Though teaching is a valuable skill set for PhD students to develop – whether they pursue academic employment or a variety of other career paths – PhD programs rarely include explicit training in teaching and pedagogy.
In what follows, we reflect on our experiences as graduate students in the department of political science at the University of Alberta that pursued discipline-specific instructional training in the form of a collaborative working group: Teaching and Pedagogy in Political Science (TaPPS). Co-led by graduate students and faculty members, TaPPS develops resources and implements initiatives that directly respond to emergent and discipline-specific teaching needs. The success of TaPPS makes us keen to offer insights about our experiences and to encourage departments and graduate students to consider how they might benefit from starting similar initiatives.
Recognizing that students in our department were expressing general enthusiasm for more teaching and pedagogical development, we initiated informal conversations with graduate students, faculty members, and instructors to gauge their interest. The next step included data collection in the form of a short survey. Surveys asked respondents whether they were happy with the current state of teaching and pedagogical development, what kind of informal mentorship they were already giving/receiving, and whether they had ideas for how we could build upon existing strengths in the department. The data told us that students wanted more training to help them in their roles as teaching assistants (TAs) and instructors, including discipline-specific training. It also told us that faculty members and instructors appreciated formally trained TAs in the classroom. Collectively, we envisioned a teaching and learning community within our department that could offer skills development opportunities, including a mentorship program, co-teaching between students and faculty, collaborative curriculum development, and a group to coordinate ongoing activities such as syllabi swaps.
We took what we learned from initial conversations and survey responses and, together with our peers and faculty members, established the TaPPS working group.
How does TaPPS work?
TaPPS is composed of faculty members, instructors and graduate students who regularly meet to plan and implement a range of skills development opportunities. The group is open to everyone in the department and is not restrictive in any way. The strength of TaPPS comes from an interest in collaboration across the entire department, as well as ardent support from departmental leadership and our graduate student association. With a loose leadership structure, a small number of PhD students have taken the lead each year to convene and chair meetings. Group members decide on the initiatives that they want to prioritize and develop, informed by ongoing conversations with students and faculty as well as initial results from a survey conducted of students, faculty and instructors in the department. Previous and ongoing initiatives include TA training sessions, a mentorship program, a classroom visits program, and a teaching resource repository.
At regular intervals, the group hosts themed events in which students and faculty are invited to briefly share teaching experiences and engage in conversation. In addition, TaPPS developed a mentorship program where graduate students have the opportunity to mentor undergraduate students in the honours program, providing extra support to students working on their thesis research. It is a valuable opportunity for graduate students to develop their mentoring skills.
Another impactful initiative has been a classroom visits program, where a graduate student or faculty member can observe a class taught by a colleague. The program provides those involved with valuable opportunities to reflect on different teaching styles and increase their own intentionality in teaching. Because the program directly connects members of our department, it gives students the opportunity to observe teaching in a class or on a topic that they might teach in the future. It also encourages new personal and professional relationships through a shared passion for teaching.
The group developed a shared resource repository where those in the department can voluntarily share syllabi, learning activities and assignments. While teaching resources can readily be found, there is an incredible value in having resources that have been developed within our department and for the courses that we actually teach. On a broader level, TaPPS creates a culture where people enthusiastically share their teaching resources and ideas.
While university-wide teaching programs offer students invaluable opportunities to develop skills, the nature of these programs tends to make them one-size-fits-all. Teaching in the STEM fields is distinct from teaching in the humanities and social sciences. Each discipline has its own approach to scholarly inquiry. Over the past few years, we have found that working at the departmental level can build upon university-wide programming by meeting the needs of students and faculty members for discipline-specific training. We have learned that the best way forward includes student-centered, collaborative opportunities for teaching training and mentorship.
Overall, this work contributes to the development of graduate students with strong teaching and pedagogical skills, but it also strengthens the department as a whole by fostering a teaching and learning community steeped in a culture of collaboration. In a fiscal context where departments are increasingly concerned about recruitment and retention, training and mentoring strong teachers for undergraduate course delivery can also be a key component of long-term strategic planning.
Elise Sammons and Meagan Auer are both PhD candidates in the department of political science at the University of Alberta. Dax D’Orazio is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of political studies at Queen’s University and a research affiliate with the Centre for Constitutional Studies at U of A.