Geared for the Year

Spring 2018
Photos by Alexandra Del Rosario and Amy Dixon, Illustrations by Nicole Anisgard Parra and Juliette Le Saint

Whether they spent the low-pressure days of summer vacation writing self-help books, mastering energy healing or hiking through Utah’s national parks, UCLA’s professors and TAs managed to recover from the previous academic year.

But as fall quarter quickly approaches, instructors have used the last days of the summer to reflect, restructure and re-evaluate their courses and missions as educators. Emphasizing their own focus on diversity, personal growth and more, the following instructors have the UCLA student body at the center of their upcoming school year.



courtesy of Ken Scott Photography
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Professor David Shorter’s course, World Arts and Culture 51W: “Aliens, Psychics, and Ghosts,” garners a waitlist of nearly 100 students in addition to another 100 already enrolled.

In the fall, the Worlds Arts and Culture professor will return to teaching the Writing II class, which explores the borderlands of reality and the paranormal. By analyzing how students responded to material over the past few years, Shorter used feedback to revise the course over the summer so that it includes a more well-rounded array of perspectives.

“This is going to be an exciting fall for me, because even though I’m teaching courses I’ve taught before, I’m teaching new material and I’m teaching it in a way I haven’t taught before,” he said.

To remaster his class, Shorter took into account feedback from previous students who encouraged him to increase the diversity of voices in his assignments and required readings – this year’s class will include more texts written by female authors and writers of color. In previous iterations of the course, Shorter said, it was difficult to diversify reading material, as most of the available literature on the paranormal was authored by white men.

Adding new material to the course won’t just be a chance for Shorter and his students to delve into brand new topics. Additionally, asking novel questions allows him to see how his six teaching assistants approach teaching and analyzing text as graduate students, he said. This will allow Shorter to give his TAs a helping hand in better understanding how a professor might approach teaching, he explained.

“It’s a lot of work (to be a TA) but in a class like ‘Aliens, Psychics, and Ghosts,’ I always hear from TAs that they’re happy to be part of that class because if they’re going to learn something new, it might as well be something kind of fun and interesting.”

Returning to UCLA after being away on a sabbatical since spring, Shorter said that although he experiences a similar kind of anxiety that he did in high school and as an undergraduate student, the back-to-school season excites him. The new year is an opportunity to learn new things and to discuss our social and political climate, he said.

“I think in the last five to six months, we’ve seen a level of discourse in the nation that makes it all the more important to question experts and what is truth and what is fake news,” he said.

Shorter’s past research on healing, ritualism and religion led him to question how society defines reality and truth. He especially looks forward to discussing these questions with students while considering perspectives from around the world, as he explained that these concepts concern all cultures.

“In what other profession are you surrounding yourself with people who want to learn how to open their minds more?” Shorter asked. “I think it’s the best job in the world I can’t imagine having a better job.”


Amy Dixon
/ daily bruin
Life science professor Jay Phelan often consults the work of presenting experts like Jimmy Fallon to evolve in his role as an educator at UCLA and perfect his own lectures.

In classes with close to 400 students, Phelan explained that mastering delivery is crucial, as he wants to effectively inform as many students as he can about the importance of biology. A specialist in evolutionary genetics and aging, he spent his summer analyzing the impact of his teaching style by compiling documents that summarize student performance on past exams and responses from over 200 clicker questions.

“I’m maniacal about productivity. … It takes a while to get (classes) working really well, so I like to have a really detailed analysis of what worked and of what could be improved,” he said. “My model for getting better at teaching is to find the little ways that can improve me from where I was previously.”

Helping students become excited about learning takes a substantial amount of planning and re-evaluation, Phelan explained. In the fall, he will teach Life Science 15: “Life: Concepts of Life”, a general education class for nonscience majors that emphasizes the fundamentals of biology.

It is common for students in Phelan’s class to not consider themselves “science people,” he said. One of his goals is to help these students feel more confident in their abilities as scientific thinkers by showing them that many of their individual curiosities are based in science. These students, he said, are often already invested in science, inquiring into their own everyday lives on topics like sleep, exercise, nutrition and the effect of caffeine on the body.

“I only want to study things or talk about things if they tell you something about your life and help you to make it better,” he said. “If there's not anything in class that my students aren't going to want ... (to) tell their roommate about, then I've probably failed.”

Beyond working on his own self-improvement, Phelan said he used his summer to set his teaching assistants up for success. Reviewing notes, Phelan prepared road maps to guide his assistants in organizing their sections, encouraging them to incorporate relevant scientific news articles into their teaching. He said he has high expectations for his TAs, who have to master material better than the best students in his classes, while trying to become good teachers themselves, sometimes for the very first time.

“I saw that most of the real deep knowledge I got about biology came when I was a TA,” he said. “Before the quarter starts, I meet with all of them and talk about a million things: about why the class is important, our responsibilities and how we administer it.”

When he returns to his classes, Phelan said he wants his students to understand the importance of engaging with science in the real world. This is crucial, he said, as students will go on to become parents, consumers and voters.

