Spotlight On: Teaching at the Intersections

MacPherson team investigates the experiences of teaching assistants

In our Spotlight On series we sat down with project teams that have participated in the MacPherson Student Partners Program to learn about their research and their approach to partnership. The first post in the series, we spoke to Tianna Follwell, Alan Santinele Martino, and Beth Marquis, an interdisciplinary team making waves with their important teaching and learning research.

Partners involved: 

Beth Marquis (Assistant Professor, Arts & Science Program & School of the Arts)

Alan Santinele Martino (Sociology PhD candidate)

Tianna Follwell (Sociology Undergraduate)

I. What is the project you are working on?

The project looks into the way social location shapes TAs’ experience in the classroom, using the lens of intersectionality. It examines the ways in which gender, race, sexuality, dis/ability, socio-economic status, and other social determinants influence TAs’ approaches to teaching and experiences with students and faculty. With nearly 40 TAs interviewed, Beth says, “[the] project has got a fair bit of interest from others around campus,” which has been both useful and exciting for the research group. Partnership has been an essential factor in the project’s success, Alan notes, as it has allowed the group  “to think creatively; to try different kinds of data, to try different ways of collecting data” with a more flexible approach to research. 

II. Why did you choose to participate in a student-faculty/staff partnership and what were you hoping to gain from the experience?

Echoing a common experience of students at the beginning of their partnership journeys, Alan comments that “[he] didn’t really know anything about partnership,” reflecting on his initial motivations for joining this project. For Tianna, who shares a similar perspective, partnership was also a great avenue to get her first research experience, and to build networks, connections and friendships.

“Being able to tell people that I am an equal partner in this work, that this is mine, is… it’s awesome” (Tianna Follwell)

Beth, who has worked in several partnerships through the Student Partners Program, noted how much fun the partnership has been: “It’s not just work. The ways in which we’ve been able to develop collaborative ideas make it an absolute pleasure to be continually engaging in the process of the project”. 

III. How has working through a student-faculty/staff partnership shaped your project?

From Beth’s perspective, partnership brings “an interesting complexity” to the project, by virtue of the partners’ different “experiences as educators and learners and humans that occupy different social locations in the academy.” In that respect, partnership provides a space for learning from others’ perspectives and knowledge. For this to work, the group had to develop a willingness to have honest, uncensored conversations. As an undergraduate, Tianna has often thought, “wow, thank god I can make mistakes here,” while Alan noted that feelings of safety allowed him to try new things and make meaningful contributions. 

I feel heard, I feel appreciated, I feel like I can make a difference in the project” (Alan Santinele Martino).

IV. What are the challenges you have faced in the partnership, and how have you overcome these?

Beth recognizes the tensions that come with power dynamics in partnership. Nonetheless, she notes that it’s freeing to not feel bound to be “the voice of the expert,” and to be open about not knowing in order to explore things with a fresh perspective. Tianna, the undergraduate student of the group, initially felt some uncertainty that her contributions were important. Through the course of the project, however, she has taken her time to become comfortable expressing her ideas and claim equal ownership of the project, with the support and positive feedback from her partners. 

V. How has the partnership shaped your personal or professional perspectives and experiences? 

From Beth’s experience, “partnership gives you a sense of a more egalitarian approach to research and education”, which is sometimes difficult to enact in current academia. For Tianna, who is both a student and a teaching assistant, she shared how “it gets frustrating to see the possible change that could be made but to have to go by the rules” of traditional teaching and learning practices in the academy. Nonetheless, she will keep thinking about teaching critically and try her best to “reach students and get them excited and engaged”.  Similarly, Alan appreciates the transferable critical thinking skills that he has gained from working in partnership. Like Beth, he believes that partnership raises important questions about equity in education and in relationships amongst professionals in the field. 

VI. In your opinion, what makes a good/successful student partnership?

“A dedicated faculty member is important,” Tianna says; “all the positive experiences [we] have had… are in a large part facilitated by all the work Beth does.” Reciprocal support between the partners is essential, but according to Alan, it also takes “patience towards oneself and compassion.” Alan stresses the importance of communication and open, honest conversations about the expectations and goals of the project, while keeping in mind the limitations of time and resources. Finally, Beth adds that it is important not to be too preoccupied by product or outcome in a partnership context. Rather, a successful partnership involves a continuous process of harvesting all the ideas that come to mind, while trying to reach equal ground.

“Those kind of affective, interpersonal outcomes have been–maybe not anticipated in advance but really important to me” (Beth Marquis).

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