Learning Through Teaching in a Virtual Environment

Working with Professor Gretchen Bender this semester as a teaching assistant for Museums: Society and Inclusion? has been an enriching experience. I was also fortunate enough to work with her this past spring as a research assistant alongside several other undergraduate students from the History of Art and Architecture department. We helped Professor Bender develop and shape the very course I assistant teach for now, and despite our original plans for teaching in a COVID-19-free world, seeing our research and efforts come to fruition has been exciting.

I found Professor Bender and this project through an email from my undergraduate major department about upcoming research opportunities. In the past, I had worked as a teaching assistant for another professor of art history and I enjoyed the ability to work with students and material from a new perspective. I would advise students to seek out and apply for these opportunities, whether through their email inbox or contacting faculty directly. Be professional but don’t be afraid! The opportunity to explore topics I’m passionate about like digital media and power dynamics within museums alongside Professor Bender, teaching assistant Annie Abernathy, and students with a variety of course backgrounds has not only strengthened my teaching abilities but also revealed different ways I can engage with these issues in our society and in my life. The professors I’ve worked with have been wonderful and grateful for the unique perspective we are able to offer. Showing your enthusiasm towards a certain project or position can help build these fulfilling connections.

Moving from the role of a student to a teaching assistant allows me to engage with course material and learning objectives in a novel way. This position has encouraged me to use my past classroom experiences to inform my approach to guiding discussion and exploring the material with students. At the beginning of the semester I was apprehensive about student engagement in the course and how well the flow of classroom discussion would transfer to a virtual platform. However, with the guidance of Professor Bender and her open communication and weekly meetings with myself and Annie, we have been able to troubleshoot any problems as they arise and brainstorm the best ways to adjust to our new classroom landscape. At first it was a bit nerve wracking to be tasked with leading synchronous discussion, but we quickly found our footing and have used feedback from each other and the students to structure Zoom sessions in a stimulating and accessible way.

Professor Bender encourages the class to engage in self-reflection activities which have helped us gauge specific learning styles and course content that will best suit the students and their current headspaces. In our particular moment of pandemic and physical distancing, our synchronous discussion time with students has created a space for social interaction and vocal discussion. Yet we’ve also been wary to ensure the course load is manageable and the importance of due dates doesn’t extinguish interest in the material or overshadow the wellbeing of students. This balance has helped me recognize the significance of professors as educators as well as people who care about the lives and struggles of their students beyond the classroom.  

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is that it is not limited to a certain structure or environment like a classroom. Anyone who wants to learn more about teaching can start nearly anywhere in their daily lives. Personally, I have been able to engage with skills like mentorship and public speaking through leadership positions on sports teams, extracurricular activities, and even in past collaborative projects for school. If a student wants to learn more about teaching but is unsure of where to start, I would suggest reflecting on what forms of learning have worked best for them in the past. For example, I know that as a visual learner I benefit from explanatory Powerpoints, charts, and informational graphics that present content in a form other than text. I also value conversations about class material with my peers, so in this instance I’d suggest an aspiring student teacher to think about how they have productive discussions and identify questions and structural techniques that facilitate the learning process. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many impactful and inspiring teachers throughout my lifetime, and I often reflect on their strategies and the connections they formed with students to hopefully do the same for others, now and in the future.

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