What I Have Learned From Being a Teaching Assistant

This semester I was the teaching assistant (TA) for a 50 student undergraduate class. I had been a TA for a small seminar graduate course, but this was my first undergraduate class. I was excited and nervous at the start of the semester, and four months later my enthusiasm is still strong. While it is hard managing 50 students, keeping up with the team and individual assignments, and being attentive to individual needs, it is also fulfilling. I think it also helps when you enjoy working along side the professor.

Looking back at the semester, these are my main takeaways that I will carry with me into future teaching.

Learn who your students are. Knowing who your students are and being able to call them by name build relationships. You may only know half, but they appreciate the effort.

Give as much feedback as possible. To me the grade is one piece, but knowing where to make improvements for the next assignment is what matters most.

Give students the benefit of the doubt. My nature is to see the best in people. Assume intentions are good until proven wrong.

Be consistent. If the policy is no assignment will be taken after the deadline, see that policy through otherwise you create a see of confusion.

Be available to students. Whether this is after class or by email, lets students know they can come to you with questions and concerns. Also while it was time consuming to attend every class, students could ask me questions and I could be involved in the learning process.

Don’t be surprised when life happens. Have policies in place to manage late assignments and absences. Remove the gray area and have policies that encourage professionalism.

Provide experiential learning when possible. Students enjoy getting out of the class and not being lectured. Field trips are not easy to plan, but can complement course objective and get students excited.

Set aside time to only focus on the class. I would often try to work on the class, my own classes, and my research all in the same afternoon. It did not work well. I felt I dabbled in all of it, but none of it got my full attention.






Managing Work Life Balance: My Experience

I was in the first semester of my Ph.D. when I told my advisor I was pregnant. I was nervous about sharing this information. Would I be supported or would my commitment to the Ph.D. be questioned? After sharing this new, I was beyond relieved to be showered with immense support and excitement. Not only was I supported by my advisor, but by my committee. A weight lifted off my shoulders knowing I was supported in the decision to start a family, while still pursuing my degree. I knew it would be challenging to manage both parenting and studies, but I felt it could be done due to the resources and support available to me. My experience demonstrates the positive impact of prioritizing programs and polices to support work life balance.

At Virginia Tech, the graduate school offers what is called the Work Life Grant. This grant is available to graduate students who have children or experience a family life event. Basically, the grant provides 6 weeks of paid leave. Half paid by the graduate school and half paid by the college. The funding is meant to replace duties while on leave or ensure your time away does not negatively impact the department. My advisor applied and we received the grant. For us this meant I could return with a lightened load after having my son. There was less pressure and time to be home. This made all the difference in my ability to feel balanced.

Another challenge facing new mothers is childcare. Finding affordable, yet high quality childcare is not easy. Spaces are limited in daycares and the cost can to high for those on a graduate stipend. My husband and I were fortunate to get a spot in a highly respected daycare. Our son is thriving and I can get my work done. It’s a win win. I know my experience is not necessarily the norm, but more women in graduate school should have the choice to pursue both personal and professional priorities like I did.

From Clinical Research Coordinator to Graduate Researcher

Before coming to graduate school, I worked in clinical research for a Sport Medicine group in Greenville, SC. I oversaw the research side helping to develop protocols, submit IRB (Institutional Review Board) applications, collect data, and prepare completed studies for publication. We completed studies that ranged from retrospective studies to randomized controlled trials. We would study the difference between joint replacement and outcomes of ACL repairs. As you would expect the IRB applications to enroll patients in studies that involved the type of knee replacement they received were pretty intensive. The risks were high, but so was the potential knowledge gained. If we could determine a new method of joint replacement that resulted in increased flexibility, less pain, and a quicker recovery, we could influence the standard of care for other patients. These experiences are what guided my interest to pursue a graduate education in research. Little did I know how valuable the experience of completing IRB applications and interviewing patients would be to my work today.

While I spent four years working with the IRB within the hospital system, this semester has been my first experience with a University IRB. The risk for my study is minimal, but the process still feels slightly unknown. My application will run through the Western IRB, which I did not use while in clinical research. I am optimist that the process will be smooth and I will have another skill to carry with me into a future research career.

