Working with CTSI: from Work Study to Videographer

By Wes Adams, Videographer, CTSI

It’s been almost a year now since I started working at CTSI. I began this position a little under a year ago as work-study student with the role of video editor and assistant to the department’s talented Communications Coordinator, Kathleen Olmstead. Other than the exciting prospect of getting some hands-on experience in video production and editing and satisfying the lack of practical applications in my cinema studies program, I really had little idea what CTSI was. As a student of film (double major in cinema studies and political science), especially in a strictly theory-based program, I could not wait to sink my teeth into a project that involved actually planning and creating a visual work as cinema and filmmaking have been passions of mine from a very early age. Over the nine months, my duty in this role has evolved into much more than that, especially in terms of my understanding and appreciation for what CTSI does.

Having had experience as a production assistant, as well as filming and editing projects such as PSAs, promotional videos, and personal short films, I felt that this position would allow me to grow in terms of technical skill. On top of the technical experience I’ve gained, I also feel that the experience of collaborating on projects related to pedagogical practices and research has really opened my eyes to what goes on behind the scenes at the university. The amount of research and effort that goes into improving teaching practices within U of T is something that a small amount of undergrads get to experience or even comprehend. The benefit for a student to experience this backstage view is that it takes the impersonal aspects of an undergrad degree, at such a large institution as U of T, and makes tangible the intangible aspects of how courses are designed and why professors and TAs teach the way they do.

In a similar sense, my role of creating video content that highlights the behind-the-scenes aspects of teaching and learning at U of T makes this hidden process of teaching research and course design accessible to undergrads and faculty alike, which creates a more inclusive atmosphere. Apart from the valuable experience I’ve had applying both my passion for and knowledge in film and capabilities in editing, I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for the education I’m receiving.

What I find most appealing about this position is the ability to creatively fuse a practical medium I have great passion for with an academic field. It is the capability to use an artistic yet accessible medium in order to convey what is typically an inaccessible academic area. Of the many videos I’ve collaborated on with CTSI’s Communications Coordinator I have and continue to enjoy working on the TATP Shorts series, which are short videos featuring a TA elaborating on a teaching strategy, or ‘tip’, that they use in their classroom presented in a colourful, fast-paced, and quick-cutting format. I find that these videos have not only enlightened me in terms of the different pedagogical practices that can be implemented to improve learning, but also have allowed me to improve my own skills as a videographer in terms of attempting to create a work that intellectually stimulates, entertains, and informs. What I like most about this series is that it has given me an opportunity to be more creative in terms of stylistic features and structure while still adhering to coherent, formal features to articulately present the information. I thoroughly enjoy the freedom of creativity, but the necessity for concise and comprehensive information delivery creates a fun challenge.

These past nine months working at CTSI I feel has truly helped me develop stronger critical, academic, and, importantly, technical skills. Importantly, over these past nine months I have developed a greater sense of community at U of T, which appeared in my first year of study to be a somewhat daunting institution. I excitedly look forward to collaborating on future projects and can’t wait to continue to engage in more critical, artistic and creative endeavours with CTSI.

Is the TATP a Learning Community? The Power of Working for the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program

By Megan Burnett, Assistant Director, CTSI/TATP

I recently blogged about a Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education co-edited by current and former members of the CTSI staff (Bethany Osborne, Sara Carpenter, Carol Rolheiser, and me). The issue focused on “Preparing Graduate Students for the Changing World of Work”. Two things struck me in preparing this Special Issue that are directly related to the work we do here in CTSI and within the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program. One: graduate students want to develop their pedagogical skills and feel a lack of teaching experience negatively affects their ability to compete on the job market. They want to teach and they want to talk about their teaching (Sekuler, Crow, & Annan, 2013).  Two: most graduate students crave professional development beyond independent research, and studies suggest that such work does not delay a student’s time to completion – the ever-present argument against a graduate student pursuing professional development activities, or even taking on teaching roles. Graduate students want to be integrated into an academic community and participate in a social as well as professional network. Research shows that such support can actually help a graduate student complete. (Golde, 2000; Lovitts, 2001).

Such a social/professional network and teaching-focused community for graduate students exists within CTSI: the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program. The graduate students who work for TATP as peer-to-peer trainers learn a variety of skills and actively engage in mixing theory and praxis. They learn about pedagogy and effective instructional design that in turn helps them craft meaningful instructional materials and resources. They explore how and when student learning happens. They practice collaborating with others in disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams to design and facilitate training experiences. They hone their communications skills when consulting with departments about training, and with other TAs about teaching. Most importantly, they learn from each other and develop a network of support focused on teaching. (On a side note: TATP staff finish their degrees. Every year I am sad – but very proud! – to lose another excellent staff member to the world beyond graduate school.)

Our experience co-editing the CJHE Special Issue led me and the former Acting Assistant Director of the TATP, Sara Carpenter, to undertake an examination of the kinds of professional and personal growth experienced by the graduate student peer trainers who make up the staff of the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program. For years I have heard anecdotally from TATP staff that their work leads to a profound conceptual shift in their understanding of student learning which in turn inspires them to take more risks in their teaching. They have communicated to me over and over again the joy they feel in sharing a space with other graduate students who also value teaching.  In essence, the TATP staff experience a shift in their identities as educators and scholars.

A review of some of the literature on graduate student development suggests that a program like the TATP, beyond offering a stimulating workplace environment, may in fact exhibit the characteristics of a learning community. Such characteristics include: the ability to set defined teaching goals, shared ownership and commitment, the ability to connect practice to theory, the willingness and ability to experiment and take risks, the sense of belonging to a community, mentorship and feedback (Brower, Carlson-Dakes & Shu Barger, 2007; Sweitzer, 2009).

At the beginning of February, we posted the TATP positions for the 2015-16 year. Applications are due March 16, 2015. If you know of an exceptional graduate student teacher who would thrive in such a community, please invite them to apply. If you are yourself a graduate student interested in teaching, and you would like to join such a network, please consider applying. Below are some testimonials from current TATP staff that speak to the qualities and benefits of the community in which they work and learn.

“Through TATP I’ve come to see the absolute dedication of the UofT teaching community’s ‘first responders.’ TA’s are on the front lines of student contact. They are often the most approached body in a teaching team, yet they are likely the most alienated from a larger teaching community. Watching TA’s come together at TATP events has made me realize the immense necessity of peer-networks and peer-discussion. These TA’s light up with the realization that their teaching challenges are shared. “
–    Sasha Kovacs, TATP Trainer
PhD Candidate, Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies

“Through my association with TATP, I have come to understand the thought, skill and PASSION behind developing as an educator. Through my work with TATP my confidence and abilities have grown through the incredible support of people truly thrilled to talk about teaching.  As often said among staff…”it’s the best TA gig there is!”.  Surrounding yourself with people who LOVE to teach has definitely improved my teaching!”
–    Sandy Romain, TATP Coordinator
PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology

“Working for the TATP has taught me as much about myself and my potential, as it has about higher education and teaching. The transferable skills I continue to gain from a unique peer training teaching model have shaped me as a leader, decision maker and strategist inside and outside the classroom.”
–    Leanne DeSouza, TATP Trainer
PhD Candidate, Institute for Medical Sciences

“When I first started work at TATP, my approach to teaching and learning was very much oriented around content mastery first and foremost. I felt that my job as a teacher was to introduce students to new knowledge and guide them through the process of grappling with it, and I also felt that my ability to do this effectively was, to some extent, predetermined: great teachers are born, not made. I would say that the most profound and far-reaching impact of working at TATP has been to completely undermine both these assumptions. After being exposed to fellow TATP trainers and TAs from across the university, all of whom struggle with remarkably similar problems in undergraduate classrooms, and having had the opportunity to delve more deeply into pedagogical research and theory, I now feel that much of what our students need from us is support in developing the kind of long-term skills that will allow them to seek out their own knowledge and master it independently. I also now believe that great teaching is never fixed, static, or an inherent personality trait, but is something that changes each time you step into a classroom and that rests on a set of skills that can be learned and strengthened over time. This is fundamentally a much more hopeful vision of what it means to be a teacher!”
–    Robin Sutherland-Harris, TATP Coordinator
PhD Candidate, Centre for Medieval Studies


Brower, A. M., Carlson-Dakes, C. G., & Shu Barger, S. (2007). WP101: A learning community model of graduate student professional development for teaching excellence. Working Paper Series, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE). Retrieved from:

Golde, C. M. (2000). Should I stay or should I go? Student descriptions of the doctoral
attrition process. The Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199–227.

Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of
departure from doctoral study. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Sekuler, A. B., Crow, B., & Annan, R. B. (2013). Beyond labs and libraries: Career
pathways for doctoral students. Toronto, ON: Higher Education Quality Council of

Sweitzer, V.B. (2009). Towards a theory of graduate student professional identity development: a developmental network approach. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(1), 1-33.

Ramping up for the new school year

Image: Walking on St George StreetRegistration for this year’s Back-to-School Series is now open. A complete list of workshop titles and descriptions is available online. This year, we have a new featured event – a Teaching with Technology Fair on Wednesday, August 28th. This all-day event, hosted by CTSI and Academic & Collaborative Technologies (ACT), is an opportunity for the U of T community to meet with educational technology specialists to learn about available free tools (and to discuss how these tools can be used in the classroom and online). You can read more about (and register for) this event online – information about visiting specialists will be added soon.

These sessions are for new and returning University of Toronto faculty. All sessions are free but registration is required.

For those of you who really like to plan ahead, the Call for Proposals for the 8th Annual Teaching & Learning Symposium is available. This year’s theme is Learning Across & Beyond Borders. As always, the symposium offers the opportunity for U of T faculty, staff and librarians to share research, experience and ideas about teaching, hear from the 2013 President’s Teaching Award winners, participate in workshops and enjoy a day together in Hart House. New sessions have been added this year – Lightning Talks and Nifty Assignments. You can ream more about them online. The deadline for proposal submission is September 16th.

On the graduate student side, the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program (TATP) has just completed a week of training for its new staff. Each year, the TATP hires 15 senior graduate students as peer trainers. They lead mandatory departmental training for new teaching assistants and course instructors (in CUPE 3902, unit 1), microteaching sessions, workshops and offer consultations on teaching dossiers and in-class observations. We’ll be posting more information about this new team shortly.

It is a bit surprising that we are almost half way through the summer months but it does feel good to have the jump on fall. Because it’s always a little closer than you think….



2012 TATP Teaching Excellence Award Winners

Congratulations to the following U of T teaching assistants, winners of this year’s award:

Emily Holland, Department of Anthropology
Stefana Gargova, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures
Sara Osenton, Department of East Asian Studies
Abdul Rahman Ayoub,
Department of Mathematics & Computational Sciences

Some nominees worked as a part of a teaching team in large lecture courses or science labs while others led small tutorials or language labs. The only common denominators: the nominees enthusiasm for teaching and the enthusiasm for learning they inspired in their students. Nominators were asked to comment on the TA’s communication and organizational skills, their feedback and knowledge of the course material. In each case, the candidate demonstrated dedication, insight and knowledge in the classroom. As always, the response was extraordinary as so many were willing (and often excited) to share their experiences with teaching assistants at U of T. Many students shared stories about TAs guiding them through difficult material, making the tutorial experience an enjoyable one and encouraging enthusiasm about the subject matter. A common theme we noticed this year, students nominate a TA when they feel their voice is being heard whether in tutorials, during office hours or email.

This year, we received 433 online nominations from students and 48 nominations from faculty. A total of 197 TAs were nominated (from more than 40 departments) with 63 TAs eligible for the short list. Thank you to everyone who took the time to nominate a TA this year. Winners receive a cash prize, certificate and award luncheon in their honour.

