Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Carolyn Keller

Dr. Carolyn Keller

Dr. Carolyn Keller joined UW-Platteville in 2018 as the director of Academic Assessment. While she still oversees the area of Academic Assessment, Keller is now interim assistant provost. Her background is in the field of sociology – a discipline that she still teaches every chance she can.

“Teaching remains my first and primary passion,” said Keller. “Introductory Sociology – the sociological imagination, helping students make sense of the social world around them is really wonderful work.”

Keller earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations and social relations from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in Slavic and East European studies, a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate degree in sociology, all from The Ohio State University.

You have led students on several study abroad trips; what do you enjoy most about doing this work and why is it an important experience for students?  

I studied abroad when I was in college, and I really spend every extra penny I have on traveling. Once our travel restrictions are lifted, I’m saving vacation days so I can go somewhere. I have taken students to Poland, Romania and China. I’m hoping to establish a trip for UW-Platteville students to go to Rwanda. I will go anywhere and everywhere, and I think the best way to teach about society is finding commonalities about societies by first-hand experience. What has been most wonderful about going abroad is taking students who have never traveled before. It takes some bravery to hop on a plane for the first time and go across an ocean, and watching students learn to love traveling and meeting new people and learning about other societies is unlike any other work I’ve done.

What do you enjoy most about working and teaching in the higher education field?

I loved college, and I am a huge proponent of public education. I went to all public schools and my career has been in public institutions. The Wisconsin Idea that “education should influence lives beyond the classroom” is what faculty and instructors at UW-Platteville and throughout the UW System are totally committed to.  It is the same in every state college and university. As I’ve moved, and as I’ve met folks at similar institutions across the U.S., I’m struck by the vocational nature of our work. Making education accessible and affordable is a goal we must continue to pursue for the good of the economy but more importantly for the good of society. 

When you were appointed director of academic assessment in 2018, it was the first for the university; what is the importance of the role for UW-Platteville and the importance of assessment in higher education in general?

The main question at the center of academic assessment is: are students learning what we want them to be learning?  This question is a hard question to answer and it is especially difficult when you think about faculty and instructors having different backgrounds, teaching different topics – what is most fundamental?  To me this poses both a social and methodological challenge that is fun to consider.  On the social end, I don’t think we can answer these questions without regular conversation and communication with our colleagues, with our students, and with employers.  Methodologically, how do you know what students know? Their grades only capture a point in time.  My work also assumes that we have to determine what students learn during their time on campus when often the impact of their learning isn’t always immediate. Talking with faculty and instructors about what learning outcomes are most important, where they are being addressed in the curriculum and how students can demonstrate their mastery of knowledge and skills is a continuous process.  I enjoy the process because it makes us (faculty/instructors) constantly consider what and how we are teaching.  Working on a university campus is also awesome because you are surrounded with smart people who don’t always agree.  That means we are questioning our assumptions and generating new ideas regularly.

You have been providing leadership to faculty in remote learning and alternative delivery throughout the response to the COVID-19 pandemic; what stands out to you about our faculty’s response?

I think our faculty and instructional response to the pandemic has been nothing short of Herculean.  Faculty want to make sure students continue to have access to a high-quality education, and they have committed nearly every minute and hour to that work since March. Just because the TTC provided training doesn’t mean that instructors and faculty had to participate, but they did. They showed up in mass. Over 90% of our instructors participated in training this summer.  I think what is most remarkable is their openness to learn new things. Not only were instructors learning about technology and pedagogical practices for online learning, they were collaborating and integrating the technology in a way that it will impact their teaching for years to come.  There was a realization by me and my colleagues of how technology can complement face-to-face instruction.  Online instruction isn’t perfect. We know that too, and we all look forward to a time when we can return to “normal.” But for now, the amount of dedication and creativity our instructors exhibited in order to produce a high-quality education has been amazing to watch. I’m not just saying that because I’m supposed to – I mean every day, all summer I interacted with instructors who brought their “A” games because it was that important to them to conduct high-quality courses. I also have to say how grateful I am to our academic technology and ITS folk. All of a sudden their jobs became the most important jobs on campus and they totally rose to the challenge.  It was a group effort all in the name of student success. 

What are your interests outside of work?

Outside of work I like to spend time outside, walking, biking, hiking or skiing with my family. I’m not very good at skiing, but I love it. I have two small girls with a lot of energy and spending time with them is great. I also like to cook local food and visit farm markets in the summer.