Undergraduate mentoring

Now that I’m out of class I have started to do some mentoring and tutoring. Helping others is important to me and sometimes it gets pushed to the side burner when I get bogged down with things. However, I have a good handle on my lab work and I don’t have to worry about classes, so I asked for and received an undergraduate student to mentor in lab. My student is a sophomore bio. major who is interested in graduate school and its my job to not only teach her how to perform experiments but to shape her thinking to that of an independent scientist. I look forward to seeing her grow over these next few years. My other undergraduate mentee was appointed to me through a mentoring program. The focus of this program is to pair undergraduates with graduate students so that they can help them get into graduate school. The approach is one on one and should be very effective. I look forward to seeing how that young lady will advance in her academic career. Finally I began tutoring high school AP biology for some spare cash on the side. I really like it, Ive never tutored before but it’s very interesting. My student seems to be benefiting from our sessions so I can’t wait to see how he does on his upcoming final. This post isn’t really about getting into graduate school, its my personal post to say:  “Never forget where you came from. No matter how self reliant you are, at some point someone helped you. As you grow it is your duty to help those behind you. Reach as you climb.”

Teaching…

Lots of folks I know view teaching as a graduate student as a vexed opportunity/ circumstance of obtaining an advanced degree. Depending on your department, you may have very few chances to teach, or more chances than you would like. There are tons of benefits to teaching, including job experience, income, and a huge sense of accomplishment. Despite the benefits, balancing teaching and research/writing/coursework can be difficult. Oh, also, teaching can be ROUGH and definitely is lots of work. I wanted to share a few lessons I’ve figured out the hard way—through hours and hours of trial and error in the classroom.

 

1. Classes vary, and you will probably have to change up your teaching style to match your students in a given semester. Some classes are talkative and some are quiet. Some love group work, while others just want to listen to lectures. Be prepared to vary your teaching styles, try out new things, and definitely ask for feedback from students—I usually have a miderm eval…

2. Along the same lines, some classes are great, and some, to be real, are not. There are some groups of students that for some reason just don’t mesh. It can be easy to take that personally, but don’t jump to that assumption. Take a good look at your class, and honestly assess the situation. Are you putting in too little time? Are you unavailable to students? Are you regularly unprepared? If you answer “no” to those questions, it’s probably not your fault, so you’ll just have to muddle through. But don’t despair! You will have good classes in the future!

Photo by Ben Skirvin/WFIU. Accessed from http://www.flickr.com/photos/wfiupublicradio/5163362832/.

3. A class is always the hardest the first time you teach it. Expect to put in hours prepping and developing assignments. The flip of that, though, is that classes are much easier the second or third time around, so save your materials—and make notes on what worked best and what you would like to update…

4. If you’re feeling intimidated by teaching—and everyone I know has felt this way—a quick shot to your confidence that should help with your class is to put on your finest teaching garb and light it up! Really, it should help you feel more professional and, for me, in any case, affords me greater confidence. Sometimes you just have to fake that you are a professional/authority figure/expert and eventually you’ll believe it, and your students will too. Fake it ‘til you make it…!

5. Finally, a note for you perfectionists out there: set boundaries on how much teaching prep you do. I have definitely lost entire weeks of reading/writing to teaching: it can absolutely can take over… So you have to remember that you are also here to research and write; don’t let that side of grad school suffer. Limit the hours you can use to prep, and force yourself to be efficient and to prioritize what really needs to be done (i.e. do you really need all those hilarious photos for the PowerPoint? Probably not.).

 

Here’s hoping that you have a blast with teaching… It is part of the vocation for most of us and while some are more “natural” at it—in the sense of having a defined teaching style that affords someone confidence and students a good learning experience—everyone I know is always working to becoming a better teacher. It takes work and, like with most things, if at first you don’t succeed try, and try again!

Life is history

For someone who wants to study ancient Greece, there are two academic options: ancient history or Classics. By training, I am both a Classicist and an ancient historian, with degrees from both departments, but there IS a distinction, and today I was reminded by my students why it matters to me.

