University of Wisconsin–Madison

Sage Wisdom from Veteran Teaching Assistants: Leah Pope Parker and Neil Simpkins

Pretty much every student has an anecdote about running into their English TA outside of the classroom. It’s like spotting a snow leopard. The elusive Teaching Assistant may appear at the gym, the grocery store, at a coffee shop obscured by a laptop and stack of papers –  and while it’s good news that teaching assistants seek habitats outside of the classroom, it is nevertheless true that they devote a large percentage of their time to teaching. English TAs at UW-Madison do not only conduct weekly discussions on works of literature: they plan in-depth lessons, offer writing instruction, experiment with new ways to create more inclusive group conversations, grade, grade, grade, meet with students in office hours, attend lecture, keep up with the reading — all of this on top of completing their own coursework, writing dissertations, hosting department events, and (hopefully) sleeping!

We got in touch with Leah Pope Parker and Neil Simpkins, two veteran English teaching assistants and winners of the 2018-19 Letters and Science teaching fellowships, to find out what they’ve learned about teaching throughout their time at UW-Madison. Not only do these committed teachers continuously work to improve learning environments for students – they also draw on their expertise to help other graduate students refine their pedagogical prowess.

Q: How do you express your enthusiasm for teaching? And in what ways do you support our community of teaching assistants?

Leah:

There is a lot of emotional labor that goes into projecting enthusiasm in the classroom, and it’s not always easy to show our students that we love what we do. No matter my mood when I walk into my classroom, I have found that when I project enthusiasm for the course and for my students, th

ey are more likely to feel that enthusiasm themselves. And when my students are enjoying their time in class because it feels interesting and important, then I find it much easier to be truly enthusiastic to work with them (even when it’s 8:50 am and I can’t yet drink my coffee because it’s still too hot).

It took me a couple semesters of teaching at UW-Madison to find this rhythm with my students, where for the most part we reinforce each other’s enthusiasm for being there. After a couple years, though, I now have plenty of lesson templates and class activities in my pocket, plus confidence that I can get through any awkward silences or group discussions that have gone sideways. As a result, I’m no longer nervous, anxious, or downright afraid when I walk into my classroom, and that gives me so much more freedom to genuinely love the content and learning objectives of each course, teach classes in a way I enjoy, and amplify the enthusiasm my own students feel.

That feeling of confidence and joy comes largely from experience, but one of the ways I want to support new TAs as an L&S Teaching Fellow is by giving them tools that help get their feet under them more quickly. I had a lot of great advice—from the L&S training, from the English Department’s training, and from other TAs—when I started teaching, and I’m looking forward to passing that on, along with some additional strategies that I’ve developed for myself.

 

Neil:

Teaching has a way of creeping into your life and shaping how you see your relationships with everyone; for me, it’s become a big part of my identity. I’ve been blessed to have so many great experiences teaching in the English department here at  Wisconsin. These experiences have helped me grow as a teacher and develop teaching methods that help students explore new ways of looking at writing, research, and ultimately the university they attend.

For me, one of the big goals I’m trying to achieve in the classroom is encouraging students to enrich their approach to argumentative writing by starting from a place of open inquiry. In my intermediate composition classes, we first explore the university archives and later examine a university space or student group ethnographically to learn about the historical and contemporary rhetorics that shape our university. I ask my students to try to hold their preconceived notions at bay before they approach the material they examine, opening themselves to what archives, interviews, and ethnographic analysis has to teach them.  With this approach, I hope to help students see how writing and rhetoric constitute their experiences as students, citizens, and community members.

Additionally, my dissertation focuses on the experiences of students with disabilities in their college writing classrooms. I draw from that research along with other disability scholarship in composition studies to help support my students, and also to support the community of teachers within our department. Alongside Christa Olson (the director of English 201) and Brad Hughes (the Writing Center director), I have lead professional development workshops about building accessible classroom spaces and examined the impact of program policies on students with disabilities. I feel incredibly grateful to pursue a research project that I feel has had a direct impact on the writing programs here at UW!

Tell us more about excellent teaching!

Are you a teaching assistant? Write in with your own responses to Neil and Leah’s questions.

Are you a student who has enjoyed productive experiences with your TAs? We’d love to hear from you, too.