Academics

Tanner Awards for Graduate Teaching Assistants

One graduate teaching assistant engaged psychology students by asking them to host a podcast episode, while another asked students to propose improvements to laboratory experiments that enhance the remote instruction experience.

Today, The Well shares the final in a series of stories introducing the winners of the 2021 University Teaching Awards. We hope you’ve enjoyed our series this week celebrating teaching achievements through personal stories about the winners.

Tanner Awards for Graduate Teaching Assistants

In 1990, the University expanded the purview of the Tanner Awards to recognize excellence in the teaching of undergraduates by graduate teaching assistants. Each of the five winners receives a one-time stipend of $5,000 and a framed citation.

Wonkyung Jang

graduate teaching assistant, School of Education

Wonkyung Jang

Excerpt from award citation: Wonkyung Jang is single-handedly developing the field of statistics pedagogy, marrying his background as master statistician with his graduate work in education. He personifies passion and commitment to teaching, as demonstrated by his lectures receiving applause at the end, and his statement that “I’m a teacher first.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

My dissertation mentors, Drs. Harriet Able and Peg Burchinal, stand out. Harriet was one of the most engaging and well-organized teachers I ever had. She taught in a way that sparked curiosity, ignited passion and demanded rigor from each of her students; and she created such an open classroom in which new and innovative ideas flourished as she helped students pose their own questions and prompted critical thinking and student engagement.

Bursting with enthusiasm and infused with insight, Peg was not only a true scholar but was also an incredibly supportive adviser. She showed me that wonderful teachers seek to inspire students in all aspects of their lives, motivating and encouraging them to be the best they can be; and she taught me to challenge conventional thinking, take risks, embrace failure and bring innovation to life.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

A good teacher stimulates students to enjoy the ongoing, voluntary and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons and to make backward and forward connections between new knowledge and what they already know and believe. A good teacher creates freer and more humane experiences in which all share and to which all contribute.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

Emotion has an essential influence on the cognitive processes in humans. I helped my students progress toward achieving affective, social and ethical learning outcomes, as well as higher-order cognitive outcomes. As active participants in the drama of ever-moving curricula, we tried to make our learning experiences dramatic, humorous, surprising, joyous, maddening, exciting and heart-wrenching. We played, explored, inquired, reflected, shared, created and grew. My students always inspired me because of their insatiable curiosity and willingness to challenge themselves. And there was really nothing better than seeing them eager to learn and completely involved in an activity for its own sake.

Danielle Weber

graduate teaching fellow, department of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts & Sciences

Danielle Weber

Excerpt from award citation: “This class was amazing. Professor Weber made it entertaining and discussion-heavy. The material was addressed in a way that made it interesting. She was exceptional at teaching and making sure her students understood the topics and weren’t just memorizing information,” one student wrote.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

My current mentor, Don Baucom. He is a great example of how passion for the subject area can truly elevate the quality of teaching. In this experience and in my own teaching I’ve realized how valuable it is to consider not only what you say but how you say it. He can understand each student’s individual strengths and areas for growth and create a plan to help that student succeed.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

One of the most important things I have learned from my research on relationships is the benefit of a supportive environment for growth and well-being. I prioritize creating a supportive environment where asking questions and sharing perspectives feel safe and welcome, both in the classroom and in private communication. I have found that this environment can deepen critical thinking and communication skills about these important topics.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

In the first semester I taught after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I created a new assignment: to create a short podcast episode in which students integrated a topic discussed in class with another topic of personal interest. In the past I had provided more specific prompts, but allowing this freedom to expand into new topics combined with the new medium in which the content was to be delivered resulted in some truly outstanding products. By asking students to serve in the role of the “host” of a podcast, I feel as if they delved deeper into the research to rise to the expectations of that role and deliver an excellent product.

Ben Levy

graduate teaching assistant, department of physics and astronomy in the College of Arts & Sciences

Ben Levy

Excerpt from award citation: Ben Levy truly went above and beyond as a Physics TA, creating experiments the students could do at home during COVID and mailing the necessary materials to perform them. One student wrote: “Considering the rushed nature of having to accommodate for remote learning, his adaptation of the course was phenomenal, and I can say that I have grown immensely from the course without a doubt.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

In high school, Richard Cushman taught the first class that I truly looked forward to on a daily basis. Diverging dramatically from the usual high school English model, Cushman’s classes focused on the amusing tangents and exciting sidetracks that we wanted to discuss. On a typical day, you arrived in class ready to talk about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (or “Hamletto” as we called it) and you left having spent 45 minutes in a full class discussion of thigh armor and the intricacies of its manufacture. That’s not to say I didn’t learn a great deal. Indeed, I remember and care much more about the works we read in his courses than in my other high school classes. I would be satisfied to have even one quarter of his ability to effortlessly engage students and bring out the joy in the mundane.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

