April 20, 2010

SIUC honors two graduate teaching assistants

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- Two doctoral students have earned an annual award for top teaching assistants at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The University named Kylan Mattias De Vries as Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant and Christina E. Wells as Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant in University Core Curriculum. Their achievement is part of SIUC’s annual Excellence Through Commitment Awards, which highlights top achievers at the University.

SIUC Chancellor Samuel Goldman will host a dinner in the winners’ honor today (April 20), where he will present each with a certificate.

The University established the Excellence Through Commitment program in 2003. The awards recognize excellence in the performance of its faculty, civil service, administrative/professional, graduate student, and student employees.

De Vries earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in communication in 2000 at Antioch University Santa Barbara. He earned his Master of Arts degree in sociology in 2007 at SIUC and is currently working toward his doctorate in sociology.

De Vries teaches many courses dealing the sometimes difficult subject areas of race, ethnicity and gender and demonstrates a hallmark of excellent teaching by engaging a diverse array of students around discussion topics, said David DiLalla, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at SIUC. He also took on teaching duties in a challenging statistics course, viewed by many sociology majors as a “rite of passage.” He also had the unusual opportunity to develop a course -- Introduction to Diversity Studies -- as a graduate teaching assistant, DiLalla said.

“Mr. De Vries has shown that he excels at providing a classroom space where difficult concepts and topics can be explored in a respectful and honest manner,” DiLalla wrote in his nominating letter. “…We’re very proud to recommend Mr. De Vries for this award. He has developed a remarkable teaching record as a graduate student in sociology, and his efforts in the classroom have been much to the benefit of our undergraduate students.”

Robert Benford, professor and chair of the sociology department, called De Vries a master teacher with a remarkable knack for engaging his audience regardless of the subject matter.

“Whether in small classes or in large lecture halls, he refuses to stand behind the lectern and lecture at students,” Benford said. “Instead he circulates throughout the classroom, calling on students by name and stimulating thoughtful discussion.”

Benford said De Vries’ influence is felt outside the classroom as well, where he volunteers his time and energy in many ways including serving as vice president for the SIUC chapter of Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society. He also served as co-director of the sociology department’s Peer Mentoring Program, designed the department’s website and served on the GLBT Resource Center Advisory Board, among other activities.

“In short, Kylan’s boundless energy, easygoing personality and selfless commitment to

others offer students and colleagues a role model and extend sociological learning well beyond

the confines of classroom walls,” Benford said.

De Vries said he enjoys cooperative learning environments and encourages students to develop a “sociological imagination” along with gaining an understanding of sociological concepts and theories. Sociology, he said, applies to all students’ lives, whether or not they major in the subject.

“With continued globalization, students are increasingly likely to interact with a diverse group of individuals,” he said. “Learning why we are who we are and understanding different perspectives will improve students’ communication skills, which will benefit them in school, in the workplace or as they travel.”

Wells earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in speech communication in 2003 at the University of Texas at Arlington. She earned her Master of Arts degree in speech communication in 2006 at the University of North Texas and is currently a doctoral student in speech communication at SIUC.

Wells teaches Introduction to Speech Communication, a core University subject in high demand that helps students hone the basic communication skills they will need for success in untold numbers of fields. She also teaches a class on conducting interviews and serves as a graduate adviser to the SIUC chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America.

In surveys, students said they admired Wells’ energy and her “ability to create a classroom environment that was comfortable and open.” They also said they appreciated Wells’ efforts to ensure “the class understood the material before moving on” to the next concept.

John T. Warren, director of the speech communication department’s core curriculum, said Wells’ own studies are focused on communication teaching methods and concepts, which allows her to connect such pedagogical approaches to her practical experience in the classroom.

“As a professor of hers, I can attest to the effort she makes to connect education theory and criticism to the practices of engaging students, crafting policy and creating climates for more innovative and progressive learning,” Warren wrote in his nominating letter. “That her work as researcher directly corresponds with her teaching means that she is always pushing her understandings, her applications and her reflections on her pedagogical practice.”

Wells said teaching is a consistently rewarding experience that allows her to gain knowledge and insights of personal, professional and educational value.

“I perceive my roles as a discussion facilitator, rather than a lecturer,” Wells said. “…Students bring as much to the classroom as they take from it. Thus, I believe it is not enough to simply explain material to students, but I believe they must additionally develop critical thinking skills, which will help them gain a fuller grasp of the concepts when they apply them to varying contexts and frameworks in their lives, both in and out of the classroom.”

Wells says she tries to reach beyond the surface of what students are reading and hearing in lecture to demonstrate the multiple meanings in messages. Supporting such dialogue achieves several objectives, she said.

“At the most fundamental level, it encourages students to address topics themselves thereby creating a personal connection to the class,” she said. “Students additionally view the relevance and importance of materials more clearly when they make a personal connection.

“Finally, students learn to express themselves better, which is arguably one of the more critical components of higher education,” she said.

Christina E. Wells

Christina E. Wells
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