Kristen McCauliff addresses her class

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s the daughter of educators who told her teaching was in her genes, Kristen McCauliff might seem destined to be a great instructor.

She would 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 stances.

And, like many instructors at that level, she had little training or experience. She would’ve given herself a C.

Today, admired and beloved by colleagues, the assistant professor of communication studies 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 big 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.”

Kristen McCauliff talks at a table.

“I love teaching. And I’m grateful for my chair and my colleagues and the administration for taking teaching 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 “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.”

It’s worked, and her approach motivates 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. I’m regularly inspired by her.”

Her departmental chair thinks such success is a combination of things.

“She’s challenging, supportive, passionate about what she’s teaching and so smart,” said Glen Stamp. “How lucky we are to have her, how lucky the students are to have her. She’s a wonderful colleague.”

Pop culture meets entrepreneurial learning

In fall 2015, 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.

“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 voted on six unit topics from a list, choosing body, ability, disability and labeling; gender and sexuality; geographic location and culture; music industry; video gaming and sports; and war.

McCauliff’s guidelines included a minimum number of sources, which could range from TV to music, YouTube videos to articles about responsible tourism. She knew it was risky.

“Maybe it’ll be a total disaster, but I don’t think so,” she said early in the semester. She slowed down for emphasis: “I just trust them that they’re going to do a good job.”

“(Faculty) have to be tinkerers. We have to be willing to fail and learn from that failure. I want (students) to see me modeling that.” — Kristen McCauliff

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 classroom power.

That’s a challenge, said Stamp. “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.”

Students as creators

Early in the semester, as her students spent a noisy Thursday afternoon class working on source lists, one student asked his group: “Did anyone actually make it over to the library, or were we just surfing the net?”

That’s part of the challenge, said Beth Messner, a communication studies associate professor whom McCauliff calls her mentor.

“Students are so excited about creating the class. They’re not thinking about the work they have to do to actively participate in that process instead of being passive learners.”

In class, McCauliff moved smoothly around the room, facilitating work with questions and suggestions. That’s not what most collegians experience, and Messner commends McCauliff’s daring.

“She’s been willing to take those risks that many teachers won’t. It takes an incredible amount of energy and dedication to demonstrate a true commitment to student-centered pedagogy. I think she’s an exemplar of that.”

“Kristen is the reason I’m in grad school and want to teach at the university level.” — Claire Kochmer, former TA

Stamp praises the effects of McCauliff’s work.

“What she’s offering those students is phenomenal. She changes lives.”

A new direction

That happened to Kochmer, McCauliff’s former teaching assistant. She has clearly benefitted from the student-centered approach and continues to with McCauliff as her master’s adviser. Kochmer expects to get her degree in May, then enter a PhD program.

As a Ball State undergrad, Kochmer planned to use her political science major to work on campaigns. She 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.”

With McCauliff’s encouragement, Kochmer applied to grad schools, picked Ball State and learned a lot as McCauliff’s TA.

“She cares about the students’ reaction. She was constantly checking in with me: Do the students like this? Is it too much? Do we need to update it? And she’s not complacent. She was constantly evaluating her content and tests to improve them.”

What about the future?

While McCauliff has taught eight classes in more than six years at Ball State, she has others in mind.

Kristen McCauliff addresses her class

Aware of pop culture’s media-rich environment, the class’s Twitter page updates at both ends of the room. Favorite themes? Puppies and Kanye West. The best photo, students agreed, would be Kanye with a pup.

She wants to teach grad students — who are current or future teachers — about taking risks, failing and learning from it. She’s inspired by Brené Brown, an author, scholar and speaker whose TED talk about vulnerability is near the top of’s most popular chats.

McCauliff also would love to develop feminist citizenship classes. “I think if everybody lived in the world like feminists, we’d probably be more kind and more generous. I’m thinking through some of those issues: How can we be different types of citizens?”

On teaching and evaluations

When McCauliff now talks about her profession, 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 last fall: “I don’t agree with Kristen about anything, and that’s OK, because she still helped me learn.”

“It kind of makes me emotional, 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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