Continuing the Tradition: Teaching Fellows Create a “Teaching Toolkit” for UW Sociology

Graduate students collaborating in a room while wearing masks. They are discussing some text on the whiteboard.

The UW sociology department has a long tradition of cultivating high quality teaching. We were among the first graduate programs in the country to offer a graduate seminar on Teaching Sociology, and several Sociology faculty and graduate students have been recognized with University-wide Distinguished Teaching Awards. Expanding on this tradition, Associate Chair Nathalie Williams and our new Curriculum Committee developed fresh learning goals for the Sociology major, and also launched a graduate student Teaching Fellows program. The inaugural cohort of Fellows, Lindsey Beach, Selen Güler, Christina Hughes, and Daniel Nolan were charged with curating resources for faculty and teaching assistants that would address both the mundane and creative aspects of teaching, also with publishing them for us in an easy-to-access electronic format. 

Associate Professor Sarah Quinn led the effort. Quinn was tailor made for this project. She has won numerous teaching awards and is immensely popular with students for her well-organized and imaginative classes. While still a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Quinn helped create a comprehensive and accessible Writing for Sociology guide for undergraduates that is still in use. Quinn recognized that creating a teaching-related collective would offer a valuable opportunity for graduate students eager to hone their own teaching skills and toolkit.

Starting from the premise that there are a lot of great things happening in our courses but that we could do a better job of sharing ideas and strategies, the Teaching Fellows began by interviewing Sociology faculty and instructors about what was working well in their classes, and what was burdensome or frustrating. Dominant themes included a desire for ideas for more engaging content, activities, and assignments, and a desire for a one-stop-shop for standard syllabus language, grade conversion tables, and information about university resources. The Fellows then collected examples of syllabi and successful activities and assignments from faculty in the department, and also reviewed hundreds of online resources searching for those ideas and assessments that seemed most likely to engage UW sociology students. 

Using these materials, the Fellows built a Canvas-based “Teaching Toolkit” that was rolled out for Sociology faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants late this summer. The philosophy behind the Toolkit is to blend best practices with concrete examples—many drawn from our own department—and to foreground our vision of how students will progress through the major. Pages in the toolkit cover topics like what to include in a syllabus, how to lead more meaningful discussions, how to scaffold a paper assignment, effective use of teaching technologies like Perusall and PackBack, the pros and cons of various approaches to grading, and how to ensure course content is accessible to all students. The Toolkit also includes various course website templates, sample module structures, and resource pages that instructors can directly import into their own course and then make their own. 

Especially with many new faculty members and two cohorts of graduate students teaching in person for the first time, the Teaching Toolkit has already made an impact. Magda Boutros, who is teaching Crime, Politics, and Justice for the first time this fall, said, “What was most helpful to me was learning about the objectives and goals of the sociology major, and how each course level is geared toward building specific skills. As a new faculty, I appreciated having this information at the outset and being able to design my courses in a way that aligns with the broader structure of the curriculum. I also particularly appreciate the "syllabi we love" section, and the Canvas course template.” Theresa Rocha Beardall observed that, “The ability to import a course template allowed me to fully focus my time and energy on creative course content rather than the technical logistics of setting up a Canvas page.”

Reflecting on her experience as a Teaching Fellow, Lindsey Beach said, “ While the department offers [...] support for teaching throughout our graduate school experience, the Teaching Fellows program allowed us to go a step further to think broadly about the important tenets of teaching sociology, the practical obstacles instructors face, and how all aspects of teaching impact students differently.”

While we developed the Teaching Toolkit to support instructors in the department, we are confident that this project will ultimately help our undergraduate students see more connections between courses in our curriculum, and better integrate the skills from each class throughout the major and beyond. As faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants consistently apply the same tools to their teaching, the connections between disparate courses, skills, and topics will be thrown into high relief by mutual reinforcement. We look forward to reaping benefits of better teaching and better learning as we continue to refine and expand the Toolkit in coming years.