For more information on this award—and how you can nominate a TA for next year’s award—please visit

Shortlisted Candidates:
Keira Galway, Faculty of Music
Julia Su, Department of Linguistics
Helen Marshall, Department of English
Lauren Beard, Department of Comparative Literature
Robert Williamson, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Guillaume Barlet, Department of Geology
Sherry Esfahani, Materials Science & Engineering
Danielle DeSouza, Department of Occupational Therapy

TATP Teaching Excellence Award – the Shortlist

It is with great pleasure (and excitement) that we can announce this year’s short list candidates for the 2012 TATP Teaching Excellence Award:

Abdul Abyab, Department of Mathematics & Computational Sciences
Guillaume Barlet, Department of Geology
Lauren Beard, Department of Comparative Literature
Danielle DeSouza, Department of Occupational Therapy
Shaghayegh Esfahani, Materials Science & Engineering
Keira Galway, Faculty of Music
Stefana Gargova, Department of Germanic Languages
Emily Holland, Department of Anthropology
Helen Marshall, Department of English
Sara Osenton, Department of East Asian Studies
Julia Su, Department of Linguistics
Robertson Williamson, Department of Biology

This year, we received 433 online nominations from students and 48 nominations from faculty. A total of 197 TAs were nominated with 63 TAs eligible for the short list.

The TATP Teaching Excellence Award is in it’s 9th year (it was established in 2003 and the first awards were presented in 2004). Recipients of the award receive a certificate, an honorarium and a luncheon in their honour. They also sit on a panel during that year’s TA Day (held before fall term starts) and participate in a Q&A with new (and some returning) TAs at the university. I will admit that every year I worry that no one will have a question for the award winners (and I should admit that I have this fear every time I participate in a Q&A) but every year we have more than enough to fill the allotted time, and then some.

Winners will be announced on Monday, April 30, 2012.

Jen O’Leary, Molecular Genetics & Siyu Liu, Electrical & Computer Engineering
2011 TA Award winners


Reflections on the TA Teaching Excellence Award

For the past eight years, I have had the distinct pleasure of coordinating the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program Teaching Excellence Award. It is always inspiring to read students’ testimonials about teaching assistants who are making a difference in their education. It reminds me of stepping back into the undergraduate classroom (I am taking full advantage of UofT employee benefits by enrolling in classes) and being reminded how intelligent UofT students are – smart, insightful and funny. Much like the 2011 3M Fellows Thank Your Teacher initiative, the TA Award is an opportunity to say thanks but to also offer recognition for a job well done.

(from left to right, 2011 winners William McFadden, Department of History,
Siyu Liu, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering)

Last year we received over 550 nominations (from students and faculty) for TAs – 185 individual TAs were nominated – and this year is looking just as promising. We have almost twice as many nominations as we did this time last year. I certainly don’t want to jinx the number of responses to come but I think we might be heading into a record breaking year. Some of the TAs who make the short-list of candidates receive dozens of nominations from students, others receive only two (the minimum required to be eligible for the short-list). Some TAs are leading multiple tutorials or labs in large survey courses, encountering dozens upon dozens of students, while others lead smaller group sessions, or are working as a Course Instructor. There really isn’t a standard, only good teaching and enthusiasm for the subject matter and sharing that enthusiasm with their students. As one student wrote (in a nomination letter submitted during the short-list stage as all online nominations are anonymous) said about 2008 award winner Chiara Frigeni, Department of Linguistics:

Chiara was constantly encouraging students.  She would find a way to elicit student participation in a manner that didn’t make people feel singled out; rather, she made it fun and enjoyable. She was constantly encouraging, and her passion for course material was unparalleled.

As I have the chance to see the nominations as they come in, I know that this story isn’t unique. We hear from students on all three campuses from a wide range of departments. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times (and will probably say it a thousand times more), enthusiasm counts.

To nominate a TA, please visit the Teaching Excellence Award website.