Women in Higher Education

There are so many relevant topics in higher education and opportunities for change. The one that feels closest to me is the need to further empower women in academia. When you look at the statistics, more than half of PhDs are awarded to women, yet women make up less than 30% of tenured faculty. This highlights the challenge women face when entering a career in academia.

Women face issues with equal pay, getting hired, bias, being represented in their field, work life balance, and getting tenured. I am particularly interested in the work life balance of women in academic and how institutions support their academic and personal goals. The desire to have a partner, children, and family can be at odds with the expectations of assistant faculty. This is where higher education can continue to change and adapt to support women.

So far though in my graduate education, I have been quite fortune. I have had the opportunity to thrive professionally while also pursuing personal priorities. I am married and recently had a baby, all while being a full time student. My advisor, committee, and the graduate school have supported me. 20 years ago, this would not have been norm. It takes institutional level change in the form of programs and policies along with a cultural shift to embrace a true work life balance.

While I am still just in graduate school and challenges are still to come, I am not deterred. I feel confident that in 10 years even more progress will be made to empower women in academia.

Parents and Academics

I am still many years away from having to worry about homework and college admissions with my son. He is just one, but as a parent I think about his academic future. I think about what he will be like as student, what his interests will be, and what will drive him. I also think about how I can support and encourage him without being a “helicopter” parent. “Helicopter” parents are considers the ones that hover to closely, nag about homework, are obsessed with grades, and do not allow much independence. The culture to judge a student’s success based on grades and test scores certainly doesn’t help this scenario.

I hope the “helicopter” style will never be me, because I can’t imagine children being responsive to this environment. I am sure the intentions to be so deeply involved in your child’s schooling are good, but it seems to have unintended consequences. Some which include children feeling increased stress and pressure to achieve potentially unrealistic goals. I believe I can still be involved in so many aspects of my child’s education, without making it all about grades and college admission. I want to give space and independence and in return I hope I foster a more open conversation about school. I have plenty of time to figure out how I will do this, but ultimately I want my child to feel they are driving the ship, not me.



Learning Outside the Classroom

“Its here. It’s staying. Let’s make the most of it.” Steven Mintz, Online Learning 2.0

That is one way to look at online and hybrid education. Mintz sees online courses as something we might as well embrace and improve upon because it is not going anywhere anytime soon. More schools see online learning as way to reach a larger audience. This audience is interested in online or hybrid because they may not being able to attend classes in person, so it gives options.

The concern is that the quality of education will be less than that of face to face courses. Mintz sees it differently. He explains that online learning can often be more innovative and intentional as compared to the traditional classroom setting. He also describes online learning as an “act of love” which may mean students approach this style of learning with more passion and excitement.

So in a way, online and hybrid learning is an opportunity to push classes to the next level. It is a chance to reinvent main stream face-to-face courses to better align learning goals with personal experiences and make the learning environment feel more relevant. While all these things should also happen in the classroom, sometimes it takes a new format to get there.

Conferences: More Than a Line on Our CV

In February I attended an academic conference in Charleston, SC. I also presented a poster with phase one results from my dissertation. While this activity is expected on my CV and shows academic accomplishments, what I got out of the conference was so much more than a line on my CV.

My research is incredibly interdisciplinary. I come from a public health background, am completing my PhD in Environmental Design and Planning, and my research is about older adults, the built environment, and dog walking, so finding a conferences that is relevant can be challenging. This conference was spot on. It was about active living and bridged public health and urban planning. The opportunity to meet people who were also interested in a similar overlap of disciplines meant new relationships, future collaborators, and potential participates for my research. The conference did not disappoint. I made contacts with researchers who work I admired and learned how they were approaching challenges on active living. I think what is even more exciting is the prospect of attending the conference again, seeing familiar faces and building even more invaluable relationships.





Removing Barriers to Access

For the last 13 years I have either been part of a university or working for a hospital system. This affiliation has granted me access to pretty much any journal or article I needed for my work. This is a privilege that many people do not have. I was and still am fortunate to have access to peer reviewed literature within minutes. It would be incredibly challenging to stay informed on the latest practices in public health and urban planning (my interest areas) if I did not have this access. Without the subscription services provided by these large organizations, I would have to pay for the articles individually. This scenario leaves a large group of people without adequate access to important information. Whether it be a small non-profit trying to write a grant or a parent looking for innovative treatment options for a sick child, access to peer reviewed journals may not be a viable option. This is unfortunate that the information has a barrier to being shared. Open access journals seem to alleviate this problem.

