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GTF Orientation: Teaching Scenario Warm-Up

At Graduate Teaching Fellow Orientation September 25th, the Graduate School and TEP welcomed UO’s new GTFs.

For many UO undergraduates, GTFs are the faces of academic disciplines and accessible, up-close models of what it means to be intellectually curious and an excellent student and scholar. In her opening remarks, Assistant Dean of the Graduate School Kassy Fisher said that GTFs are integral to UO’s teaching community: they deliver 20 percent of UOs undergraduate lecture classes, 68 percent of lab sections, and 94 percent  of our discussion sections, she said.

TEP announced winners of the 2012-2013 Dan Kimble First-Year Teaching Award, Alison Lau Stephens from the Department of English and Andres Guzman from the Department of Sociology. Both award-winning teachers addressed the group, sharing insights gleaned from their classroom experience. Professor Emeritus in Psychology Dan Kimble–whose first Ph.D. student, Professor Donald Stein, endowed the award in his honor–was in attendance. Professor Kimble’s own UO teaching career spanned 40 years.

TEP talked through the scenarios below with this year’s incoming class of Graduate Teaching Fellows. How would you navigate these teaching moments?

(1) The sound of silence

Monday morning, 10am, 20 students at their desks in a small classroom

GTF: Hi everyone—I hope you had a nice weekend! How did the reading go?

Class: Vague murmurs

GTF, undaunted: I know French post-structuralism can be pretty confusing! Can someone explain Barthes’ argument in “Death of the Author” in your own words?

Class: Silence, students looking down

GTF: So why would Barthes want to “kill” the Author? What is he suggesting here about the nature of authorship?

[time passes]

What about this line here on page two, where he writes, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing…” What is he getting at?

Class: Starting to fidget…


Lots of things could be going on here—it’s early Monday; the reading is difficult. The GTF is doing a good job allowing some silence to transpire rather than instantly launching into his/her own answer; s/he’s giving students a chance to think. A rule of thumb is to wait 10 seconds—those seconds will feel very long to you, but much quicker to the group. And the GTF is moving from very abstract questions to something more specific (an actual line from the reading)—smart move. S/he might delimit the question even more: “what might it mean to ‘close’ a piece of writing?”

If it’s important to the GTF to have the student grapple with this difficult material, s/he might start the discussion differently: pass out some key quotations and ask the students to translate them into everyday language in small groups. The students might be afraid of being wrong, and the small groups will give them a chance to talk things through together before putting themselves on the line in front of the entire class. The GTF also might consider finding a more approachable entry point to the discussion—say, a clip from the television sitcom Community in which the dialogue comprises multiple un-cited pop cultural references. Submitting questions for the class or online discussion board posts before the class meets, or even giving the students two minutes of free writing time before class discussion begins can help them gather their thoughts.

(2) My dog did not eat it (but I still need an extension on this assignment…)

Tuesday morning, 10am, a student visits an instructor’s office, two hours before the class meeting

Student: Hi—I’m wondering if you have a few minutes to talk about our assignment…

Instructor: Yes, of course—the one due today?

Student: That’s the one. Could possibly have an extension—I’m having lots of problems getting it wrapped up.

Instructor: Ah, well, I don’t know. It says in the syllabus that all late papers need to be approved by me 24 hours in advance and will automatically be marked down one letter grade. What type of extension are you thinking about and why?

Student: Well, I was hoping to be able to turn it in a bit late for full credit since I am between a ‘C’ and ‘B-’ grade in the class. It was a difficult last week for my family and me. My husband was out of town for work and my son developed an ear infection and has needed a lot of attention. And with my work and school schedule, I haven’t been able to juggle things as well as usual.

Instructor: Since there’s been an illness in the family, I can possibly make an exception this one time. Where are you at with the paper, and can I help answer any questions to help you complete it?

Student: Ah, well, I can’t seem to pick a topic—I just haven’t been able to focus on how to get started on such a complicated assignment. It seems a lot more difficult than ones I’ve written for other classes that I have taken here.


Over the course of one’s teaching career, this situation will recur in one form or another. It presents at least two challenges: first, dealing responsively and empathetically face-to-face with a student who must discuss a personal, delicate situation with an authority figure (you) whom he or she doesn’t know well; second, considering what’s fair to all students in a course. If you have a general policy on how you handle extensions, include it on the syllabus. (For example: “If you need an extension on written work, please ask in advance. I never grant extensions that are requested on or after a due date.”) If you consider extensions case by case, you might indicate that and the criteria use to guide you on the syllabus. (See a list of Sample Course Policy Statements.)

In this specific scenario, we meet a non-traditional student—a working parent juggling a wide range of responsibilities. And we discover, too, that her problems with the assignment run deeper than she first indicates: she hasn’t started the paper; she finds the assignment difficult, and hints at feelings of frustration: “It seems a lot more difficult than ones I’ve written for other classes that I have taken here.” This is an opportunity for the instructor to develop a closer working relationship with the student for the rest of the term—to ask her to try to express the new challenge the paper seems to present, to explain what benefits the instructors sees for his or her students in tackling these challenges, and perhaps to set up a follow-up meeting or email exchange to discuss a rough draft of the student’s topic proposal, or thesis statement, or introductory paragraph. The pair might consider following this procedure earlier in the writing process for future assignments, and even adding the Writing Lab to the mix as another, valuable support option. (A list of campus resources is here.)

