Seeing is Believing

This semester, I have 4 teaching assistants—two for my American Government and Politics class and two for my Introduction to Public Policy class. As the classes have progressed, I’ve noticed my teaching assistants making interesting discoveries about teaching. The teaching assistants are able to see the classroom from a new perspective. We routinely have discussions about teaching and they are also reading scholarly books about undergraduate teaching and learning. Although this blog primarily focuses on faculty and staff perspectives on teaching and learning, I thought it would be neat to have my teaching assistants reflect on their experiences so far. Below, Kristine, Vanya, Sam, and Pam comment on their observations about teaching and learning.

From Kristine Alvarez, Teaching Assistant for Introduction to Public Policy:

Having the opportunity to be a teaching assistant this semester has been an eye opening experience.  It has been interesting to have the chance to observe the relationships between the students and the professor from an outside perspective. The most surprising thing I have witnessed is the lack of student engagement. The university, professors, and teaching assistants offer numerous resources to help students succeed; however, many students fail to take advantage of such resources. From personal experience, I know that professors are willing to go out of their way to help students succeed, as long as they show the interest. As one of ten students developing a capstone course along with faculty in the Political Science Department, I have also learned how much thought and work goes into creating a course, so I could understand that it would be upsetting and discouraging to have lack of engagement from students. I hope that other students get the opportunity to be teaching assistants, so that they can learn about the challenges faced by faculty members. I would also encourage students to take advantage of the numerous resources offered at UWGB.

From Vanya Koepke, Teaching Assistant for American Government & Politics:  

When Dr. Weinschenk asked me to TA for American Government last semester, I was not only honored by the request, but also excited for the opportunity. My excitement remains at the level it was when first asked to TA. However, what I’ve learned from the perspective of a professor has been beyond my expectations.  First, as I observe the classroom during the lectures, I am taken back by the amount of cellphone usage. I never realized how distracting and disrespectful this could be for a lecturer.  Second, I have observed how technology can stifle conversation. I once thought that if a lecturer seemed conversational, they could simply make classroom dialogue happen. However, as a TA I see how difficult it can be to engage students in participation when they are so distracted by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets. I have learned that group discussions are one of the best ways to overcome this obstacle. Lastly, it has been beneficial to learn how to delicately approach some of the problems concerning classroom etiquette. Initially, it was tempting to play the “good cop-bad cop” when approaching these problems. However, as we have progressed through the semester, consistency has been the word I’ve taken away. It is truly important to be consistent in one’s teaching demeanor through the highs and lows of a semester. I believe that this allows for students to develop a sense of trust and respect with their professor.  In all, I have gained a greater appreciation for what professors constantly deal with in the background. Of course, all of these behind-the-scenes challenges must not affect the primary mission of the professor—to effectively foster learning.

From Sam Braaten, Teaching Assistant for Introduction to Public Policy:

Being a teacher is always something that I wanted to do. Being a TA, though, has changed some of my ideas about teaching. When I take classes, I am eager to participate. Asking questions and participating in group discussions is the way that I understand concepts that I don’t grasp right away. But after sitting in a class and seeing that not every student is like that, it is disheartening. Professors deserve way more credit for the things that they do for their classes, in the classroom and outside of it. Indeed, I have learned that it can be very hard to engage a large class, especially on issues that students do not always perceive as stimulating or exciting.

From Pam Parish, Teaching Assistant for American Government & Politics:

 Being a Teaching Assistant has been a great experience so far.  It is interesting being able to see the class from the faculty perspective, rather than just a student.  In the American Government course, there are a variety of students taking this course, which makes for interesting discussion.  Professor Weinschenk facilitates these discussions very well, working to connect what he is lecturing on to what is actually going on in the world.  I think this is a very good way to keep students interested and to learn the material.  It was surprising to me how many students are on their cell phones during the class.  I do not understand why students feel inclined to have their phones out for a 55-minute course, especially because it is disrespectful to the professor.  After discussing this with Professor Weinschenk, my co-TA Vanya and I learned that this could be very distracting to the presenter. Even after asking students to put their phones away, some still persist on having them out during class.  On one occasion, I had asked the student sitting directly next to me to put her phone away for only 50 more minutes and she responded with a scoff and an eye roll.  It is shocking that there is this kind of disrespect to TAs as well as professors. Although there can be bad experiences with students because of cell phones, I have enjoyed getting to know as many students in the class as possible.  It is interesting to see why these students chose to take this course and how they feel about government.  I have gained a greater respect for professors for what they do here on campus in order to engage and teach their students.  Being a TA has been an awesome opportunity that I am very grateful to have.


 By: Public & Environmental Affairs Assistant Professor Aaron Weinschenk and undergraduate students Kristine Alvarez, Vanya Koepke, Sam Braaten, and Pam Parish


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