Getting Graduate Students Comfortable with their Power

A little background: within Physics 691G, we do a two-week unit on issues of identity in the classroom. We segue into the unit by thinking about the challenges in evaluating teaching which is done in the context of the new grads observing more experienced TAs. After we explore the challenges of evaluating teaching, the new grads complete an worksheet based upon an exercise developed by Kirsten Helmer of TEFD. In this assignment, the new grads must they explicitly consider their positionality along multiple axes. We then spend two weeks looking at case studies of various interactions within the classroom. During the first week, we investigate situations where the new grads identity as a student is salient. The second week, we move to situations where their identity as instructors is more relevant. In that second week, many of the new grads seemed uncomfortable with the power that being in an “instructor” role bestows.

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Advice for Ph.D. students interested in transitioning to teaching-based positions

I get the following question fairly regularly, “I am a Ph.D. student interested in pursuing a career that is teaching intensive, either as a lecturer like yourself or as a faculty member at a teaching-intensive institution. How do I do it? What advice do you have?” I am flattered to be asked this question. Below I give my thoughts which are based in my experience. As they say in the TV-ads, “your results may vary.” In fact, the older this post gets, the less valuable/accurate this will probably be!

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Getting rid of the importance of “explaining”

Just like last year, I am currently teaching Physics 691G – Graduate Student Professional Development Seminar. This course has multiple goals that it pursues through the lens of TA training:

  • Making sure our new graduate students are ready for those first few days of TAing
  • Provide an opportunity for new graduate students to reflect on their new identity as they move from students to research colleagues
  • Provide an opportunity to explore the ideas of modern research-based pedagogy
  • Provide an opportunity to explore some professional development skills such as presentation giving which are deeply connected to their experience as TAs

This is quite an ambitious list for a course that meets for one-hour per week and also, by design, tries to keep the outside-of-class workload down (new graduate students are busy after all!). One thing I am noticing in particular this round as I have continued to refine the course is the persistence of the idea that explaining content is a teacher’s number-one job. An idea that is clearly challenged by the modern literature’s focus on the importance of student construction of knowledge.

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