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Finding a gateway to other worlds

Graduate students hone skills, strengthen University’s commitment to undergraduate instruction

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- Kerry Bystrom, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in English from West Bridgewater, Mass., says that literature gave her access to a “whole world of new experiences” and inspired her to teach others.

Kerry Bystrom

Kerry Bystrom, a Ph.D. candidate in English, has served as a preceptor in that department and in politics.

Specializing in postcolonial studies, Bystrom credits books with providing her “an amazing gateway to other cultures, world views and value systems.” As a teacher, she is showing that gateway to students at Princeton and beyond.

Bystrom has served as a preceptor not only in the English department but also in politics. She has taught approximately 60 Princeton students in three introductory courses that cover Latin American politics; African, Caribbean and Indian literature; and literatures in English after 1800.

When teaching literature, Bystrom says she works toward two main goals. She teaches students to read critically, to examine not only what is said but how it is said, and she encourages students to “make lasting connections between their own experiences and the experiences about which they read.” She sees the process of engaging with the experiences of others as being the “first step toward a deeper understanding of one’s own, often hidden, belief structures.”

Particular challenges on which she focuses in the classroom are building the confidence of all students so that they participate equally, and generating productive discussions even when students respond negatively to an assigned text.

Bystrom emphasizes practice and learning from others as critical to helping her develop her teaching skills. For example, while precepting for Professor of English Tim Watson, Bystrom met with him once a week to draw up lesson plans. In particular, she credits Watson for his strategy of introducing students to a new text. “He spends the first class on a particular book focusing on just the first paragraph of the text, and shows how a number of major concerns are set up,” she said. “I think that starting small, in a single paragraph, helps students get a handle on a book.”

Watson said that Bystrom’s students “were full of praise for her,” writing in evaluations that she held “terrific discussions” and gave “wonderful, astute comments in response to written work.”

Bystrom looks to several faculty members as role models. She is inspired by Professor of English Eduardo Cadava, who she says likes to introduce a new text through the “provocative paradox at its center,” and Professor of Spanish Arcadio Diaz-Quinones, whose “enthusiasm is key to creating excitement among students.”

Other resources Bystrom has found helpful are workshops run by the Writing Center, the annual teaching seminar the English department holds for its first-time preceptors, and the guidance provided by Professor Bill Gleason, the director of graduate studies in English.

During her studies, Bystrom has found several opportunities to teach beyond Princeton’s campus. While doing dissertation research in Guatemala last year, she volunteered at a community organization to educate different populations living in the highlands about that country’s 1998 Peace Accords. The experience compelled her to be more involved in teaching in the community when she returned to Princeton. Through the Princeton University Preparatory Program, she visited Trenton High School every week to work with 10th- and 11th-grade students on their reading and writing skills.

Currently, Bystrom is spending six months in Argentina and then another six months in South Africa doing research for her dissertation. She explained that her project “examines fictional narratives of individual family histories and how they can be read to critique the larger, politically driven narratives of ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation’ that have structured the processes of democratization” of those two countries. Her year abroad is being funded by the Social Science Research Council.

When she has her Ph.D. in hand, Bystrom plans to keep teaching, either at the university or high school level in the United States or overseas. “The longer I am in graduate school, the less I can imagine doing anything other than teaching,” she said.