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Graduate students seek prestigious teaching opportunities

Published: February 28, 2013
Section: News


When students choose their classes, they’re looking for a chance to learn and delve into engaging topics. But classes serve as education for more than the undergraduate students who choose them: they become valuable training for graduate students who teach them before becoming professors.

According to the registrar, 36 classes at Brandeis this semester are taught by a graduate student. Most University Writing Seminar (UWS) classes, a requirement for first-years of all majors, are taught by a graduate student in the related field. More than two-thirds of the 36 are UWS classes. Departments as varied as history and mathematics choose graduate students to teach some of the introductory classes under 100-level. Often times, the number of graduate students teaching varies with the staffing needs of the department. It also helps graduate students build their curriculum vitae, which is important to those seeking a future in academia.

Aaron Wirth, a Ph.D. student in history who is teaching the course “Madness and Medicine in the Modern Age,” says teaching has been a crucial experience for him, personally and professionally.

“Teaching my own course has been incredibly beneficial,” Wirth said. “Thanks to the liberal arts atmosphere that Brandeis provides, my teaching tends to be student-centered and more communicative than larger schools. My students have more opportunity to speak and, as a result, we have a chance to give each other constant feedback throughout the semester.”

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students undergo a rigorous application process to be selected as instructors. They apply annually for the University Instructor Prize (UPI), which awards a $6,000 stipend to students to design and teach upper-level courses in their field of research.

Wirth was a winner of the history department’s annual Departmental Instructor Prize (DPI). To apply, he had to create a course syllabus based on primary and secondary sources, along with material from his original research, and explain why Brandeis students would benefit from the chance to take a course on the subject.

Wirth believes that students learn differently from having a teacher who is close to them in age.

“This is the second time I have taught “Madness and Medicine in the Modern Age” now, and the same sentiment is evident in both classes: after a few weeks, my students gradually become more relaxed within the atmosphere I create,” Wirth said. “There may be several variables at play here: my age, the fact that most of them know that I am still a graduate student, the openness that I provide in the classroom.”

“I certainly believe everyone would benefit if more [graduate students] were teaching. The passion a graduate student can bring to the classroom can make a profound difference in what and how students learn,” he added.

Students, however, still have mixed feelings about taking classes taught by teaching assistants (TA).

“I was initially surprised to be having a grad student teaching me a course at Brandeis, especially because I recall Brandeis saying that no courses were taught by grad students,” said Lily Montagna ’15, whose introductory math class was taught by a TA.

She says that although the teacher could be difficult to understand at times, “Because he was a grad student, it made it easier for me to relate to him as a student and a young adult.”