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Fifteen UW-Madison teaching assistants awarded for service

February 16, 2010 By Stacy Forster

Fifteen University of Wisconsin–Madison teaching assistants have received awards for their contributions to learning on campus.

The teaching assistants received awards for being outstanding new teaching assistants, performing exceptional service to the UW–Madison learning community, developing or adapting innovative teaching methods or performing at a high level throughout their graduate careers.

The College of Letters & Science administers the awards, with additional funding support from the Graduate School, but all teaching assistants are eligible for the awards. Student evaluations and faculty nominations are part of the selection process.

“These award-winners call attention to the fact that a teaching assistant appointment involves so much more than grading,” says Brian Bubenzer, director of the College of Letters & Science’s Teaching Assistant Resource Center. “The skills that are acquired and honed during a teaching assistantship mark an important progression on our graduate students’ career paths, whether they go on to teaching professions or move into nonacademic arenas.”

More than 1,700 teaching assistants across a wide variety of disciplines teach in UW–Madison’s classrooms, laboratories, studios and field situations, and are considered to be essential to the university’s educational mission and the quality of undergraduate education it offers.

“Teaching assistants play a vital role in the classroom,” says UW–Madison Provost Paul DeLuca. “Much of a student’s knowledge grows from interactions with teaching assistants. The university is grateful for the very hard work done by the teaching assistants recognized with this year’s awards, as well as all of the dedicated instructors who freely share so much of their time and wisdom with their students.”

A reception and ceremony honoring the winners will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 2, in 911 Van Vleck, 480 Lincoln Drive.

Here are the recipients of this year’s awards:


  • Shannon Withycombe, history of science. Withycombe says she came to UW–Madison with some experience teaching, but her approach has evolved during her years as a teaching assistant. Her style now includes greater flexibility and she has moved away from a top-down model of teaching, she says. “I now enter each classroom looking for opportunities in which to create an atmosphere of self-discovery,” Withycombe says.

Withycombe has taught classes in the women’s studies department as well as the history of science. Students describe her as friendly, smart, welcoming and “very good at posing questions designed to make her students think.”

  • Zajj Daugherty, mathematics. Daugherty has made teaching an important piece of her education — she spent time as a tutor and has worked on an education degree.

“Mathematics, in its pursuit of beauty and simplicity, is a prime tool for teaching people to deconstruct complex ideas and think creatively about technical issues,” writes Daugherty, adding that she’s made collaborative and active learning central in her classrooms.

Her students have responded to her approachability, with one saying she “makes the class fun while actively involving each student to ensure that each of us knows what we’re doing.”

  • Kyle Rupnow, electrical and computer engineering. Teaching is about more than just interaction in the classroom, Rupnow says. An effective educator must be “knowledgeable and versatile, demanding of student achievement yet approachable and adaptable, passionate and inspiring but also reflective and sensitive to student needs,” he says.

His students in electrical and computer engineering, as well as computer science, have been impressed by his enthusiasm and ability to engage students in sometimes-complicated topics. “I liked that the instructor tried to connect the material with real-life applications whenever possible,” one student evaluator writes.

  • Michelle Nakaue, English. Helping students write better is Nakaue’s greatest gift, says one of her nominators. From first-year students struggling with literary analysis papers to postdoctoral engineers revising dissertations, she’s known as a smart, flexible writing instructor.

“I cannot tell you how many times I have overheard students say to Mitch, whether they’ve known her for just a half hour or for years, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you,'” the nominator says.


  • Renee Anne Poulin, French and Italian. Many of her students have never traveled abroad or had much contact with foreign languages, Poulin says. So she worked to make foreign topics relevant to them by creating a blog, “E-diario culturale,” to help connect them to the language they’re learning.

Poulin also had students use videos from Italian television, stories from Italian newspapers and other cultural materials to engage with the language, and worked with a deaf student to design an alternate syllabus to help prepare the student for a study-abroad program.

  • Dhananjai Dhokarh, physics. Dhokarh proposed a new approach for discussion sections of a core physics class as an alternative to having students in the twice-weekly sessions simply in groups to solve problems. Instead, he spent the first “passive” session showing students how to solve the problems, then helped them solve problems on their own in the second “active” session.

“The advantage of this method is that the students learn how a physics problem, involving a certain concept, is solved correctly from beginning to end,” writes a nominator, while Dhorkarh says it helps students learn the “language of physics.”

