November 8, 2000

President's Page

Graduate Students and Teaching

Princeton graduate students contribute significantly to our progress in scholarship and research, and the vitality and skill they bring to the University¯s teaching mission contribute in equally significant ways to the success, and excitement, of undergraduate education. Princeton is committed to helping graduate students, who are the nation¯s next generation of faculty, become excellent teachers. For many years—even when I was a graduate student teaching at Princeton—faculty have taken with utmost seriousness their responsibility to mentor graduate students as teachers. But in recent years we have devoted additional resources and energy to preparing graduate students to excel in teaching.

Graduate students themselves are demonstrating a heightened interest in teaching. Professor Sandra Bermann, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, attributes this in part to a “happy” coincidence of certain strains of literary and pedagogical theory, and in part to the pressure of a job market increasingly interested in teaching as well as scholarly credentials. Working with a graduate student colleague, Professor Bermann has transformed an informal and occasional departmental seminar on teaching into a more extensive and mandatory program for all comparative literature graduate students who will teach, joining forces with the English department, which for several years has had a highly successful teaching seminar. The graduate student demand for more and better preparation for teaching is giving rise to similar programs in departments across the disciplines. Some of the credit for the increasing excitement about teaching on the part of graduate students should go to the new McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. The McGraw Center now develops and runs several programs to prepare and support graduate students in their teaching responsibilities. The English language program tests and provides coursework for non-native speakers of English. When students satisfy the English requirement qualifying them for teaching appointment, they are requested to attend a seminar each of the first two semesters of their teaching to improve their oral English proficiency in the classroom setting.

To address pedagogical topics of interest across disciplines and to help build a strong learning community on campus, last spring Jacqueline Mintz, director of the McGraw Center, and her staff inaugurated bi-annual fall and spring meetings which are co-sponsored by the Center, the Dean of the Graduate School and the Center¯s advisory committee. Department chairs and directors of graduate study are invited to join in an ongoing dialogue to improve the mentoring of graduate students as teachers.

Graduate students increasingly bring their own teaching experience to bear in guiding their fellow students through Center and departmental teaching initiatives. One of the students teaching in Center programs is Michael Tantala, a third-year student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, whose dissertation research focuses on the societal, economic, political, and structural impact an earthquake would have on New York City. His teaching experience has been gained precepting for Professor David Billington in an introductory-level course as well as in a specialized course on structures and the urban environment. He has learned a lot about teaching by observing Professor Billington, a recipient of the President¯s Award for Distinguished Teaching, in the classroom, and the lessons have been reinforced by the weekly meeting that Professor Billington holds for his preceptors. This summer Michael and five other students worked with McGraw Center staff to develop the teaching and orientation conference for graduate students. The two-day workshop covered discipline-specific and general topics, from what to do the first day of class, to handling tough teaching days, to grading practices, to the meaning of the Princeton honor code. Because graduate students are important links between undergraduate students and faculty members, they are in a particularly good position to help faculty assess the success of course material as well as student learning. Led by its chair, Professor Charles Fefferman, the Department of Mathematics is reviewing undergraduate offerings from the perspectives of content as well as teaching methods, to take advantage of best practices that are often brought to their attention by graduate students. Graduate students are working with one of the department¯s most respected faculty teachers, Elias Stein, to enliven the basic required courses for mathematics majors by including more deliberate references to the application of theory, not just to theory itself. The approach to the material, which Professor Stein intends to incorporate in a new textbook, has made the courses more engaging but also more challenging. The guidance and mentoring that graduate students provide to undergraduates have been successful in preventing the undergraduates from becoming discouraged and giving them confidence in their ability to master the material.

Everyone benefits from our attention to excellence in teaching. Professor Bermann points to lessons she has applied in her own classroom as a result of the program she is developing for graduate student teachers. Undergraduates are better instructed. Graduate students build a teaching portfolio that will help them find better positions when they complete their degrees. But there are also other benefits according to Michael Tantala. Graduate students also learn the deep satisfaction of successful teaching. As he says, witnessing an idea take hold—watching the light of understanding dawn as a concept “clicks”—is a reward that few other professions can offer.