Teaching Award Spotlight: Alexandra Cockerham from the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences

How do you approach teaching (do you have some guiding principles you can share or tell me about you decide to set up your classes)?

I have a number guiding principles for teaching and this orients my approach in the classroom. Regardless of whether students plan to conduct their own research, I encourage students to engage with the scientific part of social science. At the very least, I anticipate that my students will become better consumers of information. In the information age, students are confronted with people and sources that want to tell them how they should be thinking about something every day. However, I encourage all of my students, in every class I teach, to have humility, recognizing that there is always more to learn and to appreciate diversity of background, experience and opinion as a way to further our knowledge on any given topic. I hope students will leave my classroom more cognizant of the assumptions they make in their everyday lives and with the tools needed to reassess their validity.

 How did you come up with this approach (e.g., inspired by others, reading, trial and error, a combo)?

This approach to teaching is something that I have developed gradually throughout my time in academia. It begins with recognizing the most basic aspects of what I think a college education means for students. In my experience, students will forget many of the facts they are required to learn but the legacy of a new perspective towards learning will be more enduring. While I often present students with facts, it is usually in the context of why does this matter and what else should we be asking here. During my Ph.D. program in the FSU Political Science department, I was challenged daily to think like this by some of the best professors I have ever had and I look back on my time in graduate school as one of the most enriching periods of my life. I hope to inspire a portion of that in the courses I teach.

How do you evaluate whether or not students are learning/engaging with course material?

There are many different strategies that I utilize to ensure that students meet the course learning goals. In all my classes I require that all students read broadly and utilize many different sources of reading material on any given topic. Then in class embedded within my lecture, I conduct “thought experiments” where I will stop the class, create a scenario for students that requires them to think critically about a social situation and then apply a concept from class with a neighbor. We also watch clips of news sources and media commentators and then I conduct a class discussion where students practice identifying what analysis was used to describe the problem and whether any other information would have been helpful to know before formulating an opinion. We also examine media and academic sources on social issues and students will complete assignments that require them to synthesize where in the causal process of this larger social problem the source focuses on. While I want my students to have a deeper understanding of a given topic area, it is also my aim that all of these assignments encourage an appreciation for complexity and contextual thinking, recognizing that we are only able to grasp a snapshot of a problem when we look at a singular source of information.

What do you like best about teaching?

My favorite aspect of teaching is the growth I see from my students. I believe that I get to make the world a better place by encouraging my students to question their assumptions. As an interdisciplinary social scientist, I am passionate about teaching students to appreciate complexity and I am most fulfilled when I hear my students taking a step back and becoming a little more “grey” on issues. Nothing boils down to one right answer- there are many different metrics that we should be using to understand, analyze, and judge any social problem or public policy.  I love to hear “Dr. C changed the way I think”. I also hear “She is way too excited about this material.”, and that brings me joy too!

What is one piece of advice you would give a new teacher (e.g., a new FSU professor)?

I would encourage any new faculty member at FSU to explore growth opportunities available to them, including collaborating with colleagues and utilizing FSU’s resources. There are many resources for faculty that have helped me on my journey such as the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, the Office of Distance Learning, and the Diversity and Inclusion workshop series.

Alexandra G. Cockerham is an Assistant Teaching Professor and the resident political scientist in the Interdisciplinary Social Science program at Florida State University. Her research interests center on executive power, with an eye toward the limitations that institutions impose on directly elected executives.

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