Read a summary of our conversation with Professor Aries »
Elizabeth (Buffy) Aries joined the Amherst faculty in 1975, during the first year that the College enrolled female students. As one of the initial 16 female-identifying faculty members, she found that some of her male colleagues questioned whether women had the “quality of mind” to be on the Amherst faculty. Buffy pointed to the important role that Dr. Rose Olver played in mentoring and supporting her, especially during her early years at the College.
One of the themes that Buffy addressed as a critical shift in her teaching over time related to how she viewed student capacity for learning and her role as a teacher in supporting student learning. When she arrived at the College, Buffy said, the common pedagogical style was one of “verbal swordplay” in which faculty would frequently challenge students’ knowledge and seek to demonstrate errors or flaws in their thinking in the classroom. She said that in STEM courses, if students were not performing well in their classes by the sixth week of the semester, they were commonly counseled out of science fields. In this way, intelligence was viewed as a fixed trait. You either had the “quality of mind” or you didn’t.
This view of students shaped how she initially approached her teaching. When she was preparing for a new semester, she focused on questions of content and readings. What material would get students excited about, and motivated to pursue, Psychology?
As she continued along her pedagogical journey at Amherst, however, her approach shifted. Buffy reflected, “My pedagogy changed when Amherst College realized that it was failing some of its students.” At this point, Buffy noted that she became increasingly aware of the importance of having other goals, beyond content-related goals, for students in her classes. These learning goals now shape how she prioritizes the time that she allocates to activities in class. She said, “If this is a goal I have, then I need to attend to it.”
One such example she provided was related to her goal of having all students engage with the reading material and independently work to identify the argument and relevant evidence that an author is employing in a piece of scientific writing. She noted that in the past, when she would ask a question in class about argument or evidence, a few students would provide the correct information and, assuming that everyone had the same understanding, the class would progress ahead. However, when she added reading form assignments into her class, which she adapted from Jeff Ferguson’s approach to teaching, she found that many students struggled to articulate responses to questions of argument and evidence. Creating assignments in which she can review the full range of understanding in the classroom allows her to enter into discussion with students about these misunderstandings and support more students’ learning in the class.
Another goal that Buffy identified in her teaching relates to increasing the number of student voices, and the diversity of student voices, that contribute to class discussions. She said, “Peoples’ experiences of race inside and outside the classroom are a legitimate and important part of their learning. I want those voices in my classes.” How does she seek to support this goal in her pedagogy? She uses discussion forums on Moodle before class, in which students are prompted to ask a question, answer their own question, and respond to another peer’s question on the forum. She reviews these responses and she “looks for the quiet students.” What did they post? What themes did they comment upon? She draws these comments into class, naming the contributions of these students and using them to start the class discussion that day.
Toward the end of her reflection, Buffy responded to the question: Why am I still here, teaching at the College, after 47 years? Her answer: “The students.”