At its best, teaching builds a sense of community among students and instructors in a class. But where do early-career instructors find community outside of the classroom?
That question was how the Belonging at Cornell Advanced Graduate Teaching Cohort (AGTC) was born. The brainchild of Kim Webb and Rink Tacoma-Fogal, both Center for Teaching Innovation Graduate Fellows, the cohort formed in Spring 2023, and was based on an identified need for developing teaching skills beyond the capabilities of a teaching orientation program.
“Creating the cohort was a long and intensive process, so seeing it come together was honestly quite special,” Webb said. “All through the planning process, we felt like we had good ideas, but the program had never been done before, so we also felt like we were in uncharted territory.”
Working closely with their staff advisor Derina Samuel, associate director at the Center for Teaching Innovation, Webb and Tacoma-Fogal applied for and were awarded the newly offered Belonging at Cornell Mini-Grant for graduate and professional students. They devised and implemented the AGTC to offer graduate teaching assistants an opportunity to participate in a diverse graduate student teaching community, develop their individual teaching skills, and discuss effective and inclusive teaching practices.
Webb credits Tacoma-Fogal for the inspiration to build the cohort and apply for the grant in Fall 2022. Webb was then a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Statistics and Data Science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, and Tacoma-Fogal was a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Webb and Tacoma-Fogal set a goal of reaching out to as many graduate students as possible at Cornell, with a particular focus towards reaching those from backgrounds historically underrepresented in academia, and TAs from smaller programs.
In Spring 2023, they sent the call for applications, selecting 20 applicants from 13 different departments across campus. Participants were required to be currently enrolled, full-time Cornell graduate students with at least one semester of TA experience. They were also required to commit to attending two in-person development sessions, and could not be graduating before the Fall 2023 semester, to help sustain future networking and knowledge-sharing among Cornell TAs.
Part of their inspiration for the cohort came from their experience as CTI Graduate Fellows, particularly the GET SET workshops, which are focused on helping graduate students develop teaching skills, gain theoretical grounding and practical strategies, and connect with fellow teaching graduate students and postdocs.
"We found that the most rewarding part of the [GET SET] workshops was the opportunity for interaction and discussion between participants,” Webb said. “For graduate TAs in particular, this type of discussion can allow TAs to share experiences, challenges, and lessons learned with a group of people who can understand and share advice. For TAs in smaller programs or with fewer peers interested in teaching, we hoped this interaction would be especially valuable.”
With only two cohort sessions, Webb and Tacoma-Fogal found themselves at the intersection of balance and enthusiasm. According to Webb, the biggest challenge was fitting everything they wanted to accomplish into just five hours of meeting time.
“For Rink and I, it was tempting to just lecture about teaching because there was so much that we wanted to share in a short amount of time. To meet our goal of establishing a community, however, Rink and I had to narrow the scope of our content delivery, and ensure there was plenty of interaction time for participants,” Webb said.
The first session’s goals centered on inclusivity and DEI teaching practices and building community support, with an overall goal to help TAs focus on identifying resources and mentorship opportunities to advance their individual teaching goals. The session included an evidence-based inclusive teaching workshop; a group discussion about challenges and solutions in a disciplinary classroom setting; and the creation of an individual development plan for teaching-related opportunities.
The second session continued to emphasize community building and professional development within the cohort, and also included group discussions on the value of high-structure instruction and how it can help build inclusivity and a sense of belonging; and how TAs could develop connections and community between other members of the cohort.
The approach paid off. “The discussion time led to great conversations and connections in the group,” Webb said. “Everyone just jumped into the cohort, engaged in the conversation, and was truly generous with their expertise, ideas, and experiences.”
The impact was also noticeable from the CTI’s perspective, as many of the AGTC members signed up to participate in CTI graduate workshops and also applied for the CTI Graduate Teaching Fellows program. Based on the positive experiences of the AGTC participants, the CTI has decided to continue to provide a similar cohort experience, and is excited to launch the Early Career Teaching Cohort in Spring 2024.
The new 2024 cohort will experience a similar focus on developing a cross-disciplinary community for graduate TAs in their early years at Cornell. For more information about this opportunity, please contact CTI Graduate Programming.