GSAS Students Join With Middlesex Community College Instructors for Transformative Reading-Writing Pedagogy Institute
Photo Credit: Abigail Arnold
July 25, 2023
On the morning of June 28, 2023, eight Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) PhD students and eight Middlesex Community College faculty members gathered in the Mandel Reading Room for the third day of a joint institute on reading and writing pedagogy. Over breakfast pastries, they discussed the teaching of writing, exploring topics including classroom activities to cultivate particular habits of mind and the challenges of creating effective writing assignments. The participants constantly moved between different small groups and shared examples and experiences from their own work across the disciplines. The discussion was collegial and lively; participants called on each other and even continued their conversations during their mid-morning break.
From June 26 to June 30, GSAS hosted Brandeis’s inaugural summer Teaching Institute in Reading-Writing Pedagogy. Run in partnership with Middlesex Community College and the Modern Language Association (MLA), the institute, which was funded by the Social Sciences Research Council/National Endowment for the Humanities, the MLA, and the Mandel Center for the Humanities, with additional support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was designed to give doctoral students hands-on, intensive training in pedagogy for reading- and writing-heavy courses. While particularly aimed at students who are interested in teaching positions at community colleges and access-oriented institutions, it also prepared students for teaching at other types of colleges and universities.
Brandeis’s institute was part of a broader initiative by the MLA, begun in 2019 and supported by the Mellon Foundation, to strengthen reading and writing instruction at access-oriented institutions. According to the MLA, the goals for this project include “provid[ing] new and future faculty members with an understanding of the needs and circumstances of students at AOIs, who are primarily first-generation college students, Pell Grant recipients, and students of color” and “provid[ing] new and future faculty members with intensive training in pedagogical theory and practices for the teaching of writing and reading together to improve writing instruction at AOIs and to nurture the study of the humanities and social sciences in vocational and transfer-oriented educational settings.” Brandeis worked to meet these goals through hands-on training and workshops and through collaboration and community building between graduate student instructors and experienced community college faculty.
Jon Anjaria, GSAS’s Faculty Director of Professional Development, spearheaded the partnership with the MLA as part of his effort to provide more pedagogical resources for doctoral students, particularly resources aiming at teaching at community colleges. He has been in conversation with the MLA for several years to develop the institute. He noted that many doctoral students have teaching as a professional goal but that “the challenge is that, very often, students are not given rigorous training in pedagogy that is relevant for getting jobs at community colleges and other two-year institutions.” Anjaria emphasized his goals for the institute, which were to help students develop as teachers, to give them a better understanding of the community college’s mission and culture so that they understood their professional options, and to help them develop professionally through their collaboration with the Middlesex faculty. He particularly valued this collaboration, saying, “It’s very different from an advisor-advisee or mentor-mentee relationship. They are learning and doing projects together.” Anjaria hoped that this type of relationship would allow students to learn what it means to be a professor at a community college and to gain insight into different types of academic jobs.
Paige Eggebrecht, an Instructor of University Writing and Faculty Advisor to the University Writing Center at Brandeis, and Nicholas Papas, a Professor of English and Program Coordinator of ALP and Reading at Middlesex Community College, planned and facilitated all programming for the five-day institute. Each day had its own theme: understanding the community college setting, reading, writing, and preparing and then presenting individual projects on a teaching problem each student would like to address. The two collaborated for months leading up to the event, attending the MLA conference to workshop their plans and building on existing MLA curriculum by adding resources related to recent conversations in the pedagogical field.
Both Eggebrecht and Papas were very excited by the opportunity to work with a range of participants during the institute. Eggebrecht said, “The conversations were rich because you had people with tons of experience teaching writing and people with almost no teaching experience. I think everyone got something out of it, and there was a lot of exchange of strategies. Everyone was learning and able to participate in these up-to-date conversations.” Papas also emphasized the value of the conversations that participants had. He said, “I firmly believe that even having a discussion about these things is going to benefit the students.” Eggebrecht added, “The thing people learned was really to think critically about teaching these things, rather than ‘Here’s a long list of best practices.’” Both Eggebrecht and Papas emphasized the ways in which graduate students and established faculty each brought their own skills and knowledge to the table, learning from each other’s experiences.
GSAS’s doctoral student participants came from Anthropology, English, History, and Neuroscience. After the institute, what they all shared was incredible enthusiasm for their experience. Sarah Beth Gable, a seventh-year student in History, said that the institute was “beyond what I could have imagined.” She praised the “instant connection and collaboration the graduate students had with the community college instructors” and the “incredible community” they built. Jessi Brewer, a fourth-year student in English, agreed, saying, “Perhaps the most valuable thing I gained from this week is a group of supportive, like-minded teachers committed to improving their pedagogy. We plan to continue the conversation and support outside of this week-long experience.”
Students also spoke highly of the opportunity to learn more about the community college setting and to develop their teaching skills in new ways. Gowthaman Ranganathan, a third-year student in Anthropology, said, “The institute broke down the teaching of writing and reading and discussed different approaches and audiences for the teaching of writing and reading…This institute gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the everyday workings of a community college by facilitating my interaction with experienced faculty from community colleges.” Rabia Anjum, a seventh-year student in Neuroscience, enjoyed getting a more in-depth and realistic understanding of community colleges. She said that the Middlesex instructors “were very candid” in discussing their experiences. As the only science student at the institute, Anjum greatly appreciated the opportunity to work with others who are passionate about teaching. She said, “I wish more scientists did this, and I wish people who want to teach did more of this workshopping.”
Medha Asthana, a fourth-year student in Anthropology, said that they “couldn’t pick just one” favorite part of the institute “because every facet and component of it was so intentional and so successful.” They did, however, highly praise the collaboration with the Middlesex faculty, saying, “I think it’s great just to get out of the Brandeis bubble,” and noting the opportunities that everyone had to contribute and have their contributions valued: “It was really great to have someone who’s been teaching for 10 years say to me, ‘Wow! I really like what you’re bringing to the table.’”
Across the board, the students agreed that the lessons they took from the institute would shape their future plans, both in the short and the long term. Ranganathan plans to coordinate with Middlesex faculty on a plan to bring ethnographic writing to their courses. Anjum said, “I really want to invest more time, in a way that’s more productive, in how I design my rubrics, my assignments, in how I frame the goals of the class. I don’t think I would know how to do that if I hadn’t attended the institute.” Gable, who will be teaching in the University Writing Program next year, said, “My class will be better because of this.” And Asthana looked ahead to a future career, saying, “I definitely am excited about teaching community college a lot more. I got to hear from them what it’s like--the stories of really impacting students. I’m looking forward to that being a balance of all the things I love.” They encouraged other GSAS students to engage with professional development offerings, adding, “Tell students to seek out opportunities, even if they’re not sure they’re meant for a certain path.” Through their work and collaboration in the Teaching Institute in Reading-Writing Pedagogy, GSAS students both moved further along their existing paths and explored and discovered new ones.