Dr. Tiffani Riggers-Piehl is the Assistant Director in the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor University (Waco, TX). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, where she studied college student spirituality and student-faculty interactions. Prior to her studies at UCLA, Tiffani earned a Master of Science degree in Educational Administration at Baylor University, where she discovered her interest in scholarly pursuits: specifically spiritual and moral development, research and teaching, and gender differences in education. She left a career in fashion merchandising to pursue a path in higher education. Since 2003, she has served in various roles within student affairs and the academy, and for the last year has been working in her current role at the intersections of teaching and learning. I know Tiffani as a valued colleague, talented teacher, and friend.
What do you do every day?
The Academy for Teaching and Learning (ATL) is outside of traditional student affairs. A lot of my day is spent planning events for faculty, coordinating presenters and topics, working with graduate students on research projects relating to teaching and pedagogy, and working to help faculty be better at what they do. A typical day is a lot of emails and a lot of meetings. I also do some teaching of faculty and some teaching of students as well.
What inspires you to do this work?
I thought I was going to be in student affairs. When I started in student affairs in 2003, I was working in athletics and doing women’s ministry. I loved undergraduate students. During my master’s program, I worked in spiritual life with students and student leaders on a variety of different service projects. At the same time, I was exposed to research on college student spirituality, and this whole world was opened up to me. I realized that it was okay to do research on things related to spirituality and this idea of meaning and purpose.
How do people find meaning and purpose in their lives? How can we help students develop that meaning and purpose in their collegiate experience and on into their careers?
When I found there was this avenue of research open, I thought I would get a Ph.D. in education and do research on student spirituality and then return to student affairs. Through my experience in doctoral work, though, I remembered my love for teaching. There’s this sense of mentoring and teaching that go together. When I was in the corporate world, I was always the trainer, always the one teaching others. So I began asking, what if I was teaching instead of doing practical student affairs work? What if I was teaching in the classroom instead of teaching in the life and co-curricular context?
That’s where my focus had begun to shift when the ATL position came up. The focus of ATL is to inspire a flourishing community of learning on campus for both students and faculty. Our desire is that we would encourage learning; for faculty that means learning about teaching and for students that means having good learning experiences. I get to teach while doing this administration post. After a couple of years I may move into a faculty position, or perhaps I will stay in administration. But for now, I enjoy getting to be in both worlds.
What keeps you going during times of frustration and challenge?
This year, I’ve had to adjust to a new position, a new institution, a new context. What has kept me going, though, has been how the work that I’ve done has impacted me personally. I’ve learned from the speakers we’ve brought in and the events we’ve done. It has helped me become a better teacher. Hearing from faculty and graduate students that are attending these events, they talk about how the workshops are benefitting them. They are finding nuggets to use in their teaching. I know students are getting a better experience from the work that we do. It is nice to know that it makes a difference and that you might be having some kind of impact on the people that are participating in the programs. Sometimes when we’re doing an administration post, it is easy to think that it is all just paperwork, emails, and meetings, but when students are being impacted positively, it makes it worth it. The work matters.
How does your work contribute to the flourishing of students and the university?
Baylor has had a historic focus on teaching. With Baylor 2012 (university strategic plan from early 2000s), there was this real increased focus on research and there was kind of concern on campus that good teaching may fall by the wayside as the research expectations of faculty were made higher. What we really see in the ATL as our role is to help faculty stay inspired and enthusiastic about teaching. As they identify the research they want to do and move toward publication, it is very hard to prioritize both teaching and research, because there are limited time resources. For me, what it means is keeping faculty interested and enthusiastic about teaching, presenting them with new evidence about different teaching strategies and skills. We have to model to our students that learning is a process and that teaching and learning is not just a transaction. When things fail, it’s not a reflection on us as individuals. We need to hear that and be reminded of that. It’s okay to experiment in the classroom. It’s okay to take a small chunk of time out of your summer to work on your course improvement and to take the feedback you get from a course evaluation and improve it. I would love to see all faculty involved in our programs. You can get this one sentence and it works around in your brain and takes off. What if I do this one thing? Before you know it, you’ve branched off from the initial presentation. You’ve branched off to this place that is really going to benefit your students and benefit you personally.
One of our graduate students this year came to me and said not all of our graduate students feel like they are learning to teach. So we said, what if we made a workshop for them, a two-day workshop to give them the building blocks of how to teach. And he got completely inspired and got another graduate student to help him. They completely planned and executed this workshop, and it was awesome. The feedback was really positive about how the students learned about teaching and how they could become better teachers. So that was one of those moments where I was excited that I could empower a student and watch him and his partner take ownership of it. Then, I got to be a part of it. I got to speak at it and support them. It was exciting!
In my own experience, early on I was sitting in a seminar, and my brain was going crazy, with all that I was learning. In those moments, it’s wow! This is exactly where I am supposed to be. I was nervous this position may be too far afield from my teaching aspirations but in those little moments, I began to see how my calling is being executed, where I am getting to teach and to learn in ways that I could not do in a traditional faculty role.
Tidbits & Takeaways
As I [Erin] asked Tiffani about advice that she had for other higher education professionals, she reflected on her career path, from fashion merchandising to student affairs to the academy. Her takeaway is a valuable reminder to all of us that there is not just one approach to different opportunities. “Just because we’ve been in student affairs 10 or 15 years, we shouldn’t let that stop us from exploring other areas of higher education or the academy. We need to remember that our skills are transferrable and that we, as individuals, do not have to follow a cookie cutter approach to our careers. There are a lot of different paths to where we end up.” As I, too, have followed a non-traditional path to higher education, I have found that to be true in my life. There are many different paths we can follow as we passionately pursue our calling and many different ways we can contribute to the flourishing of our campuses and our students.
This post is a part of Callings & Conversations, a collection of conversations with administrators and champions of higher education about the work that we do and why it matters. If you would like to share your story, I welcome the opportunity to hear from you. Feel free to connect with me @LearnForwardHE.
Links of Interest
Click here to see all posts in the Callings & Conversations series.
About the Author: Erin Payseur is the Associate Director of Civic Learning Initiatives at Baylor University. She has ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As part of the Office of Community Engagement & Service, she develops sustainable frameworks for co-curricular service & social justice initiatives to guide students in considering their roles as leaders and citizens. She currently serves as the institutional contact for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative. She has authored several articles and presented nationally on civic engagement, service, and leadership. In addition to her civic engagement work, she also serves as adjunct faculty for the leadership minor. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.