What makes a good teaching fellow? Is it the ability to enhance a student’s understanding of the material? The way they express genuine enthusiasm for the subject? A knack for involving everyone in the class? Is it accessibility outside office hours?
According to Harvard undergraduates, it’s all of the above.
Each year, departments nominate their top teaching fellows for the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching of Undergraduates. GSAS chooses the five most impressive teaching fellows (TFs), who are presented with a certificate and a $1,000 prize at the spring term Bok Center Teaching Awards ceremony. The Bok Award is made possible thanks to an endowment established by David G. Nathan ’51, MD ’55, the Robert A. Stranahan Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and his wife Jean Louise Friedman Nathan.
The 2018 Winners of the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching of Undergraduates
Aaron Benavidez, a PhD student in sociology, was referred to by his nominator as “one of the very best teaching fellows that we have ever had the pleasure of employing in sociology.” Students and faculty praised Aaron for his pedagogical innovation, leadership, and his attention and care for each of his students.
Aaron’s pedagogical interest, intelligence, and breadth of knowledge have made him a valued asset of the department, serving as a teaching fellow for courses ranging from medical sociology to gender and sexuality to urban poverty. As noted in his nomination letter, “…regardless of the topic we give him, and regardless of how closely or distantly related that topic is to his own area of expertise, we can always count on Aaron to receive among the highest Q scores in our program.” Q scores are part of undergraduate course evaluations, which provide important student feedback about courses and faculty.
Whether by discussing a Time magazine article, a Planned Parenthood ad, or Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, Aaron repeatedly found innovative ways to relate various concepts in sociology to his students. Even for one cynical student, Aaron’s dedication made a huge difference. “I have literally never enjoyed a section…they are a waste of my time and they don’t actually enhance my understanding of the material…but every section with Aaron passed quickly and was exciting and I actually learned something.”
Chi-Yun Hsu, a PhD student in the Department of Mathematics, was described as a standout teaching fellow: a masterful teacher, a caring mentor of her students, and a dedicated and thoughtful colleague. In their evaluations, Chi-Yun’s students agreed. “Chi-Yun is a wonderful TF,” said one of her students. “She’s genuinely enthusiastic about the course material and does an incredible job of not only teaching it, but also building intuition of how to synthesize concepts and approach problems.”
Chi-Yun developed her skills as a teacher by repeatedly requesting challenging teaching opportunities and dedicating herself to learning as much as possible from each experience. Brendan Kelly, a senior preceptor in mathematics, observed that Chi-Yun invested an enormous amount of time in her first teaching assignment. “Chi-Yun signed up to be observed multiple times, volunteered to get videotaped for additional feedback, and watched multiple other instructors throughout the semester. She consistently went above and beyond the call of an instructor, and this paid great dividends in her teaching.”
When she found that her students were initially struggling with the class, Chi-Yun solicited their feedback and changed her methods. By the end of semester, the student evaluations were all positive. Jameel Al-Aidroos, a senior preceptor in mathematics said, “I can’t think of another occasion when a TF has so successfully turned around a first semester.
Christopher Spaide, a PhD student in English, received praise from students and faculty in multiple courses.
“Chris Spaide is among the two or three very best in more than three decades,” said Professor Peter Sacks. “His students not only admired his brilliant teaching, but they also felt an immediate and enduring affection and profound gratitude for his humane generosity.”
Students’ course evaluations also speak to both his ability to convey material and his commitment to his students. One student wrote, “Chris is the best TF to walk this planet.” Another shared, “Chris was the best TF that I ever had…. He was ALWAYS accessible and friendly via e-mail, and always made time to meet with students when they couldn’t make his office hours.”
Chris also served as an instructor for a junior tutorial. “Chris is an expert about what he teaches, he responds to your work with precise, strong-worded, honest, helpful feedback, he is so organized in how he approaches teaching/discussion/class material,” wrote one junior tutorial student. “What makes Chris the cream of the crop, completely on another level from other TFs: he loves—and is great at—storytelling, he is contagious in his appreciation for the world, language, art, and education, and he will be your support, role model, and friend as much as he will be your teacher.”
Shanna Weitz, a PhD student who studies American politics, has done outstanding work in the Department of Government. Students praise most her ability to involve everyone in the class, to “lead us all to make discoveries by ourselves.” Over and over again, students credited Shanna with improving their ability to write and make arguments.
Shanna’s self-discipline and time management skills brought her to the attention of Professors Michael Rosen and Peter Hall, who tapped her to be the head teaching fellow for Gov 97 last spring. The wide-ranging course required strong organizational skills and clear leadership. “Shanna was the ideal Head TF: practical, clear-sighted and independent,” says Rosen. “But, more important, she was very much a part of the TF group—engaged with the material and happy to share ideas and experiences, either inside the staff meeting or outside it.”
In addition to her classroom teaching, Shanna has also taken on mentoring senior thesis writers. This year, she is advising three honors theses on wide-ranging topics in American politics. Shanna provides the kind of close mentoring and coaching that all thesis writers should receive, continuing to meet with former students to discuss academic interests and career plans. A wonderful guide and mentor to all of students, Shanna has been particularly important for the women she has inspired to follow in her footsteps.
Andrew Yegian, a PhD student in human and evolutionary biology, has received accolades from his many students—including high Q scores. Andrew cares deeply about teaching, not just in terms of content, but also structure. He has revised labs to make them more interactive, thought-provoking, clear, and dynamic. “By far one of my favorite TFs at Harvard thus far (and I’ve had quite a few),” wrote one student. “He was always enthusiastic and presented information from the lecture clearly, anticipating the difficulties we were going to have with the material before we even walked in.”
Andrew is also willing to spend long hours doing one-on-one sessions with students who need help.
“Andrew really took the time to work with me when I was struggling,” shared one of his students. “He really motivated me to put greater effort into the class and helped me stay enthusiastic about the material.”
Another student praised Andrew’s commitment to letting students learn to solve problems for themselves: “There was a great balance of him teaching and us teaching ourselves and figuring out how to dissect on our own without having him hold our hands the whole way through.”
“In all my years here,” says Daniel Lieberman, Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences, “I have rarely met a graduate student who cares as much about and been so involved with undergraduate education, while simultaneously doing brilliant research.”