Learning by Doing
This article was originally published in the Spring 2002 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.
In this panel interview, four teaching assistants discuss how their teaching assistantships are preparing them for future academic positions. The TAs describe those experiences that they have found to be most enjoyable and challenging. Amy S. Hirschy is a teaching assistant in the Department of Leadership and Organizations. Meaghan E. Mundy is a teaching assistant in the Department of Leadership and Organizations. Christopher J. Mosunic is a teaching assistant in the Department of Psychology. Robert A. Nasatir is a teaching assistant in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
CFT : What have been your most enjoyable experiences teaching at VU and why?
HIRSCHY : The most rewarding experiences I’ve had were when I found a way to help students understand a challenging concept. Students here are very bright and want to “get it.” When their understanding shifts from 2 dimensional form (such as words on a page) to 3-D, where they can see various angles of a concept and how it relates to other ideas, it’s a good class or individual conversation.
MOSUNIC : My formal teaching experiences at Vanderbilt have been limited, but leading discussion groups and assisting students to prepare for examinations have been very rewarding for me. Each has allowed me to be of significant help to the students rather than far removed from the students, e.g. not just the guy who grades the tests. In addition, I have enjoyed reviewing coursework from a teaching perspective rather than the perspective of a student who is only interested in doing well on exams and papers as their main goal. For me, reviewing coursework from a teaching perspective involves identifying the material that a student needs to know and focusing on the best ways to convey this information.
NASATIR : Because I teach Spanish, my goal is always to get my students to speak and participate in class in the target language. I plan every class with that end in mind. What is most satisfying is when an activity – a role-play scenario, an article, a poem, a short story, or even a seemingly dry grammar assignment – serves as a springboard for a discussion that is completely based on student reaction and participation. I love those moments when the students in effect take over the class and I can step aside and let them communicate in Spanish. One of the things that we don’t talk about much in pedagogy is knowing when and how to get out of the way of our students’ learning. It’s the difference between playing instructor and playing facilitator. There is nothing that is more satisfying than essentially moderating a conversation that I never could have anticipated. Students acquire and retain information when they interact and forget that they are learning.
MUNDY : What makes teaching most enjoyable for me is the ability to connect with students in ways that make them feel like participants in their learning, not recipients of what I pass onto them. Teaching in the Human and Organizational Development major provides opportunities for teachers to meet students halfway in the classroom and co-create experiences in which contributions are made to both the students’ and the instructors’ learning and development. Sometimes this entails taking risks or being creative and flexible in how material is presented. For example, if a discussion is sparked by a question asked by a student or a current news event, then I may forego my lesson plan for that lecture and let the students learn by discussing and debating the issues.
CFT : What have been your most challenging teaching experiences and why?
HIRSCHY : The most challenging teaching experiences for me are when I’m not sure of an answer to a question a student has asked. When this has been the case, I research the answer and either respond to the class by email afterwards or follow up the inquiry at the following class period. This helps me preserve my integrity (if not my ego at times), and they see a way to deal with a difficult situation that they may face in the future.
NASATIR : Teaching is a challenge both inside and outside of the classroom. You have to know your students’ personalities well enough to sense what kinds of exercises will work in class. Every group dynamic is different. It takes time, and a lot of trial and error, to understand what will get a response and what won’t. And sometimes, whether it’s because the students haven’t had enough sleep or you simply miscalculated, all your work seems to have missed its mark somehow. That’s when the real work begins. Like a jazz musician, you start to improvise, to twist things around a bit, until something clicks. Sometimes you have to throw an entire lesson plan out, right there on the spot, and do something completely different. But ultimately, that’s what teaching is all about, sizing up and working with different groups who have different needs.
MUNDY : The single most significant challenge I have experienced in my teaching has revolved around conflict and confrontations with individual students. Last summer I had a student struggling to manage the workload in a course and turn in assignments on time. After spending weeks working one-onone trying to help this student get through the term (many emails and individual meetings later), I was extremely disappointed when I suspected an Honor Code violation on a final project. Though the Honor Council handled the situation in a professional and caring manner, it was still a very difficult experience for me because I hated to see a student not succeed.
Nevertheless, due to the flagrancy of the violation, I felt it was my responsibility as a teacher to uphold the Honor Code and report the suspected violation. Having given much thought to my students’ academic responsibilities and my teaching responsibilities, I am confident in my decision to report the violation. I realized that though this experience itself was quite challenging, it forced me to confront my own fears about confrontation and personify the values I believe in and expect of my students too.
CFT : How do you feel your TA experiences are helping to prepare you for your career after graduation?
HIRSCHY : Since I’m interested in teaching at the college level, being a TA provides direct experience to help me in my career after graduation. It also makes me more observant of the teaching techniques that professors use in classes.
MOSUNIC : My TA experiences thus far have demonstrated the large amount of work that goes into creating exams and developing lectures. I have come to realize the intricacies involved in developing exams. For example, while creating exam questions, I have to be careful not to make the questions too difficult or a majority of students will fail the exam, or make the questions so easy that most students will get very high grades. It is tricky and time-intensive to develop exam questions that are not only fair (medium difficulty) but that also comprehensively cover the lecture and textbook material. Also, I have realized that developing lectures is extremely time-intensive and requires a great deal of discipline, effort, and patience.
NASATIR : On a very practical level, the teaching program in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese has embraced many of the latest and best improvements in Second Language Acquisition philosophy, computer technology, textbooks, etc. I am being educated in the nuts and bolts of being a teacher. This knowledge makes all the difference on the job market. Teaching at Vanderbilt helps practice and hone my skills in the classroom. MUNDY: My graduate program is Higher Education Administration, hence working with undergraduates in the classroom is an ideal experience for me. It has provided me with an opportunity to get to know undergraduate students, what they are like, what they value, and what interests them. This information has made me better able to shape my teaching behaviors and activities so that I might relate to them at their level of interest and ability. Also, it has provided me an in-depth understanding of the academic side of colleges and universities. For example, I have learned more about the governance of colleges and universities – how decisions are made about policies and procedures, different leadership styles of key administrators, the distinctions between different types of institutions (research institutions, liberal arts colleges), etc. This knowledge base has given me a perspective on higher education that transcends the classroom and affords me the opportunity to see higher education from many vantage points.