Student Spotlights

Zachary Domach

Zachary Domach is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Religion with a certificate in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Columbia University. His dissertation focuses on the role played by wisdom literature in the transmission and reception of the classical tradition among late antique Christians. Currently a Senior Fellow with the Center for Teaching and Learning, he previously piloted the Teaching Development Program and held the Teaching Observation Fellowship.

In this Spotlight story, Domach shares his experience as a Pilot Participant in the Teaching Development Program. He discusses how the TDP has encouraged him to reflect on his teaching practices, and how his participation has prepared him to represent his teaching in the job market.

“It was effortless to join the program because of the flexibility built into it–there are numerous routes to complete most deliverables and, best of all, my previous CTL work was accounted for in one way or another!”

Roles at the CTL: 

  • Senior Fellow, 2018-19
  • Pilot Participant in the Teaching Development Program, Spring 2018
  • Teaching Consultant, 2017-18
  • Teaching Observation Fellow, 2016-17
Zachary Domach

PhD Candidate in Religion, Columbia University

What motivated you to take part in the CTL’s pilot of the Teaching Development Program?

The TDP pilot felt like a natural outgrowth of my previous involvement with the CTL. It was effortless to join the program because of the flexibility built into it—there are numerous routes to complete most deliverables and, best of all, my previous CTL work was accounted for in one way or another! Many of the remaining deliverables concerned the job market and were things I knew I would do anyway (e.g. write a teaching statement). The online module format also made it easy to cross-reference my previous CTL work and import it to the TDP page.

Though my previous participation in CTL programs enhanced my teaching skills, I didn’t have a clear sense how to shape those experiences into a teaching philosophy of my own. The TDP has encouraged me to document my teaching, identify key skills I want my students to acquire and refine, and produce an overarching narrative for my pedagogical development.

How has participating in the Teaching Development Program encouraged you to reflect on your teaching?

Reflection is intrinsic to the TDP. Many deliverables involve two parts: physically going to an event and writing a brief reflection on it. This process is helping me to both document my evolving approach to pedagogy and create a space for critical reflection, pushing me to evaluate my own teaching for what works and what does not. I now find myself interrogating my own policies and methods, questioning their efficacy and why I have implemented them.

How do you think that participating in and finishing the Teaching Development Program will have prepared you to enter successfully into the academic job market and represent your teaching to others?

The seminars and deliverables encompassed in the TDP have challenged me to become a more reflective teacher. My teaching philosophy and the ways I realize it—course structure, learning goals, evaluation methods, syllabus design, inclusivity polices, etc.—are by no means fully formed, but they are intentional and considered in ways they were not before enrolling in components of the TDP. The program also provided a structure within which I could frame my past and current pedagogical development: I am now equipped to articulate my teaching approaches and my reasoning behind them on the academic job market. All of the CTL programs work toward this end, either directly or indirectly, by conveying the vocabulary to intelligently describe my teaching while also introducing me to the current higher ed research with which my teaching should be conversant.

I am also crafting a digital teaching portfolio as part of my capstone TDP project. Not only will an online portfolio conveniently showcase my teaching to prospective employers, but also it will offer a curated selection of teaching artifacts that illustrate the deliberate and effective practice behind my teaching process.

TDP Tips and Advice

You will have more time to draft materials and plan what semesters you will attend workshops if you start early. The pilot was not launched until my fourth year and I wish I had had more of a strategic vision for how to use the CTL in my first three years. That said, the program is designed to channel your past CTL experience into an account you can use on the job market so it is very possible to jump on board later in your time at Columbia.

If you are unsure whether or not you will have time for the TDP or whether the TDP is something you would like to do, just go for it. Every deliverable you finish will give you new teaching tools, skills, and the language to talk about them. The program, moreover, has two tracks: foundational and advanced. The former requires significantly less of a time commitment and, as you do not have to choose which track to complete when you join the program, you can always stop once you have finished its deliverables.

Nicole Gervasio

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.

Braden Czapla

Braden Czapla, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, shares how after transitioning out of an instructional role to focus on research, he sought out a community of scholars who believe in the importance of pedagogy. He has now been with the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Lead Teaching Fellowship (LTF) program for two years, first as a Lead Teaching Fellow and now as a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow.

In this Spotlight story, Braden shares how facilitating learning communities and other professional development opportunities for his peers has strengthened his own teaching practice, and offers tips for being a good mentor to undergraduate students.

