Fayetteville State University
2016 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner: Heather M. Griffiths, Fayetteville State University
Heather M. Griffiths, an associate professor of sociology, has taught at Fayetteville State University for nine years. During this time, she taught classes in the undergraduate program, the graduate program, the sociology department’s online degree completion program, and the Cumberland International Early College High School.
She teaches sociology using techniques that encourage active learning, such as debating contemporary issues like reproductive rights, the Freddie Gray case, and the global response to the Syrian Civil War. She challenges her students to understand the interplay of race, sex, gender and class by guiding them through discussions that focus on the complexity of multiple perspectives and the lack of easy or simplistic answers to social problems. In 2010, she developed a lower-level sociology course called The Global Society. This very popular course introduces students to pressing worldwide issues, equips them to live and work in a globally interdependent world and encourages them to become responsible global citizens by recognizing their ethic and social responsibilities.
Her students appreciate her hard-work in the classroom. In one letter of support, a student wrote that, “Her class discussions were thought provoking and forced students to think outside of the box on various social issues and problems. She often interrupted her lecture to ask questions about current and past events, and she utilized popular media and culture to discuss difficult course concepts. This made learning in her class interesting and relevant.”
Griffiths holds a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Delaware in 2003, and her PhD from the University of Delaware in 2007. In 2006, she began teaching at Fayetteville State University and was promoted to associate professor in 2013.
Q. The Teaching Awards were established in 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to encourage, identify, recognize, reward, and support good teaching within the University. What does this award mean to you?
A. Above all, it means that I am doing something right. I teach in a department that is filled with excellent teachers. When I participate in teaching workshops I am surrounded by colleagues who believe in the importance of teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning — they are making every effort to learn new techniques and improve the student experience at Fayetteville State University. I see how hard they work every day for our students and I am grateful that they view my teaching highly enough to think I deserved a nomination, much less an award.
Q. What was your path into the teaching profession?
A. I always knew I wanted to be a sociologist, which is unusual because very few people know what sociology is before they take their first course. In the last year of my undergraduate degree program I started applying for jobs, and someone told me I should consider grad school. I worked two or three jobs at a time to pay for college and I didn’t think I could afford grad school. I did some research and found out that there were teaching and research assistantships that would help with the cost, so I gave it a try. My financial situation was dire and I could only find the money to fund one application. To my very great surprise I was accepted into the program. I really had to roll the dice — I had made it through the first few rounds of eliminations for a statistician job, and I had an interview in Washington D.C. scheduled when I found out that I had been accepted into the University of Delaware with a teaching assistant stipend.
It didn’t take me long to call off the job interview and enter the graduate program — if I remember correctly, the stipend included tuition in addition to a small amount to live on. I wanted to start a career and dig myself out of that college debt, but I wanted to study disasters and deviance even more. I knew that it would not be easy to make it through graduate school, and there were no guarantees, but I was willing to take a gamble because I had come to love higher education and I placed a high value on the freedom to pursue what interested me. By the time I had finished my first year, teaching at a university was my number one career goal.
Q. Besides this award, is there one particular achievement in your career that makes you especially proud?
A. I was fortunate to come across an opportunity to contribute to an experiment -- open source introduction to sociology textbook (https://openstaxcollege.org/textbooks/introduction-to-sociology-2e). I signed on to co-author a few chapters in the first edition, and during the course of writing these chapters, I learned a great deal about the style and structure that worked for a textbook. Nobody really knew if it would work, or how it would turn out. Before I finished the initial chapters, the coordinators in charge talked with me about doing a few more, then a few more after that — they really loved what I was doing, I really loved the work, and I loved knowing that this textbook would be open source.
A few years later the same group contacted me again to update research and write new material for the second edition. By the time I finished working on the most recent updates last year I felt that my work had meant something. I heard that this textbook received a number of awards and is currently in use by hundreds of colleges, and since it is open source, countless students saved money using a textbook that I co-authored. I remember books as one of my biggest expenses, I am in favor of anything that provides a low-cost alternative, and I am proud of being part of that.
Q. What teaching methods do you use to engage students?
A. I think the most effective teaching strategy I use is to encourage students to question their previous assumptions, review the facts, and develop their own opinions. To this end, I employ active learning strategies. I use popular music in most of my Sociology classes to engage students in discussions about the social construction of race, class, and gender. In my online classes, I emphasize information literacy, because students must develop the ability to sort through conflicting information and arrive at a fact-based conclusion. When I teach my globalization course, I bring in the real world as much as possible—that means, for example, following the conflict in Syria throughout a semester, bringing in Fulbright students for guest lectures, and encouraging students to become familiar with global social issues through research and debate.