News | Academics

GSAS students to design, teach undergraduate courses

A teaching program at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is allowing graduate students to pitch their own seminar-size courses—and teach them to undergraduates as early as next spring.

Undergraduate students will now be able to enroll in the approved seminars, which will be capped at 15 students, in the next registration period. Graduate students have already been able to design their own seminars for the summer term, but this marks a significant expansion of GSAS’ Teaching Scholars Program.

“I think the students felt they wanted an opportunity to develop their own syllabus, something we weren’t quite letting them do,” said Alan Stewart, director of graduate studies in the English and comparative literature department. Previously, doctoral students in the English department were allowed only to teach sections of University Writing or serve as teaching assistants under a professor, Stewart said.

Ruaridh MacLeod, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in philosophy, said that the expansion of the program to the fall and spring semesters would provide graduate students an opportunity to hone their critical thinking and communication skills within their disciplines.

“Teaching is the most concentrated form of learning, basically of coming to understanding something,” he said. “Someone who’s teaching a subject has to be an expert in that subject.”

GSAS dean Carlos Alonso said that proposals would be evaluated on the basis of their “overall intellectual quality” and fit within departments. Additionally, each proposal must undergo a thorough review in the Committee on Instruction, the main executive academic body for Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Students’ academic credentials and backgrounds will also be weighed in the consideration of the proposal.

Individual departments also have their own set of criteria. Students “are given very clear guidelines about what they have to integrate,” said Pamela Smith, the history department’s acting chair.

History students have been asked to use some sort of archives or resources within New York as well as to “talk about how their course is innovative pedagogically, so it gets them to think,” Smith said.

By requiring students to tailor their proposals to suit the department’s criteria, Smith said, graduate students have been able to figure out how best to present information to undergraduates.

“They were really taking into account new trends in history and trying to think about how they would configure those new trends so they would be interesting to undergraduate students,” Smith said.

Some students were skeptical that giving graduate students more teaching time would be beneficial to undergraduates.

“I would rather see curriculum created by professors than by students because professors have experience,” Meghan Haseman, a first-year master’s student in history, said. “At the level Columbia is operating, a professor’s perspective is vital—grad students need an opportunity to have their curriculum vetted by professors without undermining the education undergraduates are getting.”

Alonso noted that “the supervising faculty course sponsor will commit to visiting the class at least twice during the semester to evaluate and offer guidance and feedback on the student’s pedagogical performance.”

Smith said that she was confident in the students’ abilities to design and execute a successful course for undergraduates.

“Our graduate students are fantastic. They are incredibly accomplished when they come here. Most of them have MAs—they get a second MA when they get here,” Smith said. “They’re terrific. I think it’s a great opportunity for them.”


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Anonymous posted on

Hmmmm...I hope these grad students actually know how to teach. At least Macleod is from TEACHERS college.

Anonymous posted on

Why doesn't this article include any undergraduate perspective? I think the more classes offerred the better, but are actual professors going to start offering fewer courses now? This seems like an opportunity for professors to become even less involved with undergraduate students.

Dealing with TA's for lectures is bad enough...

Anonymous posted on

Columbia pitched this to you guys really well--and you bought it. Really: it's super cheap to pay grad students to teach classes instead of Professors.

I like grad students, but they should stick to discussion sections.