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 May 2023, we are featuring Arya Gupta, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. In his feature, Arya shares how understanding and respecting the life situations of his students allows him to respond effectively and help his students thrive.
What does it mean for you to be an educator at a university?
There is a structure at every grade level as to what and when to teach, which becomes increasingly comprehensive as students advance to the next level. Teaching the youngest generation, for example at a primary school, as I understand it, is the most involving of all teaching lifestyles. Here, an educator teaches basic skills to humans who do not yet have basic knowledge about most things. At a university, on the other hand, an educator can partially rely on the commitment and knowledge base of the students. However, at this level, an educator must consider other circumstances aside from knowledge transmission that can impact the education of students. These include scenarios which do not involve academics yet equally impact their education.
At a university, there are students with diverse life situations and experiences which significantly impact their priorities and thus their education. A married student, for example, has different priorities, than a single student or a differently abled student. Similarly, students may have (and this impacts their priorities) different identities, mental health statuses, monetary statuses, and other life conditions. At a university, such circumstances affect their education far more than their intelligence. An educator, along with having good pedagogical skills and subject knowledge, should be able to respond to such scenarios.
At Michigan State University, we get students – young adults – who come from all walks of life, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and permanent residencies. At times, we must be ready for an unannounced situation to appear in the life of a student which might lead to a change of priorities or even lead to mental health challenges. A university educator must be very thoughtful about how to respond to students in these situations: whether to extend the deadline, redirect them to adequate resources, bonus points, or a combination of these. These decisions are unequivocally challenging, because, on one hand, we want the best well-being for our students, but on the other hand, we do not want to fail as a university in providing excellent education to our students.
For me, being an educator at a university is the most beautiful lifestyle. I research – that is part of my job too, and I teach. Research helps me to find new and interesting results that are very exciting to discuss while I teach and act as very good examples of theories being discussed, and teaching makes me – extraordinarily – reflect on my research. I meet brilliant students whom I am fortunate to be able to mentor. Having a non-academic discussion with them is equally interesting. It is always enlightening to learn how the students have been managing themselves personally on their end. Many of my students simply make me a better teacher every day.
What are some challenges you have experienced and how have you grown from these?
I understand that a student always tries to judge and test his instructor initially. I also understand that the students and instructor soon resonate when the students realize that we are totally capable of helping them achieve what they expect from themselves, and in turn, are capable to render what they expect from us.
People who work make mistakes. It is a life-long process: doing our job, making mistakes, owning them and improving as we go along. It happened when we used to fall while learning how to walk or while sleeping at two years of age. It will happen when we walk and fall at 80, and every day in between. It is a troublesome lifestyle, and only a few people seem to acknowledge this. But MSU has people present at positions so that so that they can directly and do positively impact the life of a Grad TA.
What value do you see in Teaching Professional Development?
For every person, everyone else knows something that they do not. Hence, Teaching Professional Development (TPD) can be very enriching. It does not mean that one follows everything that an arbitrary TPD symposium opines; it is only wise to take what is resonating and not to take what is not. Nonetheless, we get some idea of what other colleagues are getting as an audience and what possible measures they are taking. This may affect the decisions that we take in the future, if not immediately.
Apart from this, we certainly get to meet other people in TPD symposiums who are like-minded and are willing to work on improving their method of designing courses for the development of their students.
For example, I participate in Lunch and Learn meetings organized by the Graduate School. Designing syllabi, writing a DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) statement, and general wellness are some of the subjects that are discussed in these meetings. I always find them insightful. I am not appointed as an instructor yet, but, for example, the workshop on designing a syllabus/course will surely be helpful if (and when) I become an instructor; all the details that should be present in a syllabus were discussed in that workshop. Otherwise, I would miss a lot of details easily which would leave my students confused.
Another example that I would like to discuss is the FAST Fellowship program. In the project that I am working on, I get help from the steering committee and the other fellows. Similar workshops are organized for the FAST Fellows. For example, a recent workshop involved discussion with past FAST fellows with whom we discussed some topics related to life after graduation (job market and employed life, etc.) that we had questions about. Working on my FAST project enlightened me about certain intricacies of pedagogical research that I would not be aware of if I had not been participating in this program.
What is one piece of advice you would give other graduate educators?
It is not our job, as educators, to solve the problems of our students, but it is our job to enable them to solve problems. Otherwise, we take away opportunities from our students to deal with challenges, solve problems, and thus develop their skills and temperament. This might be disappointing to a student; this is a testing, albeit important practice for an educator.
Apart from this, there are things I am still working on, which are as follows. It is important to take good care of and be kind to oneself. As humans, we need to strive to become a better self every day. It is okay not to invent revolution and discover breakthroughs every day; patience and perseverance imply wisdom.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
Imagination is my hobby: I like to stay with problems. However, this tendency can easily get extended to life scenarios other than mathematical problems and lead to overthinking (and this can lead to anxiety and depression!).
There are a couple of things that I like to do in my free time. I have recently started reading books other than those from my area of teaching and research. I find it relaxing, and concurrently enlightening. Recently, I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, suggested to me by a colleague. I am inescapably fond of this book.
I like listening to and watching plants, animals, birds, wind – under the sun and under the moon; I prefer not to have many humans around, because only then is the rest of flora and fauna is the most active. You can also find me near the Red Cedar on MSU feeding my squirrels and birds. They are not exactly mine, they live on campus, but we seem to have made one-on-one acquaintance.