Narratives and teaching

Robin Sutherland-Harris and I were co-facilitators of a TATP workshop today.  The workshop challenged TAs to convey a narrative (or a story) in a lesson for their students.  One of the foundational assumptions of the workshop was that narrative is a part of everyday life, including classroom life.  In the words of Abbott in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2008), “We are all narrators” (p. xii)

As part of the workshop, we introduced Prezi as a platform for the TAs to build their narratives for classroom use.  According to the Prezi website, Prezi is software which exists in the cloud.  It is something between “whiteboards and slides” and features a “zoomable canvas” where you can “explore ideas and the connections between them.”  TAs, faculty and staff at U of T may be interested to know that they can sign up for educational accounts at Prezi if they are interested in exploring this zooming interface for classroom presentations.

We found a number of great Prezi exemplars online that we showed during the workshop to try to get the creative juices flowing.  To begin, we were very inspired by the big picture timeline provided by the Great Jazz Bassists and their Influence through the Ages Prezi.  We also felt that a presentation on the Physical Geography in Africa was great for demonstrating how you can hone in on concepts (or geographic features) in Prezi by using the zooming features.


Evaluating participation

Students in discussion at desks

Image by lynn dombrowski; Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Evaluating student participation in tutorials or seminars can be a challenge for everyone from first time TAs to experienced instructors.

Recently, I came across an interesting suggestion posted on the Student Participation/Active Learning page on the website of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.  They offer the suggestion of providing students with the opportunity to assess themselves part-way through the term and receive feedback.  The blockquote below shows the choices that the University of the Sciences suggest for students to engage with for self-assessment:

  1. I contribute worthwhile comments several times during every class. Please cite an example
  2. I contribute one or more worthwhile comments almost every class. Please cite and example
  3. I often contribute or participate in class discussions. Please cite an example
  4. I occasionally contribute
  5. I rarely contribute

CTSI: the view from the 7th floor

With the start of the new year, we have settled in our new, albeit temporary, home. Our space on the 4th floor of Robarts is under renovation – our office has grown considerably over the last few years with the amalgamation of offices (Office of Teaching Advancement, Teaching Assistants’ Training Program and Resource Centre for Academic Technology) in 2009 and the addition of staff and services – so we are residing on the 7th floor of the library until July 2012.

We packed up our old space just before the holidays and many of us felt a little sad. There were no actual tears (at least not that I know of) but it was hard to say goodbye.

Throughout the time we occupied the space (as individual offices then one big pedagogical family), we enjoyed countless workshops and events, facilitated 6 Teaching & Learning symposia and many conferences, supported the implementation of the UofT portal (Blackboard) and training for instructors, graduate students and staff, supported teaching award files and facilitated the TATP Teaching Excellence Award and met with many, many instructors and graduate students on a number of teaching related issues and questions.

Thankfully, we’ve landed in a space that allows us to continue this pace and there will be no break in our schedule or programming. The one drawback is that we don’t have a seminar rooms right next door that we can use for workshops and training but the upside is that we can explore buildings and rooms around campus with our winter 2012 workshop series. And personally, I rather like being surrounded by old card catalogues and library stacks. It’s comforting. Also, we have space for the desktop computer archive so I know that we are home.

To reach our office, take the #4 elevator from the 2nd floor of Robarts and follow the signs. All of our other contact information remains the same.

To reach an individual staff member, please visit the CTSI contact page.

My first graphic syllabus

Recently, I was introduced to the idea of a graphic syllabus. In her book The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course (available at the OISE library), Linda B. Nilson, suggests that instructors can convey the relationships between course concepts directly through the syllabus.

In the winter 2012 semester, I will be teaching a 4th year course called Integrative Design Project at the Institute of Communication, Culture and Information Technology at the Mississauga campus.  Incorporating a design element into a design course seems like something I should pursue.

The knowledge domains that constitute the integrative design project course for 2012: 1) design research, 2) user centered design, 3) eGovernment

These are the major knowledge domains that constitute the integrative design project course for 2012

To the left, I have posted my first attempt at graphically representing the knowledge domains that are covered in course readings and around which the assignments focus.  For example, the major group assignments will involve students researching and designing a prototype of a website or digital interface to enhance a government service or democratic society more broadly.  Their prototypes are expected to be user and citizen centric.