Teaching to Learn

    From a young age, Jason Johnson was intrigued by maps. Maps led him to history. History led him to a circle of desks in Fisk 111.

    Smiling slightly at the eight students in the classroom, Johnson opens his mouth to begin the discussion.

    “What did you take away from A Woman in Berlin? What surprised you about the book?”

    Johnson, a sixth-year history graduate student, is teaching a seminar titled “20th Century German Dictatorships.” There’s scattered silence for the first 20 minutes or so of the discussion, but after delving into the founding of the German Democratic Republic, all eight students are much more talkative.

    “Whenever you see the name “democratic” in a country’s name, be nervous,” Johnson warns, eliciting chuckles from his students.

    Throughout the 80 minutes of class, Johnson skillfully guides the discussion, asking leading questions when the group clams up, throwing in a quip or two about life in East Germany and handing out political posters of the time.

    “Our goal is to get the most qualified student in the courses they’re best suited to teach, and to prepare them to become college professors,” says Edward Muir, associate chair of Northwestern’s history department. “They will typically serve as a teaching assistant – grading and running discussions – for two years. Afterwards, they are given the opportunity to teach a seminar of their own.”

    Johnson completed the proposal for his seminar in February of 2010, which included a general title, syllabus and list of readings.

    “People often propose courses closely related to their own field of research because it’s where your expertise is,” Johnson says, whose research centers on the “making of boundaries in modern Germany.”

    “It’s really important to make the students feel comfortable from the first minute in the classroom, otherwise it’s hard to have a good discussion,” he says. “I give my students primary sources from the period – whether it’s political cartoons, film clips, diary entries – and let them react and form their own opinion. It creates a more dynamic learning environment.”

    Note: The term “graduate student” in this piece expressly refers to PhD candidates, not masters’ students.

    The system

    Every undergraduate student had to answer this question on his application: why Northwestern?

    There are plenty of reasons. Best in the Midwest. Number 12 in the nation. Impressive statistics, by any measure.

    And on a smaller scale, the university boasts an equally prestigious classroom experience, as marketed by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

    You’ll learn from nationally and internationally recognized faculty who are passionate about teaching.

    More than 97 percent of undergraduate-level classes are taught by professors.

    Northwestern’s overall student-to-faculty ratio is an impressive 7 to 1.

    But what about this statistic? At any given time, Muir estimates 26 percent of history graduate students are teaching outside of the history department. This is the number that matters, that is crucial to understanding Northwestern’s true classroom experience. Throw in the fact that the majority of undergraduate classes are graded by a teaching assistant, and suddenly that whopping 97 percent seems a little less solid.

    There is no overarching central management for teaching assistants; rather, the process of managing TAs in the classroom comprises what senior associate dean Simon Greenwold refers to as a “micro market.”

    “The Graduate School is like the federal government,” Greenwold says. “The states are the individual graduate departments. Laws made by graduate administration will affect each state law, but the departments also have their own flexibility.”

    Sounds fair enough.

    Here’s the issue: In Northwestern’s system of training, assigning and evaluating teaching assistants, there isn’t a uniform policy. Beyond mandating a “teaching requirement” in the Graduate School, there isn’t much else – in regards to TAs – that comes from the administration. Everything else is left up to the departments.

    “It’s an important professional development activity for doctoral students to teach here,” Greenwold says. “The difference in getting a doctorate in the United States versus elsewhere is learning how to teach.”

    Two sides of the table

    The dynamics between students and TAs form a power relationship. Both sides have a vested interest in cultivating, developing and maintaining this relationship: students work to learn material, and don’t want to waste their time in discussions if they do not advance this goal; TAs develop their own pedagogic approach to foster critical skills and analytical tools in their students.

    “American students are customers of higher education,” says Simon Greenwold, Senior Associate Dean for the Graduate School. “They’re demanding.”

    Medill junior Zach Warren has his own idea of what makes a good TA. For him, discussion is supposed to be more “immersive” and requires someone to teach the material in a different way than the professor.

    “I had one economics TA who would write out the problem on the board, and tell us, ‘This is what you do,’” Warren recalls. “For the entire time in discussion, he would work out the entire problem, not even saying anything or explaining it.”

    “Good TAs don’t necessarily have to be the smartest at what they’re doing, it’s all in the way you communicate it,” adds Medill sophomore Briana Keefe. “Sometimes TAs bring in crazy things, they know so much about what they’re teaching. They need to take a step back and say, ‘What do I need to get across?’ and ‘How am I going to do that effectively to people that don’t already know all the stuff I do?’”

    Recognizing the need to bring undergraduates into the larger conversation about teaching and learning at Northwestern, the Searle Center is in the preliminary stages of launching an “Undergraduate Teaching and Learning Committee,” according to Marina Micari, Searle’s associate director for undergraduate programs.

    “We haven’t really had programs for undergrads that brought students from whole campus together to talk broadly about teaching and learning issues — that’s the main underlying mission,” Micari says. “What makes for a good learning experience? Undergrads are certainly one of the primary consumers of learning, so they ought to be in the conversation.”

    Micari envisions a small group of people –- five to 10 students -– who would come to meetings and have discussions related to teaching issues. Micari also hopes to compile stories of students’ best learning experiences, which would then be passed along to faculty members in the Center’s workshops.

    Assigning TAs

    The system of assigning TAs to classes resembles that of sorority recruitment — though not quite as harsh. According to Mark Witte, an economics professor, it’s a matching process. Professors will rank their choices in TAs, while graduate students also make their own preferences. The two lists are then matched up and compared. It’s not an exact science, Witte says.

    Greenwold is pushing to give graduate students more agency in how they get assigned, an aspect of the Graduate School’s strategic plan he is currently working to implement.

    “Students in political science who are interested in international affairs should be able to TA a global health class,” he says. “When TAs are pulled from other departments, it’s a good thing for graduate students. The more flexible a student is, the more marketable they are.”

    As a result of the TA matching process, many doctorate students are assigned to classes outside their specific field of study. According to Khairunnisa Mohamedali, a Canadian third-year political science graduate student, she has been assigned to classes outside her field of expertise.

    “The idea is that as graduate students, we’ve already developed the skills of critical reading and political science tools to understand the material being presented,” Mohamedali says. “We then transmit that information to the students.”

    Greenwold champions this idea of teaching outside one’s comfort zone.

    “We do a good job of orienting people when they come,” Greenwold says, referring to TA training. “The only advice I got while I was a TA here was to make sure I had enough water.”


    The Searle Center hosts an annual new TA conference, which comprises various discipline-specific workshops and is “highly recommended” for all first year graduate students.

    The Graduate School administration does not mandate this training conference across all the departments, according to Greenwold and Shyanmei Wang, program associate at the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence. Professors in various departments confirm that graduate student attendance is “strongly encouraged.”

    “We want to create meaningful requirements, protocols and policies without being overly prescriptive or uniform,” Greenwold says. “It’s part of the fun and challenge.”

    The conference allows participants to explore “strategies and philosophies of good teaching while getting to know more experienced graduate students,” according to Searle’s website.

    “It’s only one day long,” says Shu-man Chen, a fourth year religious studies graduate student, smiling sheepishly. “After that, I just started teaching.”

    The conference structure is as follows. New TAs will first sit through a brief orientation, and then will have the opportunity to work with a Searle teaching assistant fellow from either their discipline (or a closely related one, as Searle specifies). Each participant then selects from several concurrent workshops, facilitated by the Searle staff, which provides time for “reflection” and practicing techniques for teaching in the classroom.

    International differences

    Let’s recap. All graduate students, before they can TA, must undergo a simple one-day training conference before they hold the grades of undergraduate students in their hands. And for international TAs, there exists limited training catered specifically to their needs. Although Wang confirms there is an international-specific section of the new TA conference, international and domestic TAs are currently trained together.

