Educator of the Month, April 2024: Katherine Knowles

Michigan State University is fortunate to have passionate educators who are committed to enhancing the experience of their students and who help to provide the best education possible.

The Graduate School is featuring some of these educators – graduate and postdoc educators – every month to share their unique stories and perspectives on what it means to be a dedicated educator, how they’ve overcome educational challenges, and the ways they have grown through their experiences.

For April 2024, we are featuring Katherine Knowles, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English. In her writeup, Katherine shares that failure is not something to be afraid of and how it makes her a better educator.

What does it mean to be an educator at a university?

To be an educator at university, particularly as a graduate student, ultimately means being open to change. Flexibility and adaptability are the most important traits I’ve developed over my time as a teaching assistant at MSU. I have taught a variety of different courses, ranging from large humanities lecture courses that fulfill university general education requirements, to smaller, seminar-sized English courses.

Regardless of the size of the class, I strive to find ways to dismantle hierarchies in the classroom and create space for students to set their own terms and goals. The semester may start with a set plan, but there needs to be space to adjust the course. It is possible to uphold your values as an educator while understanding that not every activity, assignment, or reading works for every student and that you may need to switch paths for your students to help them achieve learning goals.

A big part of this is meeting students where they are. At any university, but especially one the size of MSU, educators interact with a diverse group of students who have had a variety of different life and educational experiences. In any given class, my students might come from rural or urban hometowns and various socioeconomic backgrounds. They may come from any number of countries or be the first in their family to attend college.

Even in the largest of classroom settings, it is my responsibility as an educator to work with my students to create a learning environment that best serves their needs and provides a safe space for them to cultivate their intellectual growth. Some of the most generative moments in the classroom come from creating opportunities to experiment and play by adapting to student interests and strengths.

What challenges have you experienced and how have you grown from them?  Katherine Knowles in a red shirt against a brick background.

Being an educator is inherently challenging. Although we’d like to think that when we are in the classroom the outside world gets left at the door, this is never the case. In addition to feeling the pressures of striving for academic success, our students are dealing with complex family and work lives that are going to inevitably influence how they approach their undergraduate work. I have grown to better understand that while the classes I teach are not necessarily unimportant, there are always going to be other things in my students’ lives that are more important to them. They may need to prioritize their work or their caregiving responsibilities.

Ultimately, better understanding the challenges my students face has enabled me to view them not as challenges toward my success as an instructor, but as opportunities to improve and expand my pedagogical skillset. While it is important to keep boundaries with students, there is nothing wrong with recognizing them as complex, well-rounded individuals who have individual needs. Keeping channels of communication open and actively cultivating an environment where students feel comfortable approaching you can cut down on many of the challenges one might face as an educator.

Of course, as I started teaching at MSU in Fall 2019, I have encountered a number of challenges that are not unique to me but are unique to our time. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a quick and unprecedented emergency shift to online courses in Spring 2020, and many educators also had to act as learners in order to develop effective online courses for future semesters.

After the violence that took place on campus in Spring 2023, educators had to process their own trauma while simultaneously deploying a trauma-informed pedagogy to help our students. Educators and students alike have been incredibly resilient over the last few years at MSU and, although I wish they didn’t have to be, I will continue to foster meaningful learning environments that can adapt to real-world situations, unprecedented, traumatic, and otherwise.

What value do you see in Teaching Professional Development?  

For many graduate student instructors, we never get any formal education in pedagogy. Although there are courses that focus on pedagogy, I have to go outside of my field and degree program to take them. Yet, a part of many funding packages requires a certain amount of teaching. As such, we often have to seek out opportunities to further improve our pedagogical practice and begin to develop our own system of values as educators.

Fortunately, opportunities to engage with teaching professional development are available. I have attended the beginning of the year TA training offered by the graduate school several times, and I have enrolled in the Certification in College Teaching, which has made me aware of a variety of workshops and talks across campus as well as connected me with my current fellowship with the Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation here on campus. Since I primarily teach students outside of my field, these events have given me the opportunity to develop a pedagogy that is aware of the diversity of both my students and their fields of study, and how I can best serve their needs—rather than defaulting to what may be expected in the more “traditional” English literature classroom.

I also strongly encourage educators to attend conferences related to teaching or find the panel at your national conference that discusses pedagogy. Even if your department is great at helping instructors develop their pedagogy, it is incredibly valuable to learn how educators in different university contexts are approaching the same material. There is always more to learn when it comes to pedagogy, and your development as an educator never ends.

What is one piece of advice you would give other graduate educators?  

Embrace failure and do not be afraid if you don’t know the answer. As a teaching assistant, you might find yourself teaching a class that is not in your subject area, and that’s okay. There are going to be times when you do not know the answer, or where an activity you have planned just doesn’t work out in the way you’ve hoped. Sometimes it may be as simple as technological failure, but as you spend more time in the classroom, the more chances there are for things to go wrong—and they will. But, in a way, that can be incredibly freeing. What is important is how you react to these moments where things don’t go the way you were expecting them to. In doing so, you can model behavior to your students to help them learn how to react positively and constructively when things do not go as planned.

For example, I provide multiple options to complete assignments, allowing students to experiment with different ways to express their arguments, be it via the more traditional essay, or via innovative digital tools and methods. Recently, for example, students in my IAH 206 course submitted artifacts such as websites, multimedia posters, and even podcasts to fulfill their final assignment and meet critical thinking, analysis, and communication goals. This flexibility, while allowing for more hands-on and tailored experiential learning, often includes moments of failure, as experimenting with new methods can add an additional learning curve on top of mastering course content.

To provide an inclusive learning environment that meets students at their own individual levels of technological competency, I build in space for moments in which “failure” is reframed as a learning opportunity. If things don’t go as planned, that doesn’t mean an automatic failure in terms of the grade scale. Rather, it provides the opportunity for me and my students to think through what went wrong—but also what went well, and how to move forward with resilience and with vital earned experience. Failure, I have learned, often provides much more rich engagement with ideas, and allows students opportunities to adjust, adapt to, and augment their approach to work within and without the classroom.

What do you enjoy in your free time? 

In my free time, I really enjoy reading books outside of my field of study and going on walks with my dog. As an educator, researcher, and student, I need to make an active effort in creating work-life balance.