Each fall, 1,600 undergraduate students matriculate into Harvard College. They are eager to learn, and when they walk into their first class, many might expect a Nobel laureate to pick up the chalk stick. Instead, many find another figure at the blackboard: the graduate student teaching fellow.
For undergraduate students, the role of the teaching fellow is an important fixture of their pedagogy. And for graduate students, teaching in a classroom is a central component of their own curriculum.
“An idea of apprenticeship is extremely important in the mentoring of graduate students,” says Terry K. Aladjem, the executive director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.
The Bok Center is charged with the responsibility of creating a system for this apprenticeship. Overall, there are about 1,000-1,500 Teaching Fellows that work through the Bok Center, Aladjem says. And with a network of departmental teaching fellows—graduate students who serve as liaisons between the center and their respective departments—the Bok Center has been strengthening a structure that embraces teaching into the curriculum for its graduate students.
For Aladjem, teaching as a graduate student is not a job—it is what he calls a valuable “apprenticeship” in which the graduate learns how to teach.
“There’s a sense of legacy and the importance of apprenticeship,” Aladjem says. “It’s been a very clear idea at Harvard that our grad students are going on to be professors and should learn the profession from their professors here.”
Teaching fellows typically are third-year or fourth-year graduate students. In their fifth year, most graduate students will write their thesis.
“The Ph.D. programs work so that the first two years work as coursework,” says Odile Harter, the English departmental teaching fellow. “Then, students are often teaching for experience and consultation.”
But for graduate students, teaching in a classroom is often a learning experience. Graduate students are required to go through a graduate teaching colloquium, a two-day training session reviewing discipline fundamentals and teaching techniques.
“We have tracts for training in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences,” Aladjem says. “And we have also collaborated with the departments to create teaching practica or seminars for more sustained reflection and training.”
Graduate students also often learn through closely watching a professor instruct a class. Students will then lead a sequence of three lessons—actively soliciting undergraduate feedback throughout the process.
“We always watch the first lectures of someone who hasn’t taught before, and that’s the final part of the training,” says Robin Gottlieb, math professor of practice.
LEARNING HOW TO TEACH
As the Bok Center revamps its training of teaching fellows, it has included two elements in its curriculum to teach graduate students how to instruct their undergraduate students. Students participate in a seminar, which sometimes includes weekly discussions between teaching fellows. And departments also organize workshops for their teaching fellows.
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