Teamwork, Teaching, and Two Cultures: Designing a French-Italian Cultural Course

October 16, 2019
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left to right: Doris Yuen, Esther Souman, and Zach Vanderploeg
October 16, 2019

By Doris Yuen, Zach Vanderploeg, and Esther Souman

Doris Yuen, Zach Vanderploeg, and Esther Souman all worked as research assistants on Dr. Vlad Vintila’s Teaching and Learning Development Grant project, Exploring Approaches to the Development and Delivery of English-taught Courses on Franco-Italian Culture (G0267). This project focused on designing and implementing a sequence of team-taught courses on Franco-Italian cultural perspectives via feedback from students and faculty. Each share their unique experiences as research assistants how this experience has made an impact.

Read more about Doris Yuen's RA experience >>
Read more about Zach Vanderploeg's RA experience >>
Read more about Esther Souman's RA experience >>

Doris Yuen

Doris Yuen graduated from SFU with a major in Criminology and a minor in French. In this project Doris’ main role was searching for similar course offerings in other Canadian universities. She also designed the survey questions and created the online poll with the help of the ISTLD team.

What did you learn working as a research assistant on this project?

DY: In addition to team work skills, I learned and practiced research techniques. For example, I learned how to phrase and organize survey questions to receive more accurate data.

What did you find challenging?

DY: My main task was to search for similar course offerings and its relevant information. While many courses on Francophone and Italian culture exist, the two are often studied separately. Thus, I found data collection to be the most challenging.

What was the most valuable about your experience?

DY: As part of my major in Criminology, I was required to take several courses on qualitative and quantitative research methods. However, my research never involved any live participants. Therefore, I found the trust, the support, and the overall experience to be the most valuable.

How was the experience of conducting research outside of your own discipline?

DY: I completed a major in Criminology and a minor in the French language. While they are quite different content wise, I enjoyed being able to apply the research skills I learned from Criminology to this project.

Zach Vanderploeg

Zach Vanderploeg recently graduated from SFU with a joint major in History and the Humanities. For this project Zach often worked as a note-taker and report-writer, but also filled various roles as needed when the team prepared for and conducted focus groups, interviews, and presentations.

What did you learn working as a research assistant on this project?

ZV: This project offered the opportunity to work together closely with faculty and fellow students, gather and synthesize data from focus groups and interviews, and share information clearly in meetings and presentations. Suffice to say, I’ve learned a great deal about how to collate and communicate information gathered from and intended for a variety of groups and individuals. The ISTLD gives a platform to cultivate these skills by encouraging one to look outside their own field to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines. Not only will these skills transfer well into any profession, but I’ve also grown personally to better value the feedback and perspectives of those around me.    

What did you find challenging?

ZV: When I joined this project I was entering my fourth year of studies as an undergraduate student, and I had never before conducted research. Although I enjoy engaging with students and instructors in a classroom setting, I was unsure of how to transition from a role where I interacted with students as a peer to one where I dealt with them as a researcher. When we began working directly with students, however, I soon realized that my position as a student allowed me to better understand and meaningfully engage with other students in order to hear, process, and synthesize their feedback. Being a student helped, rather than hindered, my work on this project.

What was the most valuable about your experience?

ZV: The most valuable part of this experience has been the passion and interest in improving the educational experience at SFU that I’ve seen in each group involved. Students enthusiastically gave feedback on the project, even when it might not directly impact them, faculty unconnected to the project gave time for interviews and in-class presentations, and our research team has worked hard to collect and mine our data for relevant conclusions. I enjoyed seeing different layers of the SFU community come together to work on this project for the purpose of enhancing and promoting education and pedagogy.

How was the experience of conducting research outside of your own discipline?

ZV: As a history student, I at first felt out of place in a project dealing with French and Italian. I had expectations that the disciplines might value different aspects of pedagogy, and had related concerns that I might not have the proper tools to contribute to this project. Throughout the course of our work, however, I came to realize from students and faculty that the departments of history, French, and Italian approach learning in a similar manner, but from different angles. Each discipline includes the study of a distinct group or location, accessed through the media of language or historical events, and uncovers the ways in which a community operates. As such, I’ve become more aware that interdisciplinary collaboration can enhance the scholarship of each field, and by extension, illuminate the world we live in.

Esther Souman

Esther Souman is a History MA student at SFU, preparing for a PhD. In this project Esther was the coordinating research assistant and the liaison between faculty members and the other research assistants . Esther has worked as a research assistant on several ISTLD-funded projects, and is thrilled about the ISTLD’s aims and the work that they do.

What did you learn working as a research assistant on this project?

ES: I learned how much fun data-gathering can actually be, when there is a good balance between creativity and structure. Working with faculty was also a skill that I had a chance to develop through this project. Beyond that, I learned practical skills, such as designing surveys and running focus groups—and, ultimately, I was inspired to start learning Italian!

What did you find challenging?

I really enjoyed this project. It ran smoothly, and everyone got along and pulled their weight. To answer the question, though, I guess my greatest challenge has been to work all of my hours, since we worked so well and so efficiently.

What was the most valuable about your experience?

ES: Learning about course design was very valuable to me, and I realized that this is the kind of thing I would like to do more of in my academic career. Seeing what goes on behind the scenes, and thinking about what students find valuable in courses, were eye-opening experiences. I also learned how valuable successful cooperation and accountability are. Everyone was contributing and thinking along, whether creatively or practically. Cooperation and communication—among the faculty and among fellow RAs—were crucial elements of this project.

How was the experience of conducting research outside of your own discipline?

ES: I thought it was really cool. