Student Spotlight: Nicole Gervasio, PhD Candidate in English & Comparative Literature

by | Nov 30, 2017

Nicole Gervasio is a PhD Candidate in English & Comparative Literature with a certificate in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Columbia University. Using postcolonial, feminist, and queer frameworks, her research explores collective trauma, genocide, political violence, human rights, and state repression in contemporary Anglophone, Hispanophone, and Francophone literature from the Global South.

In this Spotlight story, Gervasio shares how she overcame initial challenges and anxieties as a new teaching assistant, and in doing so, found a community of like-minded peers through the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The CTL offers a range of teaching development programs and fellowships for graduate student instructors. Gervasio also offers teaching tips and approaches for soliciting and using student feedback to design, assess, and tweak her course.

“I had always believed students should be active agents of their own educations, but I lacked confidence in my own abilities to afford them this freedom while still maintaining their trust in my own authority and expertise. Now I feel completely competent in loosening the reins to permit them more say in the community we’re creating.”

Roles at the CTL: 

  • Lead Teaching Fellow, English & Comparative Literature, 2017-2018
  • Senior Teaching Observation Fellow, 2016-2017
  • Peer Teaching Consultant (since renamed the Teaching Observation Fellowship), 2015-2016
Nicole Gervasio

PhD Candidate in English & Comparative Literature, Columbia University

What motivated you to apply for the CTL Lead Teaching fellowship?

As excited as I was about teaching, as soon as I TA’d for the first time, I learned that teaching does not come naturally. My anxiety caused me to speak to my class at an incomprehensible speed, and I really struggled to moderate a conversation. In particular, that first course clued me into the reality that my research interests (human rights, women’s, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonial/race theory) and my positionality as a white American woman would always require me to sensitively navigate big group conversations about controversial topics. I recognized at that moment that only by researching the subject of teaching as diligently and intentionally as I had queer theory in postcolonial literature, for example, would I be able to serve my students as proficiently as I wanted to.

Subsequently, I enrolled in the CTL’s Innovative Teaching Summer Institute over the summer, and for the first time, I learned that I really did have a community of peers in other disciplines who cared about these questions—I just had to seek them out. I applied to what was then called the Peer Teaching Consultants program (now called the Teaching Observation Fellowship) next because I wanted to sustain my engagement with these questions and like-minded people throughout the next year and beyond.

You have participated in both the Lead Teaching Fellows and the Teaching Observation Fellows programs. What have you enjoyed most about your work in these programs?

The Teaching Observation Fellowship program works best when individuals sublimate their own priorities to the benefit of the partner to whom they have been assigned. I felt very privileged to work with two colleagues in that program who were eager to help me without any judgment or negativity whatsoever. Together we learned not only how to articulate learning goals– which, arguably, we had never been prompted to spell out before–but also imaginative, dynamic methods for gauging concrete results for the progress of those goals.

The Lead Teaching Fellowship is more of an individual endeavor, but the positive tradeoff is the reach. I can now attain the resources that I want to bring to my community. I now find myself coordinating with my senior lead, my department, and the other LTF in my department to develop event programming that will benefit the community at large. Working across these two programs at the CTL (LTF/TOF) has allowed me to develop organizational and communication skills across far-ranging scales. Thanks to participating in both endeavors, I feel very competent at managing one-on-one relationships—like the close ties you’d have with your own students or peer faculty—as well as program-wide event series and pedagogical resource creation.

You recently had a new experience at the CTL: microteaching. What was that experience like?

Until recently, microteaching was the one resource at the CTL that I had sidestepped like the plague! I wasn’t avoiding it because I thought it would be ineffective but because I have stage fright. When I get anxious, I get loquacious. I didn’t trust myself not to disappoint myself if I tried to crunch a real lesson plan into the five minutes allotted for the microteaching demo design. But then the Core Curriculum asked CTL for a specialist session, and I decided I should take the plunge since I’d be among a community of peers teaching exactly the same class. Not only was the setup nowhere near as daunting as I imagined—there were only five people in my group, including our facilitator and myself—but I also surprised myself by not being as nervous as I thought I’d be.

That’s not to say I felt totally confident about it, but overall I received unexpected affirmation for how much knowledge I was able to get my class to produce in only five minutes, which put to rest my anxieties about whether or not I tended to ask the wrong questions. On the more critical side, I also got some feedback on facial expressions I didn’t know I make when my students aren’t quite latching onto the trajectory of my questions! It made me more self-aware to know that when I’m annoyed with myself and trying to think of a more straightforward way to phrase the same question, it actually looks like I’m annoyed with them. Basically microteaching increased my self-awareness in ways I couldn’t have expected and really appreciate!

Looking back on your engagements with the CTL, in what ways has interacting with peers strengthened your own teaching practices?

Participating in constant feedback loops about teaching with colleagues in my own peer group made me ask last year, why aren’t I creating similar feedback loops with my students? I realized I didn’t necessarily need an assigned partner or a like-minded pod to mobilize a focus group for tailored, live, cogent feedback. In the Core, I have 20-22 students for the whole year who would be willing to give me ideas if I were willing to court their thoughts. TOF especially taught me how to seek tangible, results-driven feedback from students. (See Nicole’s suggestions for teaching tips and strategies below!)

Participating in these programs at CTL really did equip me with the concrete tools I needed to put my philosophy into action; I had always believed students should be active agents of their own educations, but I lacked confidence in my own abilities to afford them this freedom while still maintaining their trust in my own authority and expertise. Now I feel completely competent in loosening the reins to permit them more say in the community we’re creating.

Teaching Tips

Gervasio strives to create a community environment in her classroom by actively soliciting student feedback and incorporating students’ ideas and suggestions into her course. This philosophy allows her become more self-aware and reflective in her teaching practice while improving the overall learning experience.

Below, Gervasio offers her own tips and suggestions for soliciting and using student feedback to design, assess, and tweak her course. Consider using some of these approaches in your own teaching practice.

  • In advance of designing assignments, I run activities for students to generate topics they want to write about and then factor those interests into my revisions of the basic prompt.
  • I permit students to help me design the midterm exam by asking which components of the final they’re wary of and inviting them to submit two passage identifications each for a review session.
  • Immediately after our first reading quiz, I assess question formats that students struggled with at large and solicit ideas for preferences for future changes to the types of questions I ask.
  • Mid-semester, I collect a lengthy survey, breaking down each component of our class, and then I distill all the major points and changes into a PowerPoint that I share with the class to encourage transparency and collaboration. In every subsequent class, I make note of any small-scale changes I’m implementing based on their mid-semester feedback and ask them to reflect metacritically on whether they agree our discussions have improved thanks to these alterations.
  • If a student shows an interest in aspiring to teaching themselves someday, I instruct them to consult with me on tactics that they think are more or less effective, and, informally, I email them to check in periodically about the progress of our class from their vantage point.