.” For Goren, who specializes in Israeli literature and visual culture, learning about “innovative and cutting-edge theory in African-American Studies” presented an occasion to further develop her own thinking on the cultural works of Palestinian-Israelis. Nyong’o remarked that the opportunity to teach a course to fellow faculty members brought its own set of opportunities: “Afrofabulation is the subject of my forthcoming academic monograph, so the seminar [was] an opportunity for me to teach from some of the research I conducted for the book, as well as to go further into areas I was unable to cover in the book itself,” he said. “It was great to introduce ideas from my next book in the company of my faculty colleagues.”

In his course on Teaching and Research with the R Language for Statistical Computing and Graphics, Jay Emerson, Adjunct Professor of Statistics and Data Science, sought to convey to Yale faculty the important lessons he learned in his many years working with the R language. The R language, one of the most important programming languages in Statistics and Data Science, is revolutionizing statistical methodologies for data analysis and is increasingly in demand in industry and academia alike. Emerson described the course as “a roadmap [to faculty members] for integrating the use of R in the classroom or for use in their own research.” He explained, “we already have a critical mass of an R community at Yale; this workshop seeks to accelerate this trend and reduce barriers to entry for faculty and researchers.” For Josien van Wolfswinkel, Assistant Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, participating in this Faculty Academy course presented an opportunity to increase her confidence with R and to make the programming tools she uses for her research more natural. Claire Bowern, Professor of Linguistics, said that the chance to receive formal training in the R language was helpful to her research, which has become increasingly quantitative as new fields within linguistics emerge. She added that the class offered the additional benefit of seeing how Professor Emerson taught such technical material, which she believes will enrich her own pedagogical techniques. “It’s good to be a student periodically,” she said, “to remind oneself what works as a teacher.”

The annual Faculty Academy mini-courses are only one part of the five-year SAL2 initiative. Additional opportunities which will begin in the fall include Teaching Relief for Learning, Visits for Innovation, Faculty Leadership Institute, Coaching for Success, and the FAS “Yes” Fund. To learn more about the SAL2 initiative, click HERE.

-Reported and written by Leah Salovey for the FAS Dean’s Office