“The CTL and the LTF program provided me an outlet to further my education in teaching. But maybe more importantly, they gave me a platform and the training to look back at my own field and share my interest in teaching with my peers, creating a small community of our own within mechanical engineering.”

Roles at the CTL: 

  • Senior Lead Teaching Fellow, Mechanical Engineering, 2017-2018
  • Lead Teaching Fellow, 2016-2017
Braden Czapla

Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, Columbia University

What motivated you to apply for the CTL Lead Teaching Fellows program?

Teaching runs in my family. My mother received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and Spanish, my oldest sister is a middle school teacher, and my other sister and brother-in-law are both university professors. During my senior year of undergraduate studies, I was lucky enough to be a teaching assistant for two mechanical engineering courses and really enjoyed interacting with students in that capacity.

When I started my graduate work at Columbia, I was once again a teaching assistant but transitioned out of the classroom and into a research assistantship after one semester. I missed teaching and working with students in the classroom. So when the CTL opened up its Lead Teaching Fellows (LTF) program to the engineering school for the 2016-2017 school year, I jumped at the opportunity to apply.

You have participated in the Lead Teaching Fellows program for two years, first as a Lead Teaching Fellow and now as a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow. What have you enjoyed most about your work in this program?

What the CTL does best, in my opinion, is create a community of scholars who believe in the importance of pedagogy. In STEM fields, it is not uncommon to prioritize research over teaching responsibilities. The CTL and the LTF program provided me an outlet to further my education in teaching. But maybe more importantly, they gave me a platform and the training to look back at my own field and share my interest in teaching with my peers, creating a small community of our own within mechanical engineering.

As I transitioned into my role as a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow (SLTF), I became a mentor to a group of interdisciplinary Lead Teaching Fellows with the common goal of changing the culture of teaching in their respective departments. Once again, the CTL facilitated the creation of a group of scholars with diverse perspectives and ideas that have been eye-opening and instructive in my own development. In some ways, I feel they have mentored me as much as I have mentored them.

You recently had a new experience at CTL co-facilitating a CTLgrads Learning Community. What was that experience like?

I had the great pleasure of co-hosting a CTLgrads Learning Community with fellow SLTF Almudena Marín-Cobos. Together, we planned a series of three workshops centered around metacognition (thinking about your own thinking) and the ways in which metacognitive practices enhance learning. The learning community was my first time ever co-leading a workshop and I could not have imagined a better partner-in-crime. Almudena and I learned so much about metacognitive approaches to teaching and helped facilitate some great discussions with students from across campus. I was really encouraged by how well the participants responded to the activities and the great points and experiences they were able to share with the group. Coming out of the experience, I feel more confident in my ability to lead workshops and I have identified weaknesses that I can work on improving.

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

One of the most impactful experiences the CTL afforded me was the opportunity to attend the 2017 Innovative Teaching Summer Institute (ITSI). At ITSI, I was able to develop a nascent idea into a fully formed assignment, which I will be implementing in my Spring 2018 class. My plan is to inject short “micro-labs” into the recitation sections of a traditionally lecture-based engineering course. I believe that mixing in more hands-on experiences will help students connect with abstract concepts.

My favorite feature of ITSI was the peer mentoring. I was paired with an interdisciplinary group of students, all with an interest in injecting research and experimentation into the classes we teach. Collectively, we represented perspectives from mechanical engineering, art history, economics, history, and earth & environmental sciences. Having so many pedagogical backgrounds was a strength that allowed me to question my assumptions of what was clear, what was unnecessary, and what was truly instructive. I cannot give my groupmates enough credit for helping me craft a better assignment that I could on my own.

Teaching Tips

Below, Braden offers his own tips and suggestions for being a good mentor to undergraduate students.  Consider using some of these approaches in your own teaching practice.

  • Graduate students are, in many ways, ambassadors of their field to undergraduates. Many students will get more facetime and one-on-one interactions with their graduate instructor than a faculty instructor. Try to be mindful of that and demonstrate your enthusiasm for your field.
  • Make yourself as open as your schedule allows to meet with students. When you do meet, try to make a personal (but appropriate) connection with your students.
  • Take the time to try and understand why students ask you the questions they do. It can be hard to put yourself in the shoes of a novice and we oftentimes forget how difficult it was to learn material that we now view as easy.

The CTL is here for graduate students.

The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of support for graduate students in both their current and future teaching responsibilities.