I have worked as a graduate instructor or teaching assistant for just over a decade. In that time, I have led seminars and discussion sections in four different disciplines, three different departments, and two major universities. I have taught students who were at a variety of stages in their own educational careers, from incoming first-years to graduating seniors seeking post-college career advice to fellow graduate students. Across these varied teaching experiences, three principles have guided my approach to teaching.
Teaching should be inclusive.
Many students face barriers that make it difficult for them to access course material or participate in class activities. These barriers can be the result of any number of factors, from socio-cultural background to linguistic fluency, from physical or psychological disabilities to a simple lack of sufficient prior training. I believe that teachers have a duty to adopt course policies and teaching styles that help students overcome these barriers. In my courses, I pursue this ideal in two ways.
First, I foster a classroom environment in which students feel included and welcome, starting on the first day of class. Before introducing myself or discussing the syllabus, I ask my students to fill out a survey that includes questions about their career goals, interests, current favorite TV shows and books, their backgrounds, preferred modes of learning, and their reasons for taking my course. These surveys are an invaluable teaching tool for promoting inclusivity in my classroom. On that first day, I devote a few minutes at the end of class to discuss students’ responses to these questions, an activity that simultaneously sends my students the signal that I am genuinely interested in their answers, helps me solidify my memory of their names, and helps the students start getting to know each other. I continue to draw on these surveys throughout the quarter, using them as a source of ideas for metaphors and examples that resonate with students’ interests or everyday experiences. For example, in an “Introduction to International Relations” course last summer, I helped my students understand “the tragedy of the commons” by discussing the collective action problems that arise among dorm roommates. Similarly, when a student in one of my discussion sections for a “Politics of International Law” course expressed confusion about the tradeoff between international courts’ efforts to enforce their rulings and their need to retain the support of member states, I drew on one of his answers from the first day survey. Recalling that he was a member of UCLA’s lacrosse team, I reframed this concept in terms of coaching strategies, asking him to consider how a coach’s choice to strictly enforce rules of team conduct might lead to increased compliance among dedicated players but would also increase the risk that less dedicated players might quit the team altogether.
Second, I adopt class policies and grading schemas that allow me to maintain high academic standards while providing students the support they need in order to reach them. I pursue this balance by, on the one hand, communicating the standards to which students will be held as clearly and transparently as possible and, on the other hand, being sure to be flexible in the way that I apply these standards. To this end, I write syllabi that are detailed and comprehensive – containing clear and thorough descriptions of course requirements, assignments and grading policies – and take time in class discuss the contents of my syllabi with my students. I continue this effort later in the quarter by distributing detailed grading rubrics and, whenever possible, model exam answers written by former students (de-identified and with permission).
Teaching should be innovative.
It is important for instructors, regardless of how long they've been teaching, to be open to new ideas and pedagogical tools. I try to maintain this kind of innovative mindset in all of my classes and discussion sections. When preparing to teach our department’s course on “Teaching Political Science” (a graduate course required for all first-time Political Science TAs) this past fall, for example, I made a major change to the structure of this course. Specifically, I volunteered to plan and lead a day-long “New TA Workshop” during Week 0 in which I would provide my student TAs with guidance on how to address common beginning-of-quarter issues (i.e. writing section syllabi, clarifying expectations, and setting up TA websites) and discuss concerns common to many first-time teachers (e.g. questions of personal presentation and dress, planning for one’s first class, and setting ground rules). Although these topics had been addressed in past versions of this course, the sessions dedicated to them took place after the new TAs’ first discussion sections, too late for them to be able to incorporate any tips or lessons they learned in class. By addressing these issues fully a week before their first sections, this workshop made it more likely that the new TAs could actually benefit from this instruction.
Teaching should be impactful.
My most important duty as a teacher is to offer my students the tools and training they need to succeed, both in the short-term goal of doing well in my and other classes and in the long-term goal of learning skills that will be crucial to their professional success in their lives after UCLA. In order to support my students in the former goal, I have started to incorporate academic skills training into most every one of my courses. For example, when planning out my lessons in recent quarters, I interspersed activities aimed at reviewing substantive course material (i.e. the sources of international law or the role of consent in Hobbes' Leviathan) with activities aimed at more mundane practical skills that are foundational to any students’ academic success (including “How to read effectively and efficiently,” “How to find reliable sources,” and the ever-popular “How to structure your writing so that you finish your assignments before the last minute”). Though these topics may seem rather elementary, and including them takes up precious minutes of in-class time, most all of my students find these lessons to be both engaging and worth their time. For many of my students, this is the first time formal instruction they have ever had in these vital academic skills. And even for those who have been taught a few of the tips and techniques I cover, they seem to appreciate the opportunity to tune up their academic workflow.
I support my students in the latter of these two goals, preparing for and pursuing a successful career, in a number of ways. One of these is through mentorship. Because our department hosts quite a few students who are interested in attending law school or doctoral programs, and because I have the rare honor of having attended both those forms of postsecondary education, this mentorship often takes the form of informal admissions advising. I’ve spent many hours advising students on how to manage the logistics of applying to law or graduate school, how to structure personal statements, and how to shepherd letters of recommendation. In addition to these efforts to share what I’ve learned with my undergraduate students, I’ve also tried to do the same for my fellow graduate students. I have mentored colleagues through the GSA’s “First-Year Mentorship” program, as our department’s Writing Maven, and now as the Teaching Assistant Coordinator. Outside these formal positions, I strive to provide whatever help I can. I edit syllabi and course proposals, speak on departmental panels, and am always available to help incoming student parents find the supports they need in order to balance the demands of parenting young children with those of teaching and research.
Another, more recent, way I’ve worked to support my students and colleagues in their future professional success has been through creating resources that will continue to be useful long after I am no longer here. I have helped to compile, for example, a database of funding sources that is designed to make it easier for future grads in our department locate fellowships and grants relevant to their work. And this year, I am working on building a collection of teaching materials written by former TAs that can future grads can refer to when teaching unfamiliar subjects.