I remember years ago open access was thought to be less rigorous, but I don’t believe this is the case now. They often go through the same peer review process as non- open access journal. The difference is the cost is placed on the author, not the reader. This creates access to those who are not part of a large university, hospital system, or organization with subscriptions.

I was recently at a conference and approached about a new journal called the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. The journal has the option for open access, but it does not seem to be required. I like that authors can decide how their work is disseminated. If open access is a priority, then they pay the fee and the article becomes available to anyone. The potential to publish to a wider audience is appealing, as long as the rigor remains. It will be interesting to see if open access becomes the norm in the future.

Ethical Dilemmas in Clinical Research

Before coming to graduate school, I worked as a clinical research coordinator with a large hospital system in Greenville, SC. Ethical research was central to my job. I submitted and oversaw intuitional review board (IRB) applications, patient enrollment, data collection, and adverse events related to the study. So naturally, I picked a case study that related back to the work I did in clinical research. The case study, Taking Advantage of Patient Trust, presented interesting details and a conversation I witnessed many times in my previous job.

Earning a patient’s trust is pivotal to the doctor patient relationship. Patients want to trust their doctor and the recommendations they provide. They see them as the expert. Patients I worked with would ask their doctor whether they should be in the study. Their opinion mattered most. The case of Dr. Joanna and Duncan is a similar situation. Duncan trusts that Joanna will put his medical interest ahead of her research interest, which there in lies the ethical dilemma. Doctors want to discover new treatments and push medicine forward, however it can’t be done at the sacrifice of current patient needs.

What I find interesting about the case study is the placebo is less than the standard of care. I am curious how this study even got approved by the IRB. When I worked in orthopaedics, the placebo had to be the standard of care or something equivalent. The study could not put patients at risk of receiving less than the standard. This protected patients and helped minimize risk. If I were Dr. Joanna, the study would only be an option if all standard treatments had failed and the patient could safety be off of medicine if in the placebo group.

While I am not pursuing a research career in medicine, this case study represents ethical challenges with human subjects research. My future research involves minimal risk to human participants, however this does not negate the importance of proper consenting and considerations for their health and wellbeing. I think we as researchers need to be open about ethical issues and discuss remedies that balance participant and researcher interests.

Going Back to My Roots in South Carolina

Growing up in Charleston , SC, I took for granted the rich history of the city and all it has to offer. Amazing beaches, restaurants ,and a college in the middle of the city all make Charleston a pretty unique place. Even though my brother went to the College of Charleston, I knew I wanted a different experience. I chose Clemson University in upstate SC. The setting, size, sports focus, and curriculum were all quite different then the experience my brother had at College of Charleston. So I thought it would be neat to compare and contrast the mission of two universities from a state I called home for 25 years. Before I go into to detail about the mission statements, here is a brief run down of both schools.

Clemson University

  • Land grant state university
  • Focus on engineering and science
  • Around 20,000 undergraduate
  • Located in the small college town of Clemson, SC

College of Charleston

  • State college
  • Focus on liberal arts
  • Around 10,000 undergraduate
  • Located in downtown Charleston, SC

Clemson University prides itself on being a top 20 public university. Their mission traces back to its roots as a land grant university. Meaning the university was set up by the state and focuses teaching on agriculture, science, and engineering. Additionally, their mission is grounded in pursuing innovative research to solve global challenges.

This is in slight contrast to the mission of the College of Charleston. Their focus is on a liberal arts education. This includes an emphasis on intellectual creativity and curiosity within the arts. This is not to say that Clemson doesn’t foster an environment of creativity, it just that their emphasis is more STEM oriented. College of Charleston is also strongly tied to the history of Charleston, SC and being located in Lowcountry.

The missions do however share similarities, which I would expect given they are both state schools residing in South Carolina. Both clearly prioritize the educational needs of the area around them and the state. Students living in South Carolina are given priority with acceptance. Secondly, both schools place an emphasis on personal growth and the development of good citizens. A culture of respect, support, and responsibility are characteristics indicated by both missions.

While there may be difference is the type of education (science vs. liberal arts), size, and setting, there is a shared goal to provide students an intellectually challenging education, and graduate students that can serve their communities in meaningful ways.