I am currently a doctoral student in ancient history, and so my primary teaching appointment is in the Department of History, where I am serving this semester as a TA for a large survey course in ancient Greek history. Today’s class discussion was about the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote a contemporary history of the great war that took place in the 5th century BC between Athens and Sparta, and it resulted in undergraduates speaking intelligently about such topics as the Cold War, Iran, the legality of American foreign policy, the ongoing revolution in Egypt, and the modern debate over the death penalty. They observed with a casual easiness that the democratic Athenians chose to support an oligarchic government, a form of rule they did not endorse, in the Greek island state of Lesbos, because that government was friendly to their own Athenian empire. And they noted that when a subsequent democratic revolution in Lesbos altered the status quo and turned the Athenians against the oligarchs, their former allies, that this resembled the United States’ strained relationships with Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak.

Understanding history is about making connections, and these are just the sorts of connections I want to see them contemplating. History is relevant. Everything has a context and a set of influencing factors. Human behavior has not altered as much as each new generation wants to believe. Our students are learning to think critically about the past and to use their knowledge of the present to understand it, and it is our ultimate goal as historians to help them eventually use their knowledge of the past to understand the present and to think critically about the world around them today.

I am passionate about the Classical tradition and its preservation, and I value and appreciate the work that Classics professors and TAs do in teaching students Greek and Latin language, literature, art history and civilization, but today, I am reminded that the remnants of the past do not exist simply to be pondered for their own sake. Today, I am an ancient historian.

Amor y Pasión

I used to be a Valentines Day fanatic, giving in to the pressures of consumerism and purchasing high cost candy, teddy bears, and flowers for the loved ones. I’ve sort of grown out of this, but still, during the month of February I can’t help but to spend moments thinking about all the things that I love. A lot of them are typical things, like my family, my partner, and my puppy (thats her in the picture), but I am also a little bit of a nerd and I love to play trumpet (see my next blog), and I have LOTS of love for the work that I do, particularly sitting down in front of excel sheets and playing with numbers, managing the small group of undergraduate students that help me conduct my research, presenting (mostly null) results in front of fellow graduate students and faculty, and sitting around and thinking critically about scientific problems. I also love that I love what I do.. because I have done work that I don’t particularly like and I know how it feels to get up in the morning and have to drag myself to my job. So, really, (I can’t believe I am saying this) I actually love being a gra… wait.. maybe I shouldn’t say it. Or maybe I will.. ok, here it goes…I actually love being a graduate student (disclaimer: the degree of truth to the last statement will vary depending on the time of the semester, and how many deadlines I have to meet).

2010: Year in Review

Last time, I blogged about my 2011 New Year resolutions, in that spirit I decided to go back and review my first 18 months as a PhD student in Bioinformatics at Indiana University-Bloomington (IU). Among the many components of being a PhD student (e.g. courses, research, teaching, and community involvement) I will attempt to “impartially” review my performance across each component during that time.

My goals for my first year were: 1) take as many required courses as possible, 2) pick an advisor, and 3) develop a strong application for external funding. Looking back I must admit that fortunately these goals turn out to be met in their entirety. First, in my courses, I learned a great deal and performed at a high level in all of my classes. Additionally, I was able to cross out 8 course requirements, which put me in great shape to finish all course requirements by Spring 2011. However, on the downside, I think I spent too much time on classes which is something that I need to balance out as I become fully involve in my research projects. Second, I did two research rotations, picked my advisor and started working on several research projects. Finally, the fellowship application I worked on with the assistance of many people got me an external fellowship, thus, securing funding for the next three years!!

In terms of teaching, I was not required to work as an Academic Instructor (aka Teaching Assistant), however, I took a pedagogy and professionalism course, where I learned many valuable lessons of how to approach teaching in an efficient manner. The two most significant techniques I leaned in this course and that will shape my courses design in the years to come were: 1) the backward design technique and 2) classroom assessment techniques. Regrettably, my community involvement during my first was non-existent which I considered to be unacceptable. Since then I have been more involved in the community by enrolling as a Emissary for Graduate Diversity for IU’s Graduate School Office, as well as participating in many events across campus.

Finally, my first year and a half at IU has been quite successful and enriching. Furthermore, I have enhanced my professional skill-set, while identifying areas where I need to improve as I keep maturing and moving forward as an Informatics PhD student.