    “There’s debate about this,” Wang says. “Common problems do exist for all TAs, but there are some extra issues only ITAs face.”

    An area of concern for undergraduate students is a teaching assistant’s English proficiency. When international students are admitted, they must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) with a minimum score of 100.

    “I have given waivers,” Greenwold says, referring to his admittance of students who don’t meet the minimum TOEFEL score. “Faculty is doing admissions at the graduate level… if they come to me and say, ‘this student is brilliant,’ that’s okay.”

    In addition, graduate students must pass a test of spoken English (TSE) before qualifying for a teaching assistantship, according to both Greenwold and Ke-Hsien Huang, a Taiwanese fourth-year sociology graduate student. The test is administered through a computer program called Versant.

    “You are asked to explain a graph or to pretend you are teaching a group of students,” Huang says. “I spent much time to prepare by finding someone to speak with.”

    Authority and confidence can be issues for international TAs, especially among the Asian ethnicity, according to Wang, who emphasizes the connection between language and confidence.

    “I have to spend lots of time thinking of a concrete example in American context,” Huang says. “It’s very hard. In beginning, I feel very frustrated, of course. I can expect complaints because I am an international student.”

    “I used Wikipedia a lot,” adds Charlie Jeong, a Korean fifth-year sociology graduate student, explaining how he learned various cultural references.

    An “international teaching exchange” program used to exist in Searle, according to Wang, but was discontinued approximately two years ago. The program involved pairing American undergraduates with international teaching assistants.

    “The idea was not just to have a conversation partner, but to train international TAs to understand cultural differences in the classroom,” Wang says.

    International TAs were asked to prepare 15 to 20 minutes of mock instruction, to which the teaching partners and staff were invited. Participants would ask questions to simulate a classroom experience, and the whole instruction would be video taped to allow TAs to go back and review areas for improvement. Although this particular program has been discontinued, there are still various training sessions and workshops available to international graduate students through Searle.

    Underlying prejudices about foreign TAs among Northwestern students may stem from a variety of causes. Wang, who has done research on international students’ learning experience in U.S. higher education, attributes the majority of “international” issues to one central idea: negotiation of authority.

    “There is an adjustment in the relationship between international TAs and their students,” Wang says. “American students are more individualistic and they like to ask questions. But especially for Asian TAs, sometimes they think, ‘why are you challenging me?’”

    Hungary native Tamas Polanyi has undergone a teaching paradigm shift after coming to Northwestern. Polanyi, a fourth-year graduate student in anthropology, found his difficulties in adjusting to American universities laid beyond the run-of-the-mill cultural and language barriers, but rather in reshaping his previous educational experience in Hungary.

    The difference, Polanyi says, was in how he conceived the role of teacher and student; the relationship drastically differed in the United States from Hungary. Polanyi says he was used to a very “top-down” system of education. Professors were widely respected, and students “considered it very lucky” to simply be in the same lecture hall as a renowned scholar.

    “Some of the bad comments on my CTECs said I was arrogant,” Polanyi recalls. “In my mind, it was my job to teach [students] and their job to listen… maybe that’s why I came across… as knowing everything. I’ve learned now that I’m there for the students.”

    Language “barriers”

    Although language may be a consideration for some students when choosing a discussion section, Witte also maintains that it’s a general aura of teaching talent that distinguishes the bad TAs from the good.

    “For the most part, it’s just about effort,” Witte says. “There’s some extremely talented international students — they’re fantastic. Some people work hard, but it’s not about their nationality so much as it is the effusiveness of their personality.”

    Keefe says she’s had positive experiences with two ITAs, and negative experiences with two others, but her problems were not attributed to language or accents.

    “I don’t have problems with most accents,” she says. “I notice it, but it doesn’t really matter.”

    Conversely, from a TA’s perspective, many of their negative feedback is centered on this dialect disparity. Although language is the most noticeable factor, it is not the most defining, Wang believes.

