Friday, September 16, 2011

Former FFTF Fellow Keith Erekson Receives Prestigious ‘Outstanding Teaching Award’ from the University of Texas

Dr. Keith Erekson

The IU Future Faculty Teaching Fellowships Program is run through the The University Graduate School at Indiana University. Deadline for the next round of fellowships is October 14, 2011.

Once an IU Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship (FFTF) recipient, Keith Erekson is now a faculty member in the history department at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He recently received the prestigious Outstanding Teaching Award given to only 72 faculty out of a UT system of nearly 19,000.

After receiving his Ph.D. from IU in 2008, Erekson joined the UTEP faculty and founded the Center for History Teaching & Learning (, which is devoted to improving history teaching in his department and among current and future secondary-level history teachers.

He credits his experiences in the IU FFTF Program with getting him to this point.

“I don’t remember when I first heard about the program,” he said. “I think it was early on, but I remember thinking I wanted to do that. [FFTF] was always on my radar as I was going through coursework and exams.”

In 2007-08, Erekson was accepted into the FFTF program and three campuses contacted him, but two regarded him as inexpensive labor, he said.

“I would have been teaching an introductory survey history class and had a 2-2 load. One campus said straight out that’s all they expected. The other said, well, if you’re good we might let you teach an upper level class in the second semester,” he said. “Contrast that to the offer I got from IU Kokomo where I met students, took a campus tour, talked with faculty. They were really collegial. They treated me like one of their faculty members.”

At IUK, Erekson taught two upper-level history courses, attended faculty meetings, and worked in his own office space complete with printing resources. He was essentially faculty.

“It was huge, I don’t know if I can begin to quantify all the ways that helped,” he said. “The big things were that I was on campus and coded as a visiting professor even though I was in the last year of my PhD program, and also that they let me teach and design my own classes.”

“At the time IUK was pushing hybrid courses offered half in the classroom and half online. It was really enjoyable. In the History department at IUB, I had worked for the Journal of Indiana History, so I knew a lot about the topic, so I taught Indiana history as a hybrid upper-level course. The students were also really excited because although [the Indiana History course] had been listed in the catalogue, it had never been taught at IUK.”

At the end of his FFTF year, Erekson was able to say he had taught survey courses, upper-level courses, online courses and courses he had designed himself. “I had taught all these different things. So, in job interviews when they asked ‘have you taught an upper-level course?’ I could say yes.”

IUK also supported the fact that he was on the job market. He wrote his dissertation that year while teaching, but he also spent time applying for positions. “How do you prepare for sending out 55 job applications? That year I typed them up on the computer they gave me to use and printed them out on university letterhead. They really supported me in sending them out.”

In March of 2008, Erekson received an offer for his position at UTEP, he defended his dissertation in April, graduated in May, and moved to El Paso in July at which point he started fulltime without a hitch.

“I really felt like I had a lot of help when I was starting to teach and that was huge. It’s funny. After I got here, we hired a hotshot postdoc from Yale. He came into my office the second week of the semester and said 'I don’t know how to teach, please help me.' My experience was just the opposite. I felt the FFTF summer retreat and FFTF Kokomo Program was a real advantage. I had gone to the SOTL workshops at IUB, but that summer retreat was really important.”

The FFTF Program not only gave him needed experiences, Erekson said, but the edge needed to land his first position.

“I really think this fellowship gave me the ability to make the leap [into the professoriate] before the economy crashed—it was a real turning point. Instead of one more paper, one more postdoc, I was able to find a tenure-track position and get started with my career,” he said.

Erekson’s new position came with an advising component because UTEP had discovered that nearly half the students in history wanted to be high school teachers.

“They had all these pre-law and pre-grad school workshops, but then realized that many wanted to teach. So the position was designed with an open specialty, and along the way it seemed to make sense to make it a more formal path,” he said.

That’s when he started the Center for History Teaching & Learning at UTEP to help students become teachers and help the faculty become better teachers.

“Teaching was something I wanted to do. I knew it was part of the job of academic life, but I look forward to teaching. I’d worked for the auto industry before and I knew that didn’t make me feel better, but working with people did,” Erekson said. “When I was a grad student, I thought I would do things [in the classroom] differently, so it’s good to be able to put my ideas into practice and see what happens. Those classes you teach again and again are never the same, always a little different; it’s always exciting.”

Erekson offers this advice to graduate students at IU Bloomington. “Pay attention to teaching,” he said. “In every campus interview I had, and I did 12 campus interviews, teaching came up and it came up not just as what do you do in your classroom, but in a ‘our university is up for accreditation this year and we have to demonstrate outcomes, or our dean is asking us to create a senior level rubric.’ It wasn’t the questions I’d heard before. Faculty are now accountable for teaching in many ways. So in each campus visit, faculty were talking about teaching in a ‘oh boy, we-have-this-problem-we have-to-solve’ way.”

“If you know how to design a learning outcome and show students accomplished it or made an improvement in a course and showed it worked, that’s a valuable skill in the industry,” he said. “It’s not just about teaching a course. The students have to learn something and you have to prove they learned something and prove to their parents they learned something. Every time tuition is raised, the more clarity is expected about what a university is teaching. Is it specific and concrete and can you show me what it looks like if they can’t do that or better if they can?”

“It’s a myth that we do teaching by ourselves,” he said. “Teaching requires students, good timing, administration, the right course offering—all of these factors that come into play—it’s really a community activity. And it feels really good to be part of a responsive community.”

 More Information on the Teaching Award