Good instructors in 2021 have the ability to be quiet and let their students do the talking. We all know that active, student-centered learning is important, but in the era of remote instruction, this has gotten harder than ever. Technological barriers make group-work and student participation slower and more challenging, while the loss of simple visual cues from students makes it easier for instructors to plow ahead through lectures unabated. The best instructors are comfortable removing material from their courses in order to make time for student-led group work, discussions and projects.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

When the pandemic hit, I developed a new final project for one of my courses in which student groups were asked to propose an improved version of one of the laboratory experiments already present in the class, with the stipulation that their design should enhance the remote instruction experience. Proposals have ranged from simplified versions of scientific apparatus that can be mailed to students’ homes, to solutions that enable remote-controllable operation of on-campus equipment. One group even came up with a virtual reality simulation version of an experiment. Students must also seek imaginary funding for their idea by making a live grant proposal presentation to a group of real lab managers and other experts from the physics department. The goal is to convince these judges that their proposed use of the imaginary funding is the best use of the money. Everyone has opinions on how the labs could be improved, and so each group is quite motivated to persuade the panel in their favor. Students have contacted experts, discovered tools I was unaware of and uncovered education research literature to support their approaches. This fall, we even hired one of my summer session students to turn a proposal into reality. For the students, knowing that their project can make a real difference if they do a good job has made for a fun, engaging final project.

Pavel Nitchovski

graduate teaching fellow, department of philosophy in the College of Arts & Sciences

Pavel Nitchovski

Excerpt from award citation: He has an exceptional ability to meet students where they are and relate philosophy to lived experience. Pavel is often singled out at the departmental graduation ceremony as the reason students pursued the major.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

Two teachers stand out in my mind. The first is my high school calculus teacher, who somehow managed to make me understand calculus even though my math skills are nonexistent. I believe the primary reason he’s so good at this is because he has full faith that his students can pick up the necessary skills to do well and holds them to that standard. The second is a professor I had when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, who helped me see that engaging in the humanities can be a fully immersive and thrilling activity that is of supreme value.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

A good professor is someone who is able to be sensitive to the conditions placed upon students by the pandemic, understanding of the difficulties that students have and is at the same time able to show their students that the activity that they’re engaged in — learning — can be a powerful reprieve from the surrounding horrors. It helps if they can make things fun as well. Humility in one’s role as a teacher also helps.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

Even the most obscure philosophical discussion has relevance to something that the students care about in some form. I give students free rein to make those connections as they see fit. For example, the group I taught Eastern Philosophy to this summer really enjoyed making memes about what we were discussing in class and bringing our discussion to bear on, of all things, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” So, I opened up a special forum for them on Sakai to do just that. This let them engage with the material in a format that wasn’t intimidating but which seemed natural and fun for them. Some of their jokes were pretty good, too. Apart from that, I’ve also made the habit of giving my students little parting gifts so that they have something concrete to remind them of their time in class. For my Existentialism class, I made little trading cards of all the philosophers we studied and handed them out on the last day of class. I don’t know if that made them more engaged in the material, but I like to think that it was something creative that would make them remember the experience fondly so that they may one day return to engaging with those ideas if the need arises.

DeeAnn Spicer

graduate teaching fellow, department of philosophy

DeeAnn Spicer

Excerpt from award citation: DeeAnn Spicer seems to gravitate to courses on challenging topics in the Philosophy Department, handling difficult topics like gender issues with grace while providing an environment where all students feel comfortable. As a Black female teacher in a field where a majority of the teachers are white and male, DeeAnn provides inspiration for students in under-represented groups to pursue the major.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

One of my best teachers was an English professor, Dr. Shipka. I remember her because she was able to both communicate high standards to the class — that she took the class and subject seriously — while also encouraging creativity and play.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

To be a good professor or instructor in 2021 takes creativity and empathy, among other things: creativity in navigating the constantly changing context that we are teaching in and finding tools and methods that best enhance your teaching style and goals; empathy in trying to imagine yourself in your students’ situations and thinking about how you would have wanted to be treated.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

Something I like to do when possible is have activities where students move around the learning space. For example, I created an activity where different sections of the room represented different philosophers. I then displayed a quote or statement and asked the students to move to the part of the room that represented the philosopher most closely represented by the quote. After everyone chose a place to stand, we discussed their choices. This allowed every student equal participation, and students got to see how their peers were thinking. This change in involvement, from being passive and still to active and physically moving, made students engage more with the material.