Doorway Into a Community of Scholars Pitt Doctoral Students Learn the Art of Teaching

Issue Date: 
March 16, 2009
Peter Bell, a Pitt doctoral student in chemistry, conducts an experiment for his organic chemistry class, while George Bandik, a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies for Pitt’s Department of Chemistry, looks on. From left are Bell, sophomore Vanessa Cole, junior Jason Zlotnicki, Bandik, and sophomore Kaitlyn Musco. Peter Bell, a Pitt doctoral student in chemistry, conducts an experiment for his organic chemistry class, while George Bandik, a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies for Pitt’s Department of Chemistry, looks on. From left are Bell, sophomore Vanessa Cole, junior Jason Zlotnicki, Bandik, and sophomore Kaitlyn Musco.

Laura Macia, a Pitt graduate teaching assistant in anthropology, faced a pedagogical problem: how to engage contemporary undergraduates in learning about kinship, a cornerstone of anthropology. Knowing that kinship can be heavy going—even for the most devoted anthropology undergraduate—Macia made a teaching decision. She recast the examination of kinship from one of dry theory and diagrams into a lively class discussion that delved into how different cultures define familial relationships.

Macia turned to something her students knew—the social dating site

Macia, who also is a Pitt doctoral candidate in anthropology, compared the ways Americans choose potential partners on the popular dating Web site—using categories such as physical characteristics, lifestyle, and background—to the ways people on a similar site in India choose a mate, basing their matches on religion, caste, mother tongue, and even profession. (In India, such matches are made with an eye toward marriage, not simply dating.)

“I wanted them to understand the emphasis that different cultures make in building their families and how people in other cultures think about these issues differently than we do,” Macia says about the technique she used with her Introduction to Cultural Anthropology students. “I think a lot of the students felt like the kinship material in the book didn’t have a lot of real-life implications. I wanted to translate it into something tangible, something they’d be able to relate to.”

Finding ways to engage students in academic learning is a task shared by hundreds of Pitt graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and teaching fellows (TFs) who, like Macia, are honing their skills in the classroom, under the guidance of faculty, while pursuing PhD degrees. The doctoral students help faculty craft course syllabi, evaluate student work, run labs, and lead discussions and teaching recitations. In doing so, Pitt TAs and TFs receive hands-on experience in teaching and mentoring from seasoned faculty.

“We want to develop our PhD students as scholars in the fullest sense of the word,” says Pitt Vice Provost for Graduate and Undergraduate Studies Patricia Beeson, “scholars who study, who learn, and who share what they learn with the broader community, through writing and publishing, through lectures given to colleagues throughout the world, and through their teaching.

“Research and teaching are intertwined,” continues Beeson, who also is a professor of economics and public policy, “and the best among us are skilled at both. We are as proud of our reputation and accomplishments as educators as we are of our research and scholarship.”

The excitement that many graduate students have for what they are learning in their dissertation research often carries over into the classroom, according to Nicole Constable, associate dean of graduate studies and research in the School of Arts and Sciences and a professor of anthropology.

“When you are first working on a PhD and you are teaching, it’s like you are learning things again for the first time,” says Constable. “There is nothing like the enthusiasm of anthropology students back from their first field research trips. They can talk about how hard it is to do fieldwork and really convey a sense of excitement to the undergraduates because it’s still fresh in their minds. For the undergrads, they can get a real sense of what the field is like that they wouldn’t necessarily get from reading about it in a book.”

Introduction to the Profession

For a majority of Pitt’s PhD candidates, the graduate school teaching experience is vital preparation for their future. In the School of Arts and Sciences, 55 percent of PhD graduates move directly into academic teaching positions, while another 20 percent land academic fellowships, which lead to teaching posts in many cases.

That is why most doctoral candidates in Arts and Sciences—between 80 and 90 percent of the 1,500 or so graduate students in the school—receive training as teachers, says Constable. “Once they hit the job market, having teaching experience is really valuable.”

Many TAs gradually work their way into a classroom by helping professors with such administrative duties as grading papers or setting up labs. Over time, they gain more exposure by leading discussions or lab sections, giving lectures, and, as their knowledge and expertise increases, some even teaching classes of their own.

Even if PhD students choose not to go into academia, teaching helps them become better communicators, according to George Bandik, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in Pitt’s Department of Chemistry. “There are two aspects of science,” says Bandik. “One is finding new information, and the other is getting that information across to other people so it can be used in the world. No matter what graduate students end up doing, this is their chance to learn how to get that information across.”

Many chemistry PhD students move on to work as researchers in private industry. They, too, will benefit from learning how to teach, says Bandik. “If they’re going into a research position, they’ll have to know how to share their research with different kinds of people.

Bridging the Generational Gap

Graduate TAs and TFs also can serve as a bridge between undergraduates and faculty. Graduate students might relate to the undergraduates they teach because, for the most part, they are just a few years older than their students. They also can bring a certain freshness to the classroom because of their generational connection.

That freshness can be seen in the teaching methods doctoral students employ, many of which use or reference popular media forms.

At 25 years old, art history PhD candidate Robert Bailey is only a few years older than his students. “There are things I have in common with them that I can use to make a point,” says Bailey.

In one course, he cited channel surfing as a way of characterizing the work of American painter David Salle, whose paintings include images from different sources and contexts. “His paintings have a character similar to the random juxtaposition of images that channel surfing produces,” says Bailey. “Salle came to prominence in the 1980s when a lot of Americans began subscribing to cable, so it makes sense