The graduate

(Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH Staff)

(Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH Staff)

When, at the beginning of each term, we once again approach shopping period and all its inevitable stress, we can be grateful for one thing: at least, during those hectic two weeks, we will never be called to stand in front of a classroom and teach. Indeed, the expectation teaching fellows face—that they can effortlessly transform from lost students into confident teachers—seems like somewhat of a nightmare. Yet hundreds of Yalies—not many years older than us—lead this dual life of student and teacher. They grade your papers, lead your sections, make time for their own studies—and, as it turns out, manage to have lives as well.

Travis Snow, GRD ’13, a master’s student in Global Affairs, is a TF for “Applied Quantitative Analysis,” a class that teaches the fundamentals of statistics to students interested in social sciences and public policy. Snow took six years off after completing his bachelor’s degree, during which he did health education work in Guatemala, taught preschool, and taught scuba diving. He came back to school partially because he “missed being a student,” he said. But his entry into teaching was somewhat disconcerting.

Snow described his first week at Yale to me. “Departments don’t know their needs until late in the game,” he said. During his first week as a student here, Snow shopped classes, just like undergrads. During a class he was shopping, Snow got an email from a professor of a different course, asking him to be one of the professor’s teaching fellows for the semester. This email came 20 minutes before the class was scheduled to meet.

“There are frantic, last-minute things that happen [in the matching process],” laughed Judith Hackman, director of the Teaching Fellow Program (TFP) in the graduate school. She explained the importance of teaching for graduate students: first, including teaching fellows is a valuable way to improve courses for undergraduates; second, it’s an important part of training doctoral students; and third, for humanities students, teaching is a requirement for receiving funding for their studies here at Yale.

This means that graduate students occupy a unique position at the university: while they do, it seems, work for the university, they are not recognized as university employees. Hackman said that while graduate students are not employees, they often feel like they are. Indeed, in 1991 Yale graduate students formed the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, a group whose purpose is to protect the rights of graduate student employees.

The need to navigate these different roles can sometimes prove confusing for graduate students. According to Cassio de Oliveira, GRD ’13, a TF for “Russian Culture: the Modern Age,” juggling the identities of student and teacher can be difficult. “You’re a student still,” Oliviera said. “You’re supposed to be grown up, but you’re not fully.”

Like Snow, TFs must learn to teach through hands-on experience. Both Oliveira and Snow noted that TFs receive a fair amount of mentoring from professors and can choose to attend workshops at the Graduate Teaching Center. According to Bill Rando, director of the Graduate Teaching Center, graduate students are offered an orientation called “Teaching at Yale” that covers what it means to be a TF, the expectations of the position, and the “preliminaries of pedagogical training” by using role-play and skits. After the initial, afternoon-long required workshop, the remaining workshops are optional. This semester, the Center is offering 11 courses for students in different departments, but the number of workshops offered is dependent on the availability of fellows to teach the courses. Rando estimates that about half of graduate students are enrolled in these workshops.

Oliveira said that he did not learn very many concrete strategies in these classes. One graduate student in the humanities, who wished to remain anonymous, said that participation in the workshops dwindled as the semester went on, and, furthermore, that she did not find them particularly helpful.

Since most students come to graduate school with no experience teaching, it comes as no surprise that stepping in front of a classroom for the first time is daunting. Indeed, the anonymous humanities student readily admitted that she was “a nervous wreck” on her first day leading a section. It seems, though, that the initial discomfort some graduate students feel in front of a classroom may have less to do with their lack of teaching experience than with their awkward position in the hierarchy of the university.

Oliveira described feeling like he was in “limbo.” This seems to be a common feeling among his peers and becomes especially evident in some of their relationships with their professors, which differ from those they might have had as undergraduates. “It’s a really complicated experience; you’re stuck in between, willy-nilly. You have control and you have no control,” the anonymous humanities student said. “You’re stuck teaching someone else’s material, yet you have to be in charge of grading students’ materials. It’s a bizarre chain of command.” In some ways, she said, it’s more difficult than teaching a course on your own; when you have complete control of a course’s vision, direction, and material, the teaching part comes more naturally. “[It’s] less work to teach what you believe in,” she said.

The Graduate Teaching Center is starting to acknowledge graduate students’ desires to have more control over courses. Rando described the Center’s new Associates in Teaching program, launched in 2009, in which graduate students apply to co-design and co-teach a course with a professor. “There’s a certain energy in these courses that everybody benefits from…it’s a game changer,” Rando said. So far, this opportunity is still relatively limited: only four co-taught courses are being offered this fall, and 16 will be taught in the spring.

Still, even if they don’t have control over the material they are teaching, all the TFs interviewed for this article agreed that many professors, especially those in the humanities, leave teaching style up to the TFs. This decision ultimately depends both on the department and the professor. Samuel Knight Professor of History and American Studies George Chauncey, who teaches “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” described his process of coordinating discussion sections for his course. “I meet with [TFs] every week for 30-40 minutes after the Tuesday lecture to discuss how they will teach their sections that week,” he said. “I usually let them know what I want students to take away from section meetings, but we have great group discussions about their ideas for section and about teaching strategies more generally, and they often end up doing somewhat different things in each of their sections.”

Some of their most important lessons, some graduate students say, come from the exchange and evaluation between student and professor. Oliveira said that he and other students in the Slavic Languages and Literatures department receive a lot of mentoring from their professors. Rando agrees that a lot of teaching preparation comes from faculty members in their departments. Snow said that while his professor communicates regularly and sends course materials the week before section, some professors are “very hands-off.”
The level of pressure that TFs feel to conform to professors’ teaching philosophies depends on the class. The anonymous TF called teaching “a tightrope walk, especially if you’re teaching for someone whose politics you don’t agree with.” But she said that students’ readiness to engage with different points of view offsets some of this difficulty. “My students appreciate being taught different ways of thinking. It disturbs them way less than I would have thought. They’re not looking to find one answer,” she said.

The TFs agreed that the most rewarding part of their job is working with students. Oliveira said he is always impressed when students “have really good in-class presentations and engage with each other”; for Snow, working with students who need extra help is rewarding. Oliveira said that it is frustrating not only when students are too quiet in class, but also when one student speaks excessively. “I think [the other undergrads] notice that too,” he said, smiling.

When asked what he wished undergraduates knew about graduate students, Snow said with a smile: “Grad students are people as well.” Despite the challenges, some graduate students see the responsibility of being a TF as a valuable and enjoyable aspect of graduate school. The anonymous student called teaching a “tremendous privilege.” She emphasized its difference from her routine studies. “You spend a lot of time reading books alone, and then all of a sudden you’re let loose in the classroom in front of real live people with eyes and noses and thoughts and questions, and you realize that all the solitary work you’ve been doing has a social end,” she said.