What can this year’s cohort of new GTAs teach an experienced academic developer? Lee-Ann Sequeira finds out
It’s the beginning of another academic year, and while it’s hectic and busy, it’s a time to meet new colleagues and students, and if you’re an academic developer like I am, it’s also a time for introductory orientations and workshops for new staff. One aspect, I particularly look forward to is working with our new GTAs – graduate teaching assistants. They are eager, enthusiastic, and most often, young; which as I get older, means they afford me a new perspective into higher education and student life. While I can introduce them to pedagogy, the institution, and UK higher education, and give them the benefit of my experience; they give me a glimpse into what it means to be a student in the 21st century.
Instead of dispensing tips and guidance to GTAs, of which there is no dearth online, I thought the readers of this blog would be better served if I focused on the other side of the equation – what I have learnt from the GTAs I worked with over the last couple of weeks.
When discussing the use of icebreakers and introductions, we touched upon a few matters, one of them being the use of preferred pronouns. For some GTAs, when this came up, I sensed a palpable sigh of relief – they were reassured that this was seen as good practice; whereas others were bemused. What was interesting is that the latter group saw it as something they should get up to speed with. I was pleased to see how they took responsibility for this – just as if a lecturer had used a new term in class. I liked this no-fuss approach – whether it’s learning new terminology or different cultural practices – each one needs to do the work, just get on with it! To mix things up a bit, I gave the participants a couple of examples in which including preferred pronouns in an introductory icebreaker could be counterproductive for some students, and asked them to think about how they might deal with this. One of the responses from the participants (that I intend to use) was: when asking students to introduce themselves, in addition to their name, ask them to share one interesting thing about themselves – what is their favourite book/film, favourite book, their preferred pronouns, what their name means, etc.
What I liked: This response gave students the agency and choice in how they wanted to introduce themselves (I might try it). And it helps create an inclusive and respectful learning environment. Also: I need to take greater responsibility for my (re)education.
I feel v. I think
This was an interesting conundrum posed by an attendee at one of our micro-teaching sessions: does an argument when prefaced with “I feel” hold less value than an argument that begins with “I think,” and how does that affect the credibility of the speaker? Cue a discussion about emotion and rational thought, the challenges to authority that young female teachers and lecturers have to needlessly endure, professionalism, credibility and the stereotypes that prevail and how sometimes catering to them can reinforce them creating a vicious cycle. After a bit of crowd-sourcing, we came up with some interesting alternatives: “ My sense is …”, “My view is …”, “My reading is …”.
What I learnt: I always like to have a few handy (introductory/transitional) expressions or phrases in my back pocket that I can pull out when I need to. These would work brilliantly.
"I liked this no-fuss approach - whether it’s learning new terminology or different cultural practices - each one needs to do the work, just get on with it!"
A theme that often comes up, especially when discussing participation, is: how do we deal with the dominant voices? While most often this came from a good place – wishing to create a more equitable space where all students could participate – there were nevertheless a number of troubling assumptions being made: participation was unequivocally accepted as a positive feature, participation was primarily construed as oral contributions, students who did not participate as much/at all were viewed as lacking/deficient in some way. We discussed this issue from a number of angles – viewing silence as problematic, the influence of the teacher in modelling good practice, the role of cultural and pedagogic traditions and assumptions, equality and equity to name a few.
What I learnt: Even as the discourse gets more inclusive, perception and practice don’t always keep pace. Providing examples and options of non-oral forms of participation works.
Try out something different
In the micro-teaching sessions, which are conducted in small groups of four to six, it was heartening to see how some students seized it as an opportunity to try out something new, even though they knew it wasn’t likely to work perfectly. A couple of examples that come to mind are a thought experiment in a philosophy class and trying to create a timeline out of student contributions (on post-its) in an international relations class. It wasn’t the novelty or the sophistication that impressed me, but the drive to experiment and take risks which calls for so much more planning and monitoring – Kolb’s experiential learning theory in practice. It shows such dedication and enthusiasm for teaching! Another GTA was interested in how she could get students to engage in a discussion about a politically charged topic without letting their emotions/personal opinions influence their views. Whether this was right or desirable did not matter to me as much as the spirit of openness and candour with which she engaged in this process and the appetite to understand and improve her practice. Their optimism was boundless; no problem was too big to tackle – including Brexit!
What I liked: In these times of accountability and rankings, it is easy to let our teaching become performative and risk-averse. These GTAs reminded me that we need to regularly re-imagine and re-invigorate our teaching and curricula.
The courage of your convictions
It was wonderful to see young scholars advocating heterodox viewpoints instead of a hewing dogmatically to their epistemic traditions or streams of research resulting in other schools of thought being generally dismissed from their classrooms. Adopting a pluralistic approach will create room for students to express their views even if they are not in agreement with their GTA. One of the GTA participants raised an interesting question: why does there seem to be this need to create ‘harmony;’ why isn’t there more contestation? It was not the majority view, and it must have taken a certain amount of courage to share it. I am not sure that he received an answer (or at least a clear one), but the value in asking a good, but difficult question is priceless. And I will always be grateful to participants who are prescient and brave enough to raise these difficult issues.
What I learnt: Deliberately design space for these ‘difficult’ issues to arise and be discussed in my course curriculum and teaching.
During the last two weeks, there were GTAs whose names I mis-remembered, mixed up, and mispronounced. In one case, I called a GTA by someone else’s name for a whole half-hour before I realised my error. When I apologised to the participant, he explained that he didn’t want to correct me in public. In another case, I entered into a discussion with another participant about the Naga Munchetty case, and it only occurred to me half way through the discussion to check with the rest of the class that they knew who Naga Munchetty is. This, after outlining the dangers of making (arcane) cultural references! It was a teachable moment for them and a learning experience for me.
What I learnt: Try to avoid getting carried away when discussing pet topics or peeves. And to emulate the generosity my participants show me and return it in greater measure. In other words, I need to quit being a precious, pedantic pedagogue!
If you would like to share interesting reflections from your first weeks of teaching – pensive or light-hearted – please send them in, and we would be delighted to compile a list and post it. Word count: 100-300, pictures: yes please!
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
*The images are of the GTAs’ work which was produced during activities at the GTA induction and development workshops.