Learning to Become Scholars and Teachers

Author: Lisa Walenceus

Day-to-day life for graduate students is defined by the need to make a scholarly contribution to their chosen field of study. This intense focus drives these students to spend their days—and nights—doing research and analysis, writing and presenting papers, and, ultimately, submitting their work for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

But at Notre Dame, these young scholars have another aspiration as well. As part of a University that values both research and undergraduate education, the graduate students in the Department of Sociology also strive to make a real contribution in the classroom.

The Learning Experience

When Chris Hausmann, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate, faced his first class of 45 undergraduates in the introduction to sociology course “Understanding Societies,” he felt the nervousness that all new instructors feel.

“It was just a solid wall of eyes, and they were all looking at me,” he says. “Fifty minutes just seemed so long.”

Sara Skiles, a fellow graduate student who teaches introductory statistics, agrees. “That really is how it seems in the beginning—but then it quickly becomes hardly enough time to do all you want to do.”

Skiles and Hausmann prepared for their first teaching assignments in a Kaneb Center course, “Exciting and Effective Teaching in the Social Sciences.”

“The course really helped me think through different types of interactions with students, to take my teaching beyond just lectures,” Skiles says.

Hausmann adds, “We learned how to facilitate student discussions. That skill has been essential for me.”

Although they are relatively new instructors, both Ph.D. candidates already have well-developed ideas about what they want to accomplish in the classroom. “I want to encourage students to think creatively about the social world,” Hausmann says. “I try to help them go beyond concepts and definitions, to apply theories and push them in new directions.”

Offering continuous, detailed feedback on individual performance is also vital, says Skiles. “I want all of my students to know that they are my students. If I don’t engage with them, why should they engage with me?”

Faculty Mentoring

The fast learning curve of these young teachers is no surprise to Rory McVeigh, chair of the Department of Sociology. “Our graduate students have proven to be up for the challenge,” he says. “Each semester some of the strongest course evaluations in the department are for courses taught by our students.”

Not only does their teaching help Notre Dame undergraduates, he notes, but it is also an important learning experience for these young scholars as they work both to master their fields of study—and prepare for the job market.

“Research universities and liberal arts colleges want to hire new faculty with solid teaching records,” McVeigh says.

Recognizing the increasing demand for graduate students to get both teaching experience and training, the department recently initiated a teaching fellowship program. According to Bill Carbonaro, director of graduate studies, the goal is to provide additional support to graduate students as they finish their dissertations and hone their skills in the classroom.

“Grad students submit a teaching proposal,” he says, “and find a faculty mentor who will work with them to create a course syllabus, develop content, and design assignments, and also will monitor their teaching.”

This new program will formalize what Hausmann and Skiles say has already been a real asset for them in their studies: faculty mentors.

“There’s a tremendous willingness to talk about how to teach well among the faculty,” Hausmann says. “You can always get great advice from professors about particular teaching issues you might have.”

Skiles adds that the faculty often mentor graduate student instructors without even knowing it. “I watch how my professors work with both graduate and undergraduate students—I think about the pedagogy behind it and about how I could use what they’re doing in my own teaching.”

And that, perhaps, is teaching at its best.

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