Prize honors grad teachers

Six current and former graduate students were honored at a banquet Wednesday night for their excellence in teaching during the 2010-’11 academic year.

This year’s winners of the Prize Teaching Fellowship — who teach in the departments of History, Math, Film Studies and Germanic Languages & Literatures — said the award motivates them to further improve their teaching and provides a rare recognition for the work of graduate student teachers. While some recipients said the prize, which includes a $3,000 stipend, could provide a boost in their careers and lead to more opportunities to design their own courses at Yale, others said it is largely symbolic.

“I’m grateful the fellowship exists if only because it draws attention what graduate students do,” said Samuel Schaffer GRD ’10, a Prize Teaching Fellow who taught a junior history seminar as a graduate student last fall and is now a postdoctoral student in the History Department. “It’s very hard to be a graduate student teacher, just because of the middle ground status [between teacher and student] you have as a graduate student.”

In addition to $3,000, Prize Teaching Fellows may receive priority for teaching an independent course in the future, said Judith Hackman, who coordinates graduate student teachers as director of the Teaching Fellow Program at the Graduate School.

Jan Claas Van Treeck GRD ’14, who studies German literature and is one of this year’s Prize winners, said the award provides tangible future teaching and career benefits. After teaching L1 and L2 German last year, Van Treeck said he will be able to teach his own course on German expressionism in spring 2012 — the type of opportunity all five graduate students interviewed said is highly sought after but difficult to attain.

“It will be a course of my own design and it won’t be a language course; it will be a literature course,” Van Treeck said. “In the entire university it is pretty hard to teach a literature course as a grad student; usually you TA [for someone else’s class].”

He added that he also expects the fellowship to help him when applying for jobs in the future.

But benefits of the prize were less clear to other recipients. Rishi Raj GRD ’12 and Joseph Lauer GRD ’12 both won Prize Teaching Fellowships this year for teaching Math 120 last fall, but Raj said recognition for good teaching will not help him in his career as a mathematician. Instead, he said, he sees the award as simply a personal encouragement to work hard at teaching.

“In mathematics there is not really much of a professional reward if you are a good teacher,” he said. “In most of the top-tier colleges, all people care about is your research.”

Jeremi Szaniawski GRD ’12, a Prize Teaching Fellow this year from the Film Studies Department, said the award will not affect his teaching goals as he intends to focus on filmmaking after graduation. However, he said it could be a “very strong” asset if he were to decide to return to academia.

The Prize Teaching Fellowship, which began in 1981, exists both to encourage good teaching by graduate students and to reward excellence in teaching, Hackman said. Each year, graduate students who serve as teaching fellows or teach their own course are eligible for the fellowship. Candidates for the prize must be nominated by students in their class and then supported by a letter of recommendation from faculty in their departments.

This year’s winners were Schaffer, Van Treeck, Raj, Lauer, Szaniawski and Jennifer Lambe GRD ’14.