Students sit in small groups around tables. Text on a computer screen reads, "Let's practice writing some learning objectives!" and gives instructions: "Choose a topic from a class that you are teaching this year.  Write:  One overarching learning goal What should students know, appreciate, or understand after a particular class meeting?  Two specific, concrete, measurable learning objectives (using an action verb; what can they do if they know or understand the learning goal?) What are two skills students should learn during a class meeting."

Students engage in discussion during the Center for Teaching and Learning's pedagogy seminar.

Photo Credit: Marty Samuels

October 16, 2023

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

On September 9 and 10, 2023, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) held a pedagogy seminar for Brandeis graduate students. Led by Dr. Marty Samuels, CTL Program Director, and Dr. Charles Chip Mc Neal, Director, Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Education Learning Initiatives, the seminar aimed to teach graduate students techniques for course design and inclusive teaching, whether they were experienced instructors or soon to be standing up at the front of a classroom for the first time. Twenty-one graduate students, twenty of whom were from GSAS, participated in the seminar, benefiting both from the curriculum itself and from the chance to meet and share strategies with other graduate students who serve as teaching assistants or instructors.

Samuels and Mc Neal, who are both relatively new to Brandeis, planned the seminar as a pilot project off of which they could build. Samuels said that they both “were on a little bit of a listening tour our first year. We were listening to a lot of graduate students who wanted a sense of professional development as instructors. They felt teaching was often a job but not something where they really learned the art of teaching.” Mc Neal added, “The listening tour was really about listening to graduate students and TAs from across the campus, who were helping us to understand some of the challenges they had with accessibility, anti-oppressive strategies, and pedagogy in general.” In planning, they continued their focus on listening to students and making sure the workshop incorporated what they most needed (including, according to Mc Neal, “feeding them substantially”).

The two collaborated on planning the seminar, each bringing their own strengths to the project. “We filled in the gaps to create a really holistic course because of the ways our skills and experiences complement each other and mutually reinforce one another,” said Mc Neal, something that students also noted as a highlight of the course. Shenghan Wang, a second-year master’s student in Neuroscience who participated in the weekend, observed of Samuels and Mc Neal, “Their styles are very different, but in combination, they are effective,” adding that this created a “better, most holistic experience.”

The pair used their individual styles and expertise to create a seminar aimed at helping graduate students take a student-centered approach to their teaching. They worked to incorporate empathy, anti-racist pedagogy, and ways that students could use the techniques they learned in the seminar both as TAs and later when they are designing and teaching their own courses. They also made sure to walk the walk, incorporating the principles of course design that they taught into their own practice. Samuels and Mc Neal included a wide range of activities in the seminar, including case studies about challenging classroom scenarios. Said Mc Neal, “We wanted to give them real, concrete examples of things that might emerge in the teaching paradigm and how you respond and prepare for it.”

The planning paid off, producing a weekend in which students fully participated and formed a community. According to Samuels, “The first day was a lot of ground setting, and the second day it felt like everything was just clicking…All the barriers were down at that point…People were engaged, enthusiastic, and vulnerable–it was an inspiring thing to be a part of. It felt like it was all of ours.”

Student participants emphasized how much they got out of the seminar and the strong connections they built. Sneha Visakha, a first-year PhD student in Anthropology who is also a first-time TA, said, “The way they held space for student experiences was amazing,” and described it as “one of the best sessions the university has held that I’ve attended.” She added, “It taught me the value of thinking of pedagogy as not just an intellectual end goal but as a way of creating space in the classroom not just for minds but for the students as full human beings.” Nathan Walker, a fifth-year PhD student in Politics who has served as a TA many times and will be teaching his own course through the University Prize Instructorship in the spring, also found the seminar extremely beneficial. He said, “What the CTL is doing right now is leadership in the entire academy,” as there is generally not much teaching training required in the world of academia. He cited the seminar’s guidance in engaging with DEI as a highlight, saying, “It’s very hard to skirt around these questions. Because Brandeis has a very diverse student body, that can actually make people clam up;” rather than suggesting that student instructors avoid sensitive topics or approach them in a sanitized way, the seminar showed them how to address them in conversations that are “fruitful and don’t get rid of the peace we have in the classroom.”

Walker emphasized the collegiality and community built in the seminar, both between students across all different disciplines and between students and leaders. For example, he connected with a Musicology PhD student with similar academic interests; the two plan to engage in further discussion. Visakha and Wang both agreed. Visakha said, “It was great to hear other students’ experiences in their departments–there were differences, but there were also commonalities,” and Wang added that Samuels and Mc Neal “really gained my trust with their genuineness–being real as people and very capable as educators.” They found the seminar a great place to build lasting connections with other GSAS students. Jared Newell, a third-year PhD student in Neuroscience, believed that the way the seminar brought a range of students together was one of its greatest strengths. He said, “We don’t normally get much opportunity as PhD students in wildly different disciplines to interact, so it was comforting to hear that students in other disciplines are having the same questions…The best part of the weekend was being able to speak with a lot of different students.”

Students also believed the seminar would provide them with great benefits in their future as instructors. Jamie Stonemetz, a third-year PhD student in Neuroscience, hopes to teach at a predominantly undergraduate institution in the future and said, “Any opportunity I can find to get some training regarding teaching and pedagogy is valuable.” They said that the seminar gave them much valuable advice for syllabus design and managing a classroom. Newell, who is not teaching this semester but will be in the spring, added that the seminar provided a good opportunity to plan and set intentions before actually entering the busy world of the classroom. And Walker said that he planned to make revisions to the syllabus for his spring course based on ideas from the seminar.

Students plan to continue to engage with the CTL and encourage their peers to do the same. Newell said, “I definitely encourage any grad students who are teaching or know they will be teaching in the future to get in touch with Marty and Chip or attend the next workshop series.” This continued engagement is in line with Samuels’ and Mc Neal’s goals for the project. They hope that students will recognize that the weekend seminar was a pilot program and that they want to continue to get better and build programming alongside graduate students in order to best serve them. They invite students to continue to reach out to them for support in investing in the meaningful work of teaching.