Topic: College of Communication Information and Media

January 11, 2016

Kristen McCauliff praises her students after they turn in a difficult assignment. “I’m proud of you," she says. “No matter what you turn in, you battled today.” 

As the daughter of educators who told her teaching was in her genes, you might think Kristen McCauliff was destined to be a great instructor.

She’d disagree.

The first time she taught, as a master’s student at Wake Forest University, did not go well.

“I used teaching strategies that weren’t effective and weren’t kind. I would use sarcasm a lot, and shame even, because I was teaching from a place of insecurity and fear. I was scared of my students and was trying to keep them at bay.”

Adding to that was her unwitting silencing of the class with her then-dogmatic feminist political stances.

And she had little teacher training or experience. The assistant professor of communication studies would’ve given herself a C.

Today, admired and beloved by colleagues, she leads some of her department’s toughest classes and has student evaluations that average 4.65 on a 5-point scale.

“Kristen is the reason I’m in grad school and want to teach at the university level,” said Claire Kochmer, McCauliff’s teaching assistant from 2014-15. “The way she taught made me think maybe I want to teach and stay in this area.”

Learning about teaching

How’d McCauliff make a change so major that she won Ball State’s 2015 Outstanding Teaching Award?

“I started to think about teaching as a skill that I could hone, just like my writing, just like other aspects of being an academic. I started taking it seriously.”

It began when she was a doctoral student at the University of Georgia and accelerated at Ball State. As a member of Ball State’s Diversity Associates Program, McCauliff worked with faculty members “like David Concepción in philosophy and others who made me contemplative about my teaching. If I’m having a problem in class, I try to read literature about it. I try to get better.”

Her approach inspires her colleagues.

“Kristen has the magic touch because of her sparkling personality and interest in perfecting her teaching craft,” said Laura O’Hara, associate professor of communication studies. “Hours and hours of thought and research and planning go into her teaching. She makes it look effortless.”

Pop culture meets entrepreneurial learning

This fall, McCauliff embraced Ball State’s emphasis on entrepreneurial learning by creating her pop culture class syllabus with her students. That decision sprang from evaluations that praised the class but not its materials.

“Faculty members have to be tinkerers. We have to be willing to fail and learn from that failure. I don’t just want my students to be entrepreneurial; I want them to see me modeling that.”

Kristen McCauliff
assistant professor of communication studies

“I have 70 students at my disposal who are experts in pop culture,” she said. “They read interesting things, have interesting thoughts, are more knowledgeable about movies and television and music and gaming than I am. Why not let them participate?”

Students democratically picked topics for six units, and McCauliff gave guidelines that included a minimum number of sources, which could range from TV to music, YouTube videos to articles about responsible tourism.

She reviewed all recommendations, using some as submitted and others as jumping-off points. She found academic resources to round out ideas, including a new-to-her exploration of mental well-being.

Such collaboration dovetails with two of her beliefs.

First, faculty members must be entrepreneurial learners. “We have to be tinkerers. We have to be willing to fail and learn from that failure. I don’t just want my students to be entrepreneurial; I want them to see me modeling that.”

And she said she’s led, as a feminist, to diffuse some of her power as a teacher.

Said Glen Stamp, her departmental chair: “She’s very aware of the dynamic of power and lets students have a certain amount of control, but she’s still guiding them. They have responsibility that they don’t in other classes.”

The daring required to have students actively participate in their learning draws praise. “She’s been willing to take those risks that many teachers won’t,” said Beth Messner, associate professor of communication studies, whom McCauliff calls her mentor.

“It takes an incredible amount of energy and dedication to demonstrate a true commitment to student-centered teaching. I think she’s an exemplar of that.”

The rewards of being student-centered

Kochmer, McCauliff’s former teaching assistant, has clearly benefitted from the student-centered approach and continues to as she expects to earn her master’s in May with McCauliff as her adviser. Then Kochmer plans to enter a PhD program.

As a Ball State undergrad, she planned to use her political science major to work on campaigns. Kochmer added a communication studies minor to look better to potential employers and took McCauliff’s rigorous rhetorical criticism class.

“She’s available to students and explains content in a way that makes it manageable and interesting. She uses humor, and she keeps content constantly fresh.”

Students and colleagues are happy. So is McCauliff. When she talks about being a better teacher, you hear joy, energy and a light spirit in her voice. “I love teaching, and I’m grateful for my chair and my colleagues and the administration for taking teaching seriously.”

With all the praise she’s gotten, what’s she proudest of?

She quickly quotes from a student evaluation: “I don’t agree with Kristen about anything, and that’s OK, because she still helped me learn.”

“It kind of makes me emotional,” McCauliff said, “because that’s what I have been working toward for these last six years – to be the type of person who could be that in the classroom space. I’ve worked really hard to be an inclusive, supportive, learner-centered teacher.

“I don’t want them to all agree with me. I just want them all to feel they had a space and a voice and a say.”

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