  • Valerie Hennings, political science. Hennings says an understanding that different students learn in different ways drives her teaching style.

So she structures the classes to reach as many as possible. That includes having students debate “hot-button” political issues, using political cartoons and movie clips as the starting point for group discussions, and showing campaign ads to demonstrate how television influences politics.

“These visual aids often serve as memorable examples students can refer to in understanding various elements of the political world,” she says.

Exceptional Service

  • Jennifer Hull, history. Hull started the fall 2008 semester as a teaching assistant for her mentor and major adviser, Professor Jeanne Boydston. But two weeks into the semester, Boydston was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, and died Nov. 1, 2008.

“Jennifer not only rose to the challenge of writing three new lectures a week, but also continued to serve as the teaching assistant for the course,” writes a nominator. “The students in Jennifer’s course recognized and appreciated the incredible commitment she displayed throughout this difficult period.”

  • Elisabeth Arti Wulandari, languages and cultures of Asia. In addition to her work in the classroom, Wulandari has been active in giving talks to raise awareness about the importance of studying languages and holding workshops on teaching languages. She’s also worked to promote learning about Indonesia and its role in the world.

“It is truly commendable that she has taken the leadership in reaching out to the community and her fellow teachers, generously sharing her time, insights and expertise with them,” writes a nominator.

  • Laura Ewell, physiology. First-year medical students come to a three-week “biophysics boot camp” expecting rigorous instruction from high-class faculty researchers. But they aren’t disappointed by Ewell’s instruction during discussion groups, and she earned glowing reviews in three years of teaching the groups.

“I learned more in one discussion/week than I did in three lectures/week,” one student writes.

In addition to her volunteer work with the medical students and her teaching assistant courseload, Ewell is a top choice for tutoring medical students who don’t pass their boards, student athletes who need help passing classes and others.

Early Excellence

  • Josh Smith, classics. The number of students who offered comments in Latin on Smith’s teaching evaluations reflects the enthusiasm he generates among students for the lost languages of Latin and ancient Greek, a nominator notes.

“Joshua linguae latinae magister optimus est,” one student evaluator writes, declaring him the best Latin instructor.

Smith brings the ancient languages to life by using pop culture references and movie quotes in Latin, another student writes.

“I was bowled over by Josh’s teaching…Josh is calm and collected, setting high standards yet obviously sympathetic to any possible questions,” writes a nominator.

  • Erica Salkin, journalism and mass communication. In just a few semesters, Salkin has grown as a teacher, writes a nominator. She has mastered the basic course material, handles her sections well, grades students well, drafts exam questions, and organized and conducted review sessions before exams.

“I have quickly grown to trust her judgment, admire her diligence, intelligence and work ethic, and can only applaud the initiative she has shown,” the nominator writes. “Her enthusiasm for teaching is obvious, and students clearly respond.”

  • Fatemehsadat Mirsharifi, languages and cultures of Asia. Mirsharifi has earned high marks for her teaching, and her evaluations say she understands and balances the needs of each student.

Her nominator describes her as critical, analytical, organized and resourceful, adding that she “demonstrates the natural attributes of a good teacher.”

Teachers of less commonly taught languages often struggle to find sound and up-to-date materials, but Mirsharifi led an effort to find a new textbook for Persian classes, and has designed and developed several “remarkable” teaching materials, her nominator says.

  • Bridget Collins, history of science. Collins has established herself as a strong and engaging teacher while teaching three different courses in two different departments. “Bridget is an extremely gifted, engaging and committed teacher who has proved inspirational to many of her students,” a nominator writes.

Her students say they enjoy the stimulating discussion and Collins’ willingness to help with difficult material. One student evaluator says, “I never really liked to miss…discussion, not because of how it would affect my grade, but because I really liked going.”

  • Katie Jarvis, history. Jarvis impressed one faculty nominator with a recognizable feat: During a discussion on Voltaire’s “Candide,” Jarvis got about 100 percent of the class to participate. “An energetic person to begin with, Katie Jarvis makes it clear (unconsciously, I think), that she loves being there, talking about Voltaire with these students,” the nominator writes.

Her students say they like the comfortable discussion environment Jarvis creates, as well as the class materials she provides. Jarvis makes the material accessible — and sometimes light — by including links to YouTube videos and other Web sites as part of discussion materials, the nominator writes.