Learning to teach is a fundamental part of a graduate education. At Yale, all doctoral students serve as teaching fellows at some point, and although the timing and nature of assignments varies by department and program, the goal is the same across all disciplines: to prepare future faculty members and leaders to communicate their expertise and transmit their skills to students in the classroom, colleagues in the workplace, and the general public. Teaching fellows develop their skills under faculty guidance and by participating in workshops and other activities provided by the McDougal Graduate Teaching Center.
Every year, a few students are singled out for their exceptional performance as teaching fellows. Nominated by the undergraduates they have taught and the faculty members who supervised them, these graduate students are designated Prize Teaching Fellows (PTFs). Letters of recommendation cited many of the same qualities over and over: excellent command of the material, innovative teaching style, creativity, dedication, liveliness, enthusiasm, patience, and the ability to make difficult concepts comprehensible and interesting.
“The letters of recommendation, if compiled and bound, would read like a story of great teaching,” says Bill Rando, director of the Graduate Teaching Center and PTF selection committee member. “There are some common themes, but there is also enormous variety. These teachers are drawing on powerful traditions and smart approaches, but they are infusing those practices with unique intellect and personality.”
This year’s PTFs are Jennifer Lambe (History), Joseph Lauer (Mathematics), Rishi Raj (Mathematics), Samuel Schaffer (PhD 2010, History), Jeremi Szaniawski (Film Studies and Slavic Studies), and Jan Claas van Treeck (Germanic Languages & Literature). They were honored at a dinner hosted by the deans of Yale College and the Graduate School in November.
“The Prize Teaching Fellowship was an idea initiated by Yale College in 1980 to recognize the extraordinary efforts of TFs in the classroom and to honor the incredible talents of graduate students in our midst,” said Yale College Dean Mary Miller, as she welcomed this year’s winners. “You are the people who care intensely about teaching. You must never lose this.”
Dean Thomas Pollard congratulated the PTFs, saying, “The people who changed my life the most were my teachers. Back when I was in high school, teachers got me interested in the very things I’m still doing research on today. In college, my organic chemistry professor was absolutely fabulous. He taught me how to teach. There were no lectures. The whole course was about solving problems, making discoveries, developing insights. Unlike most organic chemistry courses, this one was open book: there was no memorizing. His methodology was so successful that I modeled the first-year Medical School program at Johns Hopkins on that approach.”
Each of the PTFs was invited to say a few words.
Jennifer recalled a memorable and inspiring eighth-grade English teacher: “When we studied Dracula, he became Dracula. I think good teachers should be a little scary, and he was.” Regarding her own teaching style, Jennifer explained, “I’ve been told that a classroom is a combination of a War Room and a cocktail hour, and I try to create that mix in my classes.” Jennifer’s field is modern Latin America and the Caribbean, and she is writing a dissertation on the history of psychiatry in postcolonial Cuba. She has been a teaching fellow for “Colonial Latin America,” “Medicine and Public Health in Latin America, 1820–2000,” and “Colony, Nation, and Diaspora: Cuba and Puerto Rico.”
Jan Claas van Treeck (German) emphatically stated that his goal as a language teacher is to “Avoid boredom!” On the very first day of teaching introductory German, he decided to empower his students with some rapid results that would enable them to invest in the more challenging work to come. He told his students, “German is an easy language,” further explaining to those assembled at the dinner that, “Of course, it’s not really very easy, but it’s a phonetic language. As soon as you know how to pronounce all the letters, you can speak it correctly. My students could immediately read and pronounce a strange language correctly. I made the course interesting for myself — and along the way, it became interesting for them.”
Jan has served as a part-time acting instructor for Elementary German and as an instructor for the intensive Yale Summer Session Intermediate German courses. This spring, he is slated to teach a self-designed course on German Expressionism – one of his areas of specialization. His dissertation will focus on Walter Serner (1889–1942), a German writer who was one of the founders of Dadaism.
Before coming to Yale, Sam taught high school for seven years. “I knew I wanted to become a better teacher, so I got involved with the Graduate Teaching Center. I learned by teaching about teaching.” Sam completed his PhD in December of 2010 with a dissertation titled “New South Nation: Woodrow Wilson’s Generation and the Restoration of the South, 1884–1920.” This year, he is the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of History and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He has been a teaching fellow for “The American Revolution,” “U.S. Political and Social History Since 1945,” and “The Formation of Modern American Culture, 1877–1919.” He was head teaching fellow for “Civil War and Reconstruction, 1848–1877.”
Smiling when his turn arrived, Jeremi said, “I am only here because I was a terrible math student. In college at the University of Brussels, I took the only major with no math or science requirements. I had a fantastic teacher who was a charismatic performer. I came to understand that teaching is about passing along what you know and love. It gives me deep satisfaction that some of my students have become genuinely invested in film studies.” Jeremi has been a TF for “Introduction to Film Studies,” “Modes of Filmmaking,” “The Horror Film,” “Tolstoy,” and “Introduction to Art History from the Middle-Ages to the Present Day,” in addition to having taught his own course on horror films. His dissertation focuses on contemporary Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.
Joseph admitted that he “expected to hate teaching, but didn’t want to be bad at it. I was concerned about passing information to my students, but more than that. I like math very much, and I wanted my students to feel that way about it. Math classes are normally very quiet. Students are lectured to. Last fall, I benefited from some freshmen who didn’t know that: they asked questions and the classroom was lively. I’d like to make that happen all the time when I teach.” He has been a TF for “Introduction to Functions of Several Variables” and “Linear Algebra with Applications” and an instructor for “Calculus of Functions of One Variable” and “Calculus of Functions of Several Variables.” He studies geometric evolution equations, and his dissertation is on aspects of smoothness in mean curvature flow.
Rishi faced a “steep learning curve” as a teacher. “During my first two years as a TF, I worked with students one-on-one or in small groups, and I was good at that. In my third year, I taught my first course, and it was a disaster. I perceive the subject in a different way than the students. I see math as a set of logical concepts that build on one another, not as a bunch of techniques and examples. The opposite was true for my students.” He figured out how to communicate with them, and his students’ letters of nomination called him an excellent, knowledgeable, supportive teacher who cares about and understands them. He has been a teaching assistant, part-time acting instructor, and summer instructor for “Linear Algebra with Applications,” “Calculus of Functions of One Variable,” and “Calculus of Functions of Several Variables.” His own research area is infinite dimensional representation theory, and his dissertation focuses on aspects of Higher Teichmüller Theory.
Towards the end of the evening, Dean Pollard gave the PTFs some parting advice: “Ask your students what you could do to make your course better and listen to them. That’s what I’ve done over the years, and it’s been immensely useful. Take the advice of your students. They will give you valuable feedback.”