June 5, 2020

Simon Goodacre | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Every year, the Graduate School of Arts and Science (GSAS) hosts a ceremony to recognize the outstanding teaching assistants and course assistants nominated by each academic program. The cessation of on-campus events during the 2020 spring semester prevented the school from presenting the awards to these students in person, but each of the recipients was contacted by GSAS Dean Eric Chasalow to congratulate and thank them for their support during the 2019-20 academic year. 

“Teaching assistants provide critical support for faculty during the best of times,” says Chasalow. “Their contribution during the Coronavirus pandemic has been nothing short of essential.” In addition to the standard teaching assistant awards, the GSAS office introduced the “Exceptional Departmental Service Award” this year to recognize the unique challenges that teaching assistants encountered during the transition to remote learning. These students were also nominated by their academic departments, frequently in teams.

“It is important to remember that our teaching assistants are students themselves,” says Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. “They have been impacted by the sudden but necessary move to remote learning both in their own classes and in the sections they lead. This transition created burdens for our teaching assistants that nobody anticipated, and many faculty members have expressed gratitude and admiration for their adaptability during these challenging circumstances.”

Recipients agree that there were unique challenges facing teaching assistants this semester. “Just as nothing can really prepare you for your first day of teaching, nothing can prepare you for teaching during a pandemic,” says Luke Blackburn. “The university made a good call with making the move to online learning,” says Susann Longva Vaeth, “however, the online classroom cannot be compared to the physical classroom. It requires a new syllabus, different pacing of topics, rethinking of assignments and finding creative ways to make meaningful, not menial assignments.” 

Other challenges included accommodating students in different time zones and students coping with equity issues. For Nicole Constantine, this meant recognizing that “Brandeis is a safe space for learning for many students, a space that can not easily be replicated at home.” These students had to continue their education, “without, or with limited access to, the support systems that they had established on the Brandeis campus.” Daniel Ruggles agrees that being “so far removed from students,” presented the biggest challenge, adding that many “have a tendency to isolate or retreat in times of trouble.” Many recipients, including Cait Sackrison, recognized that a large number of students were dealing with mental health concerns, and “a handful of the students were experiencing COVID first hand.” These issues caused teaching assistants to provide more emotional support to students than they expected. “I've found patience, clarity, and kindness to be most essential,” says Ruggles.

In spite of the challenges caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, many teaching assistants feel that the situation created an increased sense of camaraderie. “We’re all in this thing called academia together,” says Alexander Herbert. “The truth is that I’m a regular human being just like them, I just happen to have a little more knowledge to impart on them.” Blackburn agrees that a lot of the success of the transition to remote learning is due to the students in his section. “We prevailed together,” he says. 

Some of the recipients acknowledged that the University has more work to do. Sackrison appreciates the award as, “a recognition of the obstacles many of us had to overcome while adjusting to remote learning,” but adds there “is still so much to be done to improve remote learning at Brandeis.” Dean Chasalow agrees that “the transition to remote learning this spring was rapid and messy.” He expressed gratitude to all teaching assistants for their flexibility and indispensable support during this period, but he recognizes that the circumstances created unreasonable burdens in many cases. “We need to provide more structural support for teaching assistants in the coming semester,” he says. “Over the summer months, my staff and I will work with faculty leadership, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and other partners around campus to ensure that the necessary resources are available and a fair and consistent distribution of responsibilities for teaching assistants is maintained moving forward.”

2020 Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award Recipients
Rebecca Friedlander, Anthropology
Jeremy Cynamon, Politics
Emiliano Gutierrez Popoca, English
Habiba Braimah, Sociology
Cheyenne Paris, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
Eileen Xing, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
Alexander Herbert, History
Jared Berkowitz, History
Chengying Ye, Teaching Chinese
Nicole Constantine, Ancient Greek and Roman Studies
Wei Lu, Mathematics
Luke Blackburn, Music Composition and Theory
Shawn Mikkelson, Musicology
Adrianna Shy, Chemistry
Alycia Bisson, Psychology, Verna Regan Memorial Award
Meghan Harris, Life Sciences, Pulin Sampat Memorial Award 

Exceptional Departmental Service, Remote Learning Transition of 2020 Award Recipients
Alycia Bisson, Psychology
Anja Parish, Politics
Daniel Ruggles, Politics
Mika Hackner, Politics
Jack Huguley, Politics
Nathanial Walker, Politics
Nai Kim, English
Sarah Halford, Sociology
Carey Slaeker, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
Caitlin Sackrison, History
Susann Longva Vaeth, History
Alaa Murad, History
Robert Cochran, History
Charles Stine, Mathematics