Eric Chasalow hands a student a certificate

Photo Credit: Simon Goodacre

May 8, 2019

Simon Goodacre | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

The first day of class is always nerve-racking for students, but for those in front of the class, it can be terrifying. “I felt wholly inadequate,” says Rabia Anjum, “because I had always envisioned that my faculty and teaching assistants knew everything, like vessels of knowledge, but as a TA myself I realized I was full of doubt and questions, that I barely knew everything.” Anjum is one of twenty students receiving awards for being outstanding teaching assistants from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) this year.

At any given time, there may be more than 200 GSAS students serving as teaching assistants. All doctoral students and many master’s students participate during their time at Brandeis. The benefit is twofold: the graduate students gain valuable teaching experience, and the faculty receive assistance in the classroom, in labs, and in the studio. The GSAS dean honored this year's most outstanding teaching assistants with a ceremony in the Mandel Center on May 8. The award recipients were nominated by their respective programs. 

Anjum, who is receiving the award for life sciences, was not the only teaching assistant with nerves at the beginning of the year. “I started writing on the board to show how many ways one can permute the letters in the word ‘banana,’” says Joel Richter, the recipient in Computer Science. “After getting ‘B A N’ I froze, and a student in the front row had to help me spell the rest. Stage fright is real!” However, the teaching fellows started to feel more comfortable in the classroom as the year progressed. “I feel like my confidence is the thing I have worked hardest to improve,” says Eric Hanson, the recipient in Mathematics. “It felt terrifying at first to think that I was responsible for someone else's education, but as I've taught more, I feel that I trust myself and my own instincts much more than I used to.” 

For many of the teaching assistants, the experience was very rewarding. “It is always nice to see students who struggled making great improvements,” says Jiayi Chen, the recipient in Physics. “There is one student, in the first semester came to talk to me all the time saying he's worried he's not that good in physics but he wants to become physics major. With some extra work and encouragement, now he's the best in the class!” It is not unusual for teaching assistants to play a critical role in inspiring students to achieve their potential. Matthew Previto, who is receiving the award for Ancient Greek and Roman Studies, says, “I always wanted to become a TA like the ones who believed in me and helped me to excel, so my most rewarding experience in being a TA was when a student wrote in my evaluation that they could tell that I believed in their, and their fellow students’, ability to succeed.” Anjum agrees that, “a good educator is emotionally invested in their students' progress and commitment, and it is a complex relationship imbued not merely with a transaction of knowledge, but a bilateral growth that happens within students and instructors.” 

A lot of the teaching assistants were surprised to hear that they had received the award. “It’s very hard to tell whether you’re doing a good job or not, at least for me,” says Richter, “so to get an actual reward is very validating.” Regardless of whether they were surprised, all of the recipients were happy to have been selected. “Receiving this award is really a shock,” says Carey Slaeker, the recipient in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. “I'm absolutely honored to be recognized in this way for something that I truly enjoy doing. Whatever success that I've enjoyed as a TA comes from the mentorship and examples of those in my department and program who have shown me how to be an effective teacher. This is especially true for the professors that I've been taught by and worked with, those who have been effective TA's in classes that I have taken, as well as my friends and fellow TA's whose examples have shown me what it takes to succeed. I interpret the honor of receiving this award as a glowing report on the Brandeis community that fosters an environment of communal learning.” 

The 2019 Outstanding Teaching Assistants are: 

Ancient Greek and Roman Studies: Matthew Previto
Anthropology: Jessie Leonard
Chemistry: Gary Marqus, Dan Polyak
Computer Science: Joel Richter
English: Onur Toker
History: Ali Kardatzke, Olivia Bowins
Life Sciences (Pulin Sampat Award): Rabia Anjum
Mathematics: Eric Hanson
Music Composition and Theory:  Brian Sears
Musicology:  Daniel Shapiro
Near Eastern and Judaic Studies: Carey Slaeker
Physics: Jiayi Chen
Politics: Christiana Botticello
Psychology (Verna Regan Award): Jeremy Simon
Sociology: Jenny LaFleur
University Writing Program: Jake Burg
Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies: Riley Thomas, Elena Silesky