“There’s huge power and responsibility to shape how people view their relationship between themselves and science, especially in classes of nearly 400 students,” Phelan said. “My goal as a teacher is to influence the most people in a positive way.”

Teaching Assistants


Alexandra Del Rosario
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Drug-delivering nanovolcanoes and gold nanoparticles aren’t the only projects that Gail Vinnacombe has worked on this summer.

Aside from continuing her graduate research in molecule-scale treatment methods as part of the Paul S. Weiss research group, the materials chemistry PhD student has been preparing to return to work as a teaching assistant for the Chemistry 14 and Chemistry 20 series in the fall. To teach these introductory chemistry classes for life and physical science majors, Vinnacombe has been developing a class plan that will impart her enthusiasm for research and creativity in science on her incoming students.

“We want students to find where they fit in and what they like to study, and we want them to pursue it,” she said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

In her past two years as a TA, Vinnacombe has taught two kinds of sections: labs and discussions. In labs, students typically conduct experiments that are prepared by their professors in advance. Sometimes, graduate students get to help develop new procedures, which are often based on their own research. Discussion sections, on the other hand, call for a different kind of work on behalf of the TAs.

Orchestrating discussion sections has allowed Vinnacombe to develop her own teaching style, which is informed by the topics she reviews before classes start, she said. In particular, Vinnacombe enjoys using application-based teaching to help her students connect material from the classroom to their real lives. For example, Vinnacombe said she likes to use an example of a sunburn to explain the electromagnetic spectrum and to demonstrate how the energy of light interacts with molecules.

“When I’m a teaching assistant for my PI (principal investigator Paul Weiss), we try to do a lot of different little demos and things like that that people can relate what (they) learned to reality,” she explained.

As a graduate student studying chemistry and nanosystems, Vinnacombe’s laboratory work is essential to advancing her personal interests. She explained that with the new academic year around the corner, one of her main goals is to catch up on research and to get some of the projects she is working on to the point where she can share her work with the scientific community.

“I really love my work,” she explained. “I really love coming in day to day and just getting into lab, setting up my experiments. My particles are my babies.”

The work that Vinnacombe did in her research this summer translates into her teaching in the fall, as she said she wants to encourage her students to take advantage of research opportunities at UCLA. It can be difficult to be uncertain about one’s major and career options, she said. Still, students should learn how to explore new things, because everyone has different paths. Today an avid scientist, she said there was a time that even she didn’t know about research opportunities.

“When I was an undergrad ... I didn’t know you could do undergrad research,” Vinnacombe explained. Now, her work as a graduate student gives her an opportunity to pass on her passion for chemistry and research to undergraduate students.


Amy Dixon
/ daily bruin
Patrick Craven, a musicology graduate student, said he hopes to start his new year off on the right note by composing discussion sessions where students will make new discoveries.

This fall, the TA will return to teaching for “America in the Sixties,” one of the nine year-long courses offered to incoming undergraduates through the freshman UCLA Cluster Program. In preparing to create a meaningful classroom experience for students new to UCLA, Craven said he wants to spur culturally relevant discussions while enabling individual students to become better writers over the course of year.

“I try to teach my undergraduates in a way that I would have like to been taught, which is to say, in a way that challenges them intellectually without overwhelming them emotionally,” he said. “How do I teach specifically to ... something as simple or complex as their pop culture experiences?”

For Craven, being a teaching assistant is more than an added bonus from his graduate program. Craven, who has a masters in education, said teaching fulfills him because it allows him to help students maximize their potential as individuals. Craven added that for example, he assigns passages from Pierre Bourdieu’s “Distinction” because his students are often surprised to find the text’s social commentary relevant to their daily lives. In turn, they make meaningful discoveries that they can understand and apply through their own experiences, he said, as opposed to focusing on numerical, grade-based outcomes.

“I really appreciate watching the growth of individual students over the course of the three quarters that I have them as an instructor,” he said. “Seeing their observing as they synthesize many ideas at once, on their feet – It's a remarkable thing to watch.”

In addition to wanting his students to pursue their individual curiosities, Craven values doing the same for himself by working on his own studies. His passion for education and music is fuelled by the mentorship he has found in the musicology department at UCLA with instructors including Robert Fink, the vice chair of the department, he said. Beyond serving as academic role models, he said that his mentors each empower him to do the best work that he can and follow his passion for musicology.

“With respect to careers and one's passions, you can't really go wrong following what you think is the right thing to do,” Craven said.

Students should seek out mentorship, socialize with their peers, and engage with their interests fearlessly during their time as undergraduates, Craven said. He added that it may be easier to live life in fear, but he encourages students to immerse themselves in their learning and to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them so that they can recognize their full potential.

“While a lot of UCLA students have thrived on a kind of transactional learning where you put in time and then get the grade, I would worry less about grades and worry more about the kinds of learning that they're doing,” he said. “Your professors, instructors and TAs are on your team and want to help you succeed.”