Illustration of two large heads in conversation with one another.
By Greg Shook Illustration by The Project Twins

The new Rice Center is the college’s first centralized hub of programs and resources focused solely on pedagogy for all faculty.

What are the most effective active learning strategies in the classroom? How can professors design a course schedule that promotes student wellbeing and flexibility throughout the semester? What are the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) on coursework and grading?

The college’s new Joseph Lee Rice III 1954 Center for Teaching, now in its second semester, is addressing these questions and more through conversations, workshops and other programs designed to support faculty across all disciplines and at all stages in their careers.

Teaching and professional support programs are not new to the college, but they often have focused on new faculty. (Take the Program for Effective Teaching, established in 1995, and, later, First3, designed for faculty and fellows in their first three years at Williams.) The Rice Center, meanwhile, takes a more comprehensive approach. The emphasis is on learning from one another, from staff members with expertise in student learning and from invited guest speakers.

“We want the center to provide faculty with the space, time and resources to enjoy conversations about teaching,” Susan Engel told the Williams Record in September. Engel, who is serving a two-year term as the center’s senior faculty fellow, is also a senior lecturer in psychology and the Class of 1959 Director of the Program in Teaching. “Most of us work [at Williams] because our scholarship and our teaching feed one another. The center should nourish our love of working with undergraduates.” The Rice Center will also have a physical home, slated to open this fall in a renovated space on the main level of Stetson Hall. The space is made possible by a $10 million commitment from Rice, a member of the Class of 1954 and Williams trustee emeritus, and Franci J. Blassberg.

More than 150 faculty members have already taken advantage of Rice Center programs so far. In January, about 75 faculty members attended the center’s first major program—two workshops with author and educator James Lang, professor of English and director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University. Lang shared ideas from his books Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.

More recent programs have included a forum examining how AI platforms such as ChatGPT can aid in information acquisition and writing assistance; a workshop on strategies for managing student academic accommodations; and a discussion about teaching diverse populations within the Berkshires community and how to collaborate on community initiatives.

In May, the center planned a workshop with bestselling authors Kelly A. Hogan and Viji Sathy on teaching strategies that emphasize how structured, active learning can create more equitable classrooms and improve learning outcomes for all students. “The Rice Center arrives at a time when a couple of major events—the pandemic and advent of large language models—may change the landscape of teaching forever,” says computer science professor Rohit Bhattacharya, who joined the faculty in 2021. “ChatGPT is forcing many of us to rethink what we ask of our students and how. Keeping pace with new developments in technology and pedagogy is central to the center’s mission, so I’m glad it’s here to help ease the transition into what I think is going to be an interesting new age of pedagogy.”

Tomas Adalsteinsson, assistant professor of physical education, says the Lang workshops and others organized by the center are prompting healthy discussions about ways to improve teaching and learning at the college.

“Younger faculty members have shared fresh ideas and new perspectives on teaching, while more experienced faculty members have contributed their insights on effective teaching methods,” says Adalsteinsson, who is also head coach of women’s golf. “This exchange of ideas and learning from one another ultimately benefits our students and enhances the overall quality of education at Williams.”

In addition to Engel, the center is administered by a director selected from the faculty and a full-time staff person. Biology professor Matt Carter is serving a three-year term as faculty director, and Cait Kirby, who came to Williams in November 2022 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Teaching and Learning, is the associate director.

Carter says he’s excited to build on the center’s early success with several new programs in the coming years. Among them, he says, are plans for “confidential one-on-one consultations to discuss specific teaching goals and offer personalized feedback, and also mechanisms for teaching observations such that colleagues or teaching center staff can observe classes and provide feedback.”

“Keeping pace with new developments in technology and pedagogy is central to the center’s mission, so I’m glad it’s here to help ease the transition into what I think is going to be an interesting new age of pedagogy.”

– Rohit Bhattacharya, assistant professor of computer science

In addition, the center will develop what Carter calls “faculty learning communities,” small groups that discuss teaching strategies, share experiences and collaborate on projects. It also hopes to offer a set of curated online resources—articles on teaching, teaching guides and links to helpful resources on teaching—and “course design clinics” in which faculty can develop new courses in collaboration with each other and Rice Center staff.

“By listening to everyone’s input,” Carter says, “we are collectively working to design a teaching center that has something to offer everyone.”

Learn more about the Rice Center for Teaching.