Princeton University instructors say MCCC students were favorite part of fall teaching assignment
By Wendy Humphrey
Princeton University (PU) doctoral students used glowing terms to describe their experience as adjunct faculty members at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) this fall. After a mentorship semester last spring, five PU doctoral students embraced the teaching challenge: Carolyn Watts (Music), Kyle Oskvig (History), Alexandra Werth (Physics), Elliot Taffet (Chemistry), and Hollis Shaul (Engineering).
Watts taught Introduction to Music (MUS 103), a curriculum spanning from the Middle Ages through the 20th Century. “Obviously, we were only able to cover a sliver of the music, but it’s enough for the students to get a sense of the trajectory of western classical music,” she said. “Ultimately, I wanted them to gain listening skills and a vocabulary that they can apply to all types of music. If the student adds some classical selections to their playlists, even better.”
Watts employed a variety of strategies to engage students. While teaching elements of music – melody, harmony, rhythm, and meter – she pulled from both classical and popular music. “It helped bridge the gap between the two,” she said.
Watts especially enjoyed putting the students in the composer’s shoes by asking them hypothetical questions such as how an orchestra might represent emotions or nature sounds. “These conversations allowed students to think about music without there being any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers,” she said.
She also gave them a chance to do a little teaching. “During one class, students who play instruments brought them to class. Students also gave short presentations on music that they are ‘experts’ in,” Watts said.
Watts clearly appreciated the opportunity to teach her own class. “Helping students gain a better understanding of music and seeing them enjoy the music I showed them was truly gratifying. I am grateful for the Princeton-MCCC partnership,” she said.
The feeling appeared to be mutual. Student Esther Morales said that previously she had not been especially drawn to music. “Professor Watts made the class interesting. I am much more open to listening to music now.” Noah Reyes added that Watts was among his favorite teachers. “She went over things until we truly understood them. And she was always available after class.”
Music also found its way into History instructor Kyle Oskvig’s Western Civilization to 1648 (HIS 101) course. Prior to the start of each class, Oskvig played music from his personal playlist of “walk-in music.” “I chose upbeat tracks that were in some way relevant to that day’s discussion,” he explained. So, for Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America, his selection was Iron Maiden’s Brave New World;for early Christianity, students heard Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky; and for the Roman Empire, Shakira’s She Wolf greeted them as they entered the classroom.
With course content spanning 5,000 years from Ancient Greece and Rome to the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, Oskvig cited the course’s breadth as his biggest, but most stimulating, challenge. “One week Caesar conquered Gaul, the next week Islam rose from the Arabian desert, and the next week Vikings sailed to Iceland. Covering such a great variety of interesting material in a single semester was exhilarating,” he said.
Oskvig noted that his goal was to bring every student to a general understanding of the scope of western history over that period, including its geographic backdrop using maps and timelines, as well as the people behind them.
“Studying history is not very useful or interesting without the human side,” Oskvig said. “Who were these people, and why did they do and believe such things? So we spent most of our class sessions discussing primary texts written by the people who lived the history.”
Student Gabe Winzinger observed that Oskvig’s enthusiasm for his subject matter was contagious. “His teaching was comprehensive and he was very excited about everything we did,” Winzinger said. “He was always happy to talk with students and gladly offered assistance on essays and presentations.”
Once enrolled at a community college himself, Oskvig said he felt right at home at Mercer. “I had high expectations for my students and found it very rewarding as they took their reading and writing to another level. We also had some great conversations. Instead of me simply telling them what to believe, we arrived at conclusions together, through a Socratic method of question and answer. They were genuinely interested in history, and in how we can learn from it and live better today. I also brought them candy on Halloween and baked them cookies, which didn’t hurt,” he said with a smile.
Instructor Alexandra Werth, who will complete her doctorate in Electrical Engineering, taught Physics (PHY 101). After observing MCCC Physics Professor Dr. Jingrong Huang last spring, Werth felt well prepared for her assignment.
“My task was to cover core material while also giving students enough space to become curious, motivated, and confident, skills that will enable their success as scientists beyond the university setting,” she said.
Werth notes that physics is a challenging subject because so much prior knowledge is needed. “The teacher must not only teach the curriculum, but also math, critical reading, and the scientific method – all in a way that ties everything together. Patience is required to methodically dissect multipart problems,” she said.
Werth’s favorite part of teaching was the students. “They were absolutely wonderful and inspiring. All of them have had so many paths and experiences. And they all showed an enthusiasm and dedication for learning. I think one of their favorite subjects was learning about capacitors because it was the first time that we really linked what we were learning in electrostatics with Gauss' Law to a basic circuit element.”
Werth found that giving weekly 20-minute quizzes enabled her to make sure students were absorbing the material. She recalled the week she covered Gauss' law. “The entire class performed much lower than I expected on this quiz. After reviewing their work, I saw that many of the students struggled with the concept of enclosed charge. I knew I had to spend more time on this subject and teach it in a different way.”
During the next class, Werth got students on their feet to illustrate the concept. “I had them stand in a circle as if they were the Gaussian surface and the floor tiles represented the electrons. As the circle got smaller, fewer electrons were enclosed and, as the circle got bigger, more electrons were enclosed. After that lecture, I gave the students a second quiz on Gauss' law. They all did very well. That was a learning experience for all of us.”
The Princeton-MCCC partnership began in the Spring of 2017. Since then, seven Princeton doctoral students have taught at Mercer. According to Amy Pszczolkowski, Assistant Dean for Professional Development at the Graduate School at Princeton, the program has been a great success. “There are so many benefits to the program – to Mercer students who are learning from enthusiastic graduate students immersed in their fields, and to the grad students themselves, whose teaching experience is enhanced as they enter a very competitive academic job market,” she said.
Another cohort of PU graduate students will begin their mentorship semester at the end of January in preparation for teaching in Fall 2019.