    “Language barrier. To be honest, I’m sick of it,” she says. “It’s not a barrier, it’s an issue. Accents can make students pay closer attention, which is a good thing. Sometimes it’s your presentation skills and way we organize our thoughts. This is the message I’m trying to get across: language is not a barrier. Because of language issues, students may often look past other merits.”

    “Most of the mean comments on my CTECs are about my accent,” says Ricardo Sanchez, a third-year sociology graduate student. “You can feel they are mad… People say, ‘I don’t know why you are TA-ing,’ or ‘You don’t speak English…’”

    Witte criticizes those students who use an accent as a crutch for an excuse.

    “It’s like if you have a three-feet-tall TA and you complain about them not using the whole board,” he explains, expressing himself with overt hand gestures. “Well that’s the way it’s gonna be! Did you learn any economics? Yes, so shut up!”

    Piggy banks

    Teaching assistantships at Northwestern are offered as part of a graduate student’s financial aid package, and do not involve a separate application in most departments (one exception is the legal studies teaching assistantship). While Sanchez originally planned to study in Europe, he eventually chose Northwestern for its generous financial aid package.

    When a student is accepted to Northwestern’s graduate school, they are guaranteed five years of full funding, says Greenwold. The first and fifth years are fellowship years, while the middle years of a student’s doctorate studies are financed by assistantships – either teaching or research.

    The overall TGS budget, including student tuition, stipend and health, is currently $75 million, according to Greenwold. At any given time, a third of the graduate student population is supported as teaching assistants; a graduate student who spends nine months teaching will make an average of $5,000 to $6,000 per quarter. Huang says he receives monthly payments during the quarters he works as a TA, coming out to roughly $1,500 per month after tax.

    When in x department, do as x department does

    “It’s very local,” Greenwold says, referring to the lack of administration-level mandates in the TA system. “What influence [the administration] can have at the local community level is diffuse. We’re working to create a kind of equity both across programs, and within them – for what TAs do and how they do it.”

    For example, in sociology, all doctoral students are required to teach “Introduction to Sociology” before TA-ing, says associate sociology professor Laura Beth Nielsen. The real-life teaching experience involves the pairing of 10 graduate students to lead one session of the undergraduate class, according to Jeong.

    But in the departments of political science, religious studies, economics and anthropology, no such teaching prerequisite exists. Polanyi emphasizes the process graduate students are undergoing in their education.

    “We are learning how to teach,” he says. “It is my job to help my students get closer to their goals. One of my best comments was one student who told me they learned more in my section than in lecture. It felt really good.”

    The report card: evaluating TAs

    Not all undergraduate students voice their feedback so openly. In fact, currently, the only universal evaluation method for teaching assistants are CTECs, which, in addition to their tendency to gravitate towards love or hate, are really more of a “popularity contest,” says Rachel Ricci, a Searle graduate assistant in her fifth year of political science studies. No other comprehensive evaluation technique is in place for teaching assistants.

    “If you give students study guides, you’ll get better CTECs,” Ricci says. “But often that’s not the best way to teach.”

    CTECs are administered at the end of every quarter, which can prove useful for teaching assistants in their subsequent classes. Johnson says he relies heavily on the CTEC results when applying for jobs, and the economics department rewards their graduate students who get good CTECs. The problem with this form of evaluation? All the feedback is not translated in time for the course of a class: there are no midterm CTECs, and no comprehensive mechanism that requires professors to observe their TAs in the classroom. Nielsen admits that as a professor, she should be sitting in on her TA’s discussion sections, but “never gets around to it.”

    “We need to make sure TAs are evaluated properly,” Greenwold says. “Through programs like class visits, we can get both qualitative and quantitative metrics. We don’t do enough now.”

    For more in-depth evaluation, TAs can always turn to Searle, an “underutilized resource,” according to Ricci. The teaching center offers a “small group analysis,” a mid-quarter evaluation of a TA’s discussion section. Small group analysis involves a Searle consultant collecting early feedback from students, and typically takes between 20 to 25 minutes at the end of a class. In addition, Searle also offers various TA workshops throughout the year and individual consultation by center staff.

