Meet a Tiger: Taimi Olsen, director, Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation
Taimi (pronounced “Time-ee”) Olsen loves nothing more than immersing herself in the written word. Reading became her happy place early on in life.
“I was kind of introverted as a kid,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.”
So, she looked for her purpose in books.
“I went to college still not knowing what I wanted to do!”
When she thinks back on it now, enrolling in college without declaring a major right away is not uncommon, but it can feel like being on a drifting boat. Drift too far and you might never find your true course. Olsen finally found her purpose when she took up tutoring in a writing center.
“I realized I like helping people learn.”
It was an epiphany that would carry her through an illustrious teaching career that would eventually land her in her current role as director of Clemson University’s Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI). A teacher of teachers.
Olsen grew up a bit of a nomad. Her mother, Anne Olsen, taught computer science and her father, Blayne, was a textile plant manager, which meant the family moved quite bit; with parents working in both Carolinas, moving to Ohio, and even to Whittier, California for a stint just as Taimi was starting junior high school. “I was a teenager so that was great!”
She received her undergraduate degree in English at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. and went on to earn a doctorate in American and Twentieth Century Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I went to grad school for English since I read so much,” she laughed. “I read hundreds of books for my doctorate.” She published her dissertation Transcending Space: Architectural Places in Works by Henry David Thoreau, E.E. Cummings, and John Barth and remains one of only a handful of American scholars of E. E. Cummings.
After teaching over eight years as a graduate student, Olsen taught literature for 12 years at Tusculum University before moving to the University of Tennessee to become the assistant director of UT’s Teaching and Learning Center. In 2017 she saw an ad for the OTEI director position at Clemson and was immediately drawn to the challenge. The fact that she would be championing the cutting edge of teaching coupled with Clemson’s land grant mission greatly appealed to her.
“I like giving back to the community,” she said. “When you’re at a land grant you have a lot of opportunities for that. And I love serving the south because I grew up in the south.”
As the director of OTEI, she relishes the opportunity to make life easier for new teachers while putting a spotlight on the most innovative, effective teaching practices happening in academics today. She accomplishes that, in part, by tapping into the exciting new styles and tools being used by teachers in Clemson’s own classrooms.
“I like problem solving and delving into all the disciplines,” she said. “One half of my job is helping people, the other half is finding out who’s doing the really creative teaching and figuring out how to help other people see what they’re doing.”
Clemson Provost Bob Jones said Olsen was the perfect choice to lead OTEI and advance Clemson’s teaching.
“We’re very proud of the quality of our teaching environment and the learning that our students are exposed to,” said Jones. “But to continue our excellence at Clemson we need to bring in experts to help keep our faculty – particularly new faculty – engaged and pushing the envelope. Taimi was the perfect person to do that. She’s highly experienced, she had a lot of talent for teaching, and she loved it so much you could see she wanted to share it with others.”
“I taught for 30 years so I know what it’s like to be a new teacher, a new department chair, and to have all these different challenges,” Olsen said. “Teaching is a very complex job. If I can help make a faculty member’s life easier, or help a graduate student learn how to teach, that’s what makes my job really fun. I love that creative challenge.”
Undergraduate Studies Program Manager Kathy Russ described Olsen as a “highly creative, innovative, interactive, and collaborative person to work with,” noting that, after teaching in higher education for the better part of three decades, Olsen knows the classroom well.
“She is so attentive to what students want and need, and the result is she designs practical evidence-based workshops that address real campus scenarios,” said Russ. “She also has a wonderful sense of humor and is consistently upbeat, positive, and fun to be around.”
Olsen was pleasantly surprised at how eager Clemson’s professors were to learn about others’ creative teaching techniques or share their own.
“I was brought here to help this high research-intensive university maintain and grow its excellent reputation for teaching,” she said. “Every single event I’ve had has had probably four times as many people come as I thought would.”
Jones also noted the strong attendance at Olsen’s events as a sign of how successful OTEI has been, saying that because of Olsen’s impact, the University is starting to invest more resources to expand her influence. It’s a good investment, he said, because teaching is an eternal challenge. Generational changes, rapidly advancing technology, and shifting political and economic environments make it difficult for teachers to keep up in the classroom without some help.
“You would think that after 2000 years of teaching humanity would get that down,” said Jones. “But the fact of the matter is . . . the way you learned is not the way the new college students learn. They have a completely different view of how to engage and communication styles and core values, and if you can’t reach them, you can’t teach them.”
Olsen and her husband, Tom Beeson, a behavior analyst who serves people with disabilities, live in Clemson near the Clemson Experimental Forest, where they do a lot of hiking, a little kayaking, and a fair bit of gardening. “Every once in a while, we’ll pick up to Atlanta to see a play, or go to Greenville to get really good beer.”
They have two sons. Josh, 17, is a senior at Daniel High School and plays bass in the drum line, and Charles, 22, lives in Knoxville, TN and works as a forester