The scenario also points to the value of getting to know one’s students early in the term and finding ways to check in with them throughout the term. Even in large classes, some faculty and GTFs hand out a “student information sheet” on the first day that asks students to write about what draws them to the class, how the class fits with their intellectual and professional goals, and the kinds of experiences they’ve had with the issues you’ll raise and skills you’re seeking to develop.

(3) Technology tune-out
GTF stands in front of a class of 40 students

GTF: So what do you think Berger is suggesting when he includes this data about “manual workers” associating museums with church?

Student 1: That museums are somehow sacred?

GTF: Yes! And what else?

Student 2: And sacredness is a bad thing—it excludes people from finding personal meaning in art.

GTF: Great—I think you’re right on target!

Giggles from back of the room—one student is showing another something on her smart phone screen.

GTF, distracted: So, uh, yeah—Berger wants everyone to find meaning in art and he sees important, subversive messages in some of the paintings he discusses in this chapter. Can anyone think of examples?

More giggles, a couple more phones have appeared—other students seem reluctant to speak when their peers are clearly tuned out.


Faculty and GTFs at UO have a range of relationships to technology in the classroom. Some try to put technology to positive use, asking students to look up facts, quick-check the pulse of public debate on an issue, or even “live tweet” an in-class film screening. Others close the classroom door on phones, even laptops, as sources of distraction. It can be very helpful to set a policy, include it on the syllabus, announce it on the first day, and explain the rationale for your decision so it doesn’t seem like an arbitrary/petty “rule.”

A technology policy statement might look like this:

Classroom Courtesy
Please turn off your phones when you enter the classroom. You’re welcome to take notes on your laptop provided it doesn’t become a barrier to your active listening and participation in discussion.

Or this:

Computers and other electronic equipment

Use of electronic equipment, including cell phones, pagers, MP3 players, AND LAPTOP COMPUTERS is prohibited during this class. Exceptions to the prohibition of laptops may be requested from the instructor and will be granted only for legitimate academic reasons. Use of laptops for academic reasons will be monitored throughout the term, and failure to restrict their use for this function will result in the revocation of any laptop privileges.

Some faculty ask for students’ help in setting the policy, asking them to keep in mind the rest of the course goals and the lively, focused discussion you hope will characterize the class.

Read more responses to this issue:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on University of Washington Professor David Levy’s assignments to develop students’ mindful computing—and more contemplative lives.

On the other hand, Dartmouth’s Dr Joshua Kim argues “Laptop Bans Are a Terrible Idea.”

(4) The buck stops…where?
GTF office hours, an undergrad drops by

GTF: Hi, Shane—good to see you!

Student: Yeah, well, I wanted to talk about the reading…

GTF: How are you finding it?

Student: Too much—and a total waste of time—none of it is actually preparing us for the exam! We’re getting fed up.

GTF, who as a matter of fact, agrees with Shane: I’m sorry to hear that. Professor Meyers has been teaching the course for years and he’s a renowned expert on macroeconomics. Anyway, GTFs don’t pick the readings or write the exams, so there’s not much I can do besides encourage you to keep plugging along—it’s important for you to get this stuff if you’re going to take more economics courses.

Student: Can you at least get him to make study guides or tell us what to focus on in the reading?

GTF: I’ll see what I can do, but Professor Meyers isn’t really looking for input from GTFs.


One of the great things about leading a lab or discussion session is the chance to watch someone else teach a big, important course in the field: the professor’s choices will help you develop because you’ll see things you want to emulate—and because you’ll realize you’d do some things differently if you were running the show. This work will help you develop your own teaching philosophy and give you the kernels of meaningful answers to academic job interview questions like, “Our drop rate in Macroeconomics/English/History/Biology 101 is terrible—tell us how you’d teach the course.”

In an ideal GTF situation, the professor will be in regular contact with the GTFs and open to talking about his or her approach to the course—take advantage of the chance to learn from these faculty members and gain behind-the-scenes insight into the “whys” of their course design. (In this case, it would be great for the GTF to be able to tell the student: “Professor Meyers likes this textbook because he thinks it’s written at a high level and really respects students’ intellect—and he thinks the write-ups of how certain economic theories have come to be accepted are particularly good at helping readers see the bigger picture. That said, I’ll definitely share this feedback with him at our weekly meeting.”) Avoid being drawn into airing any disagreements with the professor that could undermine the course (“he’s not looking for input from us!”).

If you meet with the professor early in the term, it might be good to ask about how s/he imagines keeping communication lines open—will you have regular group meetings? Shall you plan on dropping by every couple of weeks to check in? Many professors will want you to be their ears to the ground: complaints about the readings or requests for a different kind of exam preparation are likely something they’ll want to hear. You might also decide as a teaching team how the labs or sections might collect midterm feedback on the course or be adapted to meet a particular cohort of students’ needs very directly. Most of all, keep a small file of course materials and exemplary student work and notes of your impressions—this material will be early building blocks of your teaching career.


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