What We Are Learning About Learning: Teaching and Learning as a Graduate Student

artwork by Clare Reid

Graduate students occupy a complicated role in higher education. Situated between undergraduates and faculty, they are students—though they don’t always get the focus and attention that undergraduate students get—and many of them are simultaneously in instructional roles—as tutors, TAs, and instructors of record. In the latest episode of the CNDLS podcast What We Are Learning About Learning, we interviewed graduate students at Georgetown University about their experiences navigating this complicated situation. Given their particular vantage point, they have valuable things to tell us about teaching and learning.

Jaime Brown, associate director of the Center for Student Engagement and also a first year FLEX MBA student, acknowledges that it can be challenging to keep up with the varied demands on a graduate student who is also teaching. 

“My schedule is full. My inbox is also full. And, sometimes, just like, wow, how am I keeping up with myself? Most days I do a pretty good job and I give myself a little kudos when I need to. And then [there are] days where perhaps I need to take a step back from something. I give myself grace to do that, too.”

Sometimes this is about trying to balance apparently competing priorities. In the words of Rabea Kirmani, sixth year PhD student in the Government Department:

“A big challenge has been just realizing that I want to focus as much on teaching as I want to on research. You might not be producing articles….But I guess the challenge for me has been realizing that that is okay. That you’re going to be getting something a little bit more intangible out of your teaching experience, which is going to help in other aspects of your work.”

And these students clearly are getting a lot out of their teaching experiences. As Kirmani says, “as soon as you become a teaching assistant you kind of get a, almost a look under the hood [at] how the course functions.” And what good things can happen under that hood? Sam Weiss, Master’s candidate in the English Department, has been affected strongly by professors who get to know students as individuals and who also show their own human side:

“it was really cool to have that sort of established, like, oh, our faculty lead is—that is a person, and I think that made students feel a lot more comfortable talking to them, and sort of changed that power dynamic a little bit.”

Through his experiences as a student and a TA, neuroscience PhD candidate Cameron McKay has found that there’s one central principle undergirding good teaching: “The main thing it boils down to is compassion.

Balancing these demanding roles isn’t easy. But, as this episode reminds us, it also gives a person a broader perspective on matters at the very heart of colleges and universities. Tune in to hear more of this crucial wisdom from voices that are steeped in both teaching and learning and that we need to be hearing.