Teaching Excellence Awards

 Year Awarded: 2016

Faculty Award winner

Farrah Cato

 College of Arts & Humanities

 English

In 2011, I was asked to work in the CAH Dean's Office as Coordinator of Scheduling and Undergraduate Curriculum. I took the opportunity, but refused to give up teaching. Every time I'm in the classroom or working with students, I engage in an incredibly valuable and rewarding process.

I get excited when students ask "but why?" or, "could it be that?" or, "what if we tried this instead?" Sometimes they ask questions I never anticipated, and sometimes for answers I don't have. That they are asking questions is significant: it means they're actively engaging the material, trying to interpret its meaning, employing critical-thinking skills, and that they want to learn. Rather than being intimidated in those moments when I don't know the answer, or shutting down the discussion for more comfortable ground, I have an opportunity. Not only am I lucky enough to engage with students by modeling my own processes, but I also invariably learn something myself. These valuable moments have made me realize that we are often most effective when we, too, are open to learning.

I've worked hard at learning to be a better teacher. I've participated in FCTL Faculty conferences and workshops that cover all facets of the learning process, from assessment to service-learning; from technology to information fluency and curriculum development. My teaching also informed my administrative service since mounting an effective schedule requires a solid grasp of both curriculum and sound pedagogical practices. I've participated in GEP Assessment, developed new course offerings, was recognized as one of the Top 20 Latin & Hispanic Professors in Florida, and earned a TIP in 2015.

My pedagogy emphasizes a student-centered classroom where students "own" their learning and leave with greater confidence in their abilities to engage their world. I encourage this in a number of ways: by fostering learning communities where individuals and their ideas are respected; with assignments that simultaneously tap into a student's creative and critical-thinking abilities; via projects that engage students with online formats and scholarly research. Such projects, while allowing students the opportunity to use their creative faculties, also require them to take intellectual risks that they might not otherwise have attempted. These may sound like simple steps, but in courses that deal with race, ethnicity, or gender, they are crucial.

Such a student-centered approach doesn't mean that students have free rein over the material or that any easy answer will do. My students realize quickly that my version of active learning, even when engaging, is rigorous. I, too, ask them questions like "why?" or, "what if?" or, "but what about when the text says?" In those moments, they understand that the work can be hard, and they confess that my courses are challenging, but the questions we raise are full of potential. When they come back and take my courses again, and when they tell me that they've done so because they liked that they had to think, I learn something else: that something worked, and perhaps even better than I imagined.