Gender Identity, Pronouns, and Lifelong Learning – Tommy Mayberry, Instructional Developer

A sign that says, "I am still learning."There might be two fundamental things to know about me to avoid conversational confusion. First, I’m a drag queen: I visually present on an almost day-to-day basis as masculine, but I identify under the transgender banner because my embodied identity oscillates across the gender binary and my proper pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs. Second, my partner and I have the same name: each is Tommy (born “Thomas” with a birth certificate to confirm), and together we are the Tommies. I say these two things might be fundamental to know about me to avoid confusion in conversation because while I do not speak about myself in the third person (if you hear me say “Tommy,” you would do well to assume I mean my partner), people do speak about me, and they speak about me with a variety of pronouns that fit me and align with who I am. This has proven to be very puzzling to some folks at several times (my dear 85-year-old grandma has finally got the knack of “the Tommies,” but that plurality for her is my partner and me, not myself and I). I love this perplexity because in life as in teaching, this is an opportunity for learning.

In teaching language studies specifically, a grammar lesson in parts of speech and number agreements would seem to be an appropriate exercise for first-year Undergraduates; it may not, though, seem immediately fitting for first-year non-language courses or even upper-year language courses where the knowledge and understanding are assumed to be established and built upon. But it is. The refresher of a language exercise like the one below not only reaffirms language and communication skills for learners but opens the window to an opportunity for learning that is wider than a grammar primer.

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A Q & A with Amanda Garcia, 2017’s CUT Award Recipient

Amanda Garcia
Amanda Garcia, PhD Candidate in Systems Design Engineering

Each year, the Centre for Teaching Excellence and the Graduate Studies Office recognize and celebrate the teaching development efforts of Waterloo graduate students with the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Award. I sat down with this year’s winner, Amanda Garcia, PhD candidate in Systems Design Engineering and recent graduate of the CUT program, to get her take on teaching and learning. Amanda has taught Problem-Solving for Development, a second-year International Development course (INDEV 212) and Conflict Resolution (SYDE 533), a Systems Design Engineering course; has completed both the Fundamentals of University Teaching (FUT) and CUT programs, and began her teaching career during her undergraduate years, when she was awarded her first Teaching Assistantship.

Continue reading A Q & A with Amanda Garcia, 2017’s CUT Award Recipient

Graduate and Postdoctoral Programming Updates – Jessica Jordao

Fundamenals Microteaching Session
Fundamentals Microteaching Session

During my short time as a Graduate & Postdoctoral Programs at CTE, I have come to realize how outstanding CTE’s graduate and postdoctoral programs really are. Our programs support UWaterloo graduate students and postdocs in their knowledge and skill development as university TAs and current and future instructors. The three programs offered, at no cost to the student, include the Fundamentals of University Teaching and the Certificate of University Teaching for graduate students and the Teaching Development Series for postdoctoral fellows. Continue reading Graduate and Postdoctoral Programming Updates – Jessica Jordao

Reflections of a TAWF – Stephanie Verkoeyen

Since next month marks my last workshop as a TA Workshop Facilitator (TAWF), I wanted to use my last blog post to reflect on my experience over the past year.

21194820_d6bfc6f5c9_qWhen I first started as a TAWF last September, I had no way of anticipating all of the wonderful additional opportunities for professional and personal development. As a member of the graduate staff you are welcomed into the CTE community. Living out of town and only occasionally coming to campus, I’ve found it difficult at times to feel a sense of belonging at the university. So the chance to connect with like-minded people and engage in conversations about teaching and learning has been wonderful and proven invaluable.

TAWFs are generally paired with one or two workshops that they will be responsible for for the duration of their appointment. These workshops are offered at least once per term. This means that you have several chances to deliver the same material and receive feedback on your delivery. As a teacher, this is a wonderful opportunity to flex your facilitation skills and gain a greater appreciation for your strengths and areas that may need improvement.

Multiple iterations of a workshop also mean that you will learn about at least one teaching and learning topic in-depth. Before I became a TAWF I had never thought to consult the literature on best teaching practices, and yet there is an entire body of work devoted to this very topic. Referred to as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL for short), post-secondary practitioners share their experiences of their own classroom successes and failures so that others can reflect on their findings and build upon teaching and learning processes.

The TAWF position also opens the door to other opportunities. There’s the option of getting involved with teaching and learning projects that are happening at the Centre or elsewhere within the University. Several TAWFs have also gone on to take on a GID (Graduate Instructional Developer) position.

I leave this position not only with a greater understanding of my approach to teaching and learning and improved knowledge in this field, but also with invaluable connections to both my graduate colleagues in other faculties and the staff of CTE. It’s been an honour and a privilege!


Why “Following Your Passion” Is Bad Advice – Elorm Agbeyaka

9318593026_fa45b15338_mFollow your passion; the mantra that successful people will preach to inspire those who will listen. I become a little weary every time I hear it. I have heard it preached from the likes of spokespeople, teachers, parents, mentors, and so on. I soon learned that this is not always the case, and in fact, it can be a hindering concept to believe in.