    Ricci moderated a TA workshop on humanities and the social sciences, explaining the purpose was to build a “support group.” Although fourteen registered for the workshop, turnout was “lower than expected,” says Ricci, with only 7 showing up.

    “We cover how to grade efficiently and had an exercise on time management,” she says. “We also did an activity to generate ideas for creating discussion in sections, and how to prepare.”

    The deep end

    Savage characterizes TAs as falling into several categories: ones who are not very personable and inexperienced, the “middle-level” and the top-tier.

    In order to provide an extra incentive for the middle-level TAs, Savage points to the economics department’s rewards system, which encourage extra effort.

    What happens when a TA is not meeting expectations? Savage is firm about the standard to which all TAs are held, and if this standard is not met, graduate students will be let go from their teaching positions.

    “We have a probation system in the department,” he says. “The threat of expulsion is enough to make the bad TAs shape up – if you reoffend, we would let you go, as far as being a TA.”

    To Savage’s knowledge, only one student in 15 years has ever “fallen over the edge.”

    “You have to measure not only the number of people put to death, but also the number of murders that don’t happen,” Savage says, referring to the overall success of the TA system.

    Looking ahead: Searle and beyond

    “Teaching is necessary,” Greenwold says. “Teaching is fundamental to higher education in the U.S.”

    It may be unrealistic to expect a highly centralized, top-down system of authority when it comes to the teaching assistant system. The fact is, according to professors like Muir, Savage and Witte, that every department has their own needs. The specifics of guiding a history discussion section differ greatly from running a chemistry lab. That said, Greenwold and his administration recognize the need to step up and facilitate certain aspects of assigning, training and evaluating TAs.

    “We’re working with departments to make sure their expectations of what the TAs do is comparable, and how faculty manage the TA workforce is also uniform or at least similar,” Greenwold says. “The experience of TA-ing isn’t radically different. Erratic as faculty members are — some take mentoring more seriously — the teaching experience will be different.”

    The Graduate School Administration is increasing its collaboration with Searle in order to address the issues that permeate the TA landscape at Northwestern. One partnership that is currently underway, according to Greenwold, aims to develop a pedagogic training for international students and to consolidate TA training practices. A “clinic” program will address issues of cultural assimilation, and the customized training program for international TAs is set to launch in summer 2011.

    “I worry we put people out there who are unprepared,” Greenwold says. “From a pedagogical perspective, not intellectual. We’re getting our arms around the problems more, catalyzing some grassroots problem solving.”

    Future steps: Graduate Teaching Group

    Andrew Warne, a fifth-year history graduate student and teaching fellow of the Searle Center, used “The Teaching Binder” as a ramp to increase inter-departmental communication.

    “The Graduate Teaching Group comprises representatives from seven to nine different departments in the social sciences and humanities,” Warne says. “I harassed them with emails in the fall, asking them to fill out responses to a questionnaire about their TA practices.”

    Warne then compiled the results in a report, aiming to further the conversation of how to help graduate students become better teachers. In brainstorming future reforms, Warne says the group’s members agreed on two points.

    “We need to find a systemic way to evaluate TAs within their departments,” he says. “Either by having professors give observations and write a report, or working more systematically with Searle to give TAs feedback. We also wanted to implement something like the history department did with resource collection – lesson plans, strategies for leading discussion and grading.”

    Warne sums up the outcomes of the group, which has only met once to date: encouraging faculty to observe TAs, collection of teaching resources, peer mentoring, standardizing the system of evaluation for TAs within departments and standardizing expectations for TAs.

    “It’s a totally decentralized system, and there’s not much anyone can do,” Warne says. “Even within departments, people are hesitant to make top-down requirements — hesitant in part because of all the responsibilities TAs already have, and in part, because teaching is not yet as central in the culture of the university as research is. Everyone says teaching is important and we need to emphasize that. But the cultural values of the academy need to change.”


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