I recently watched a video of a commencement speech by Mike Rowe, best known as the host for the television series Dirty Jobs, given to PragerU graduates. In five minutes, he explained why he thinks following your passion is terrible advice. The main idea of his speech, what he referred to as “The Dirty Truth”, is this; just because you’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it [1].  This implies that the hard work and effort that you put into your passion, does not necessarily mean you will obtain a successful lifestyle in that passion.

He goes on to describe the ineffectiveness of telling someone to follow their dreams, since it may not actually be clear as to what they are dreaming, and if that dream is feasibly attainable. The fact remains that passion and ability are two separate things.

To be successful, Rowe explains how following opportunity will more likely lead to prosperity, and that following passion can mean missing out on plenty of available opportunities. He uses the “skills gap” to illustrate his point; there are plenty of jobs that are available to which very few people are trained to do. This compares to the large number of people who are skilled at certain jobs, to which have few openings. Imagine how successful you could be if you went against the current and followed the path less beaten?5863884809_7dcbcea2e5_m

This was, personally, a very eye-opening concept that I had never really thought about. For most of my life, I was under the impression that hard work and perseverance meant that you could do anything you wanted. However, I believe much of what Rowe said is very true.

Now, this is not to say that following one’s passion is completely illogical; it’s not impossible to be successful at your dream. It is, however, important to gauge the pay-off towards your goal, versus how much effort, time, and money is going into it. To paraphrase Mike, staying the course only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Learn to pick your battles, and know when to tap out of the ring and take on a different battle that you believe can be concurred.

So now what? Instead of following passion in advance, what should be done instead? I decided to do some research and see what others had to say, and much of it was a relative reiteration of Rowe’s speech.

In an interview, Cal Newport, an author and 30-year-old assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, advocated for cultivating your passion, instead of following it. In essence, pay-off is greater when one decides to build a passion for their job. This is done by sharpening your skills and abilities within your work like a craftsperson, then shaping your working life towards the lifestyle that you desire [2].

Here are a few guidelines to help navigate you through your passion cultivation in the job market:

  1. Understand what skills and activities you excel at. Are you a good listener, or problem solver, or have always taken the leadership role in a group setting? What are you good at which you believe has been impactful or has made you particularly happy at one point?
  2. Understand where your skills can be applied. In what jobs and industries would you be able to hone your skills like a craftsperson, and gain more opportunities as a result of your improvement? Think broadly about your possible opportunities. For example, I love using Microsoft Excel, so I know there are a number of positions that would require proficiency in Excel than just Data Analysis jobs.

Seeing that it is convocation season for many University students, this might have some valuable insight for a number of graduates. Some will be entering the workforce, and may have hopes of landing that dream job, or pursuing that one thing they are passionate about. The real takeaway point: keep a mindful and realistic goals, and allow your passions to drive you throughout the journey. Take the time to understand if your passion is really what you’re meant to do, or if it is just meant to be a dream to hold on to.


[1] Mike Rowe – Don’t Follow Your Passion

[2] Joshua Fields Millburn – ‘Follow Your Passion’ Is Crappy Advice

[3] Nathaniel Koloc – Why “Follow Your Passion” is Pretty Bad Advice

[4] Lauren Friese –  Gen Y career advice: Don’t follow your passion. Do this instead.

Artificial Teaching Assistants

The "draughtsman" automaton created by Henri Maillardet around 1800.
The “draughtsman” automaton created by Henri Maillardet around 1800.

The dream of creating a device that can replicate human behaviour is longstanding: 2500 years ago, the ancient Greeks devised the story of Talos, a bronze automaton that protected the island of Crete from pirates; in the early thirteenth century, Al-Jazari designed and described human automata in his Book of Knowledge and Ingenious Mechanical Devices; in the eighteenth-century, the clockmaker Henri Maillardet invented a “mechanical lady” that wrote letters and sketched pictures; and in 2016, Ashok Goel, a computer science instructor at Georgia Tech, created a teaching assistant called Jill Watson who isn’t a human – she’s an algorithm.

Goel named his artificial teaching assistant after Watson, the computer program developed by IBM with an ability to answer questions that are posed in ordinary language. IBM’s Watson is best known for its 2011 victory over two former champions on the gameshow Jeopardy! In Goel’s computer science class, Watson’s job was to respond to questions that students asked in Piazza, an online discussion forum. Admittedly, the questions to which Watson responded were fairly routine:

Student: Should we be aiming for 1000 words or 2000 words? I know, it’s variable, but that is a big difference.

Jill Watson: There isn’t a word limit, but we will grade on both depth and succinctness. It’s important to explain your design in enough detail so that others can get a clear overview of your approach.

Goel’s students weren’t told until the end of the term that one of their online teaching assistants wasn’t human – nor did many of them suspect. Jill Watson’s responses were sufficiently helpful and “natural” that to most students she seemed as human as the other teaching assistants.

Over time – and quickly, no doubt – the ability of Jill Watson and other artificial interlocutors to answer more complex and nuanced questions will improve. But even if those abilities were to remain as they are, the potential impact of such computer programs on teaching and learning is significant. After all, in a typical course how much time is spent by teaching assistants or the instructor responding to the same routine questions (or slight variations of them) that are asked over and over? In Goel’s course, for example, he reports that his students typically post 10,000 questions per term – and he adds that Jill Watson, with just a few more tweaks, should be able to answer approximately 40% of them. That’s 4000 questions that the teaching assistants and instructor don’t have to answer. That frees up a lot of their time to provide more in-depth responses to the truly substantive questions about course content.

More time to give better answers: that sounds like a good thing. But there are also potential concerns.

It’s conceivable, for example, that using Watson might not result in better answers but in fewer jobs for teaching assistants. Universities are increasingly keen to save money, and if one Watson costs less than two or three teaching assistants, then choosing Watson would seem to be a sound financial decision. This reasoning has far broader implications than its impact on teaching assistants. According to a recent survey, 60% of the members of the British Science Association believe that within a decade, artificial intelligence will result in fewer jobs in a large number of workplace sectors, and 27% of them believe that the job losses will be significant.

Additionally, what impact might it have on students to know that they are being taught, in part, by a sophisticated chatbot – that is, by a computer program that has been designed to seem human? Maybe they won’t care: perhaps it’s not the source of an answer that matters to them, but its quality. And speaking for myself, I do love the convenience of using my iPhone to ask Siri what the population of Uzbekistan is – I don’t feel that doing so affects my sense of personal identity. On the other hand, I do find it a bit creepy when I phone a help desk and a ridiculously cheery, computerized voice insists on asking me a series of questions before connecting me to a human. If you don’t share this sense of unease, then see how you feel after watching 15 seconds of this video, featuring an even creepier encounter with artificial intelligence.

Meaningful Conversations in Minutes – Mylynh Nguyen

ConversationWith constant media stimulation, increase in competitiveness, and stress overload, “Is it possible to slow down” (1)?  Our culture can be self-driven and individualistic so it is no surprise that for many, time is a finite resource that is draining away. As a result, we try to do as much as we can in a very short time period. Our minds are filled with constant distraction, thus limiting opportunities for self-reflection to ask oneself “Am I well or am I happy?” (1).

We’d like to believe that we have been a good friend, partner, or child at various points in our life. However, upon remembering that significant person in your life, do you know or have you ever asked what were the moments when they were the happiest? The times when they were crying from tears of joys to the time when they felt the most accomplished? Surprisingly for many, we are unaware of these stories that ultimately define whom that individual has become today. We mindlessly pass every day without pondering about the conversations that we had or the connections that were made.  By simply being mindful of the questions that we pose, more specifically “questions that people have been waiting for their wholes lives to asked … because everybody in their lives is waiting for people to ask them questions, so they can be truthful about who they are and how they become what they are,” as beautifully said by Marc Pacher (2).

So what is the action plan?

1.Invite people to tell stories rather than giving answers. Instead of “How are you” substitute

  • What’s the most interesting thing that happened today?
  • What was the best part of your weekend?
  • What are you looking forward to this week? (3).

2. Enter a conversation with the willingness to learn something new

  • Celeste Headlee in her TED Talk 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation describes how she frequently talks to people whom she doesn’t like, and with people whom she deeply disagrees yet is still able to have engaging and great conversations. She is able to do this as she is always prepared to be amazed and she seeks more to understand rather than to listen and state her own opinion and thoughts.

3. Lastly “being cognizant of [your] impact is already the first step toward change. It really does start at the individual level” my friend once said (5).

  • Brene Brown in her Power of Vulnerability talk said, “Many pretend like what we’re doing doesn’t have a huge impact on other people”. But we’d be surprise of what we are capable of when you allow yourself to be vulnerable as this “can be the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging of love… the willingness to say, “I love you” the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees” (6).

That being said, you don’t have to be the most intellectual or outspoken person in the room, but what is key is the willingness to be open and the questions that are posed. There are many simple things that can be easily integrate into our daily lives, by being more mindful of the question that we ask to ultimately have a more memorable and enriching conversation. In the end it is to have better connections, new understanding and awareness to savor the moment.

At CTE, Microteaching Sessions are offered where you can choose from various topics to conduct an interactive teaching lesson. For my first topic I will be talking about the importance of communication. All participants will not only be giving feedback but will receive constructive feedback and ways to improve from knowledgeable facilitators. It’s a safe environment where you have the chance to present to fellow graduate students from various departments. Many have found these sessions beneficial as you are working on skills relevant to work, field of study or for your own personal growth. I am excited and nervous for this opportunity to talk about something I am passionate about and I hope I can successfully engage others and deliver the content well. In order to help participants formulate an effective teaching plan, the Centre for Teaching Excellence website has provided many resources such as well written guidelines, lesson plans outlines, and facilitators review the lesson before you present.

As a follow-up post, I had the chance to facilitate an hour session for an AIESEC conference for participants from various universities such as Toronto, Waterloo, Laurier, and York, that recently returned from their international exchanges. There were lots of discussion so thank you to the Graduate Instructor Developers, Charis Enns and Dave Guyadeen, and Instructional developer, Stephanie White for their great feedback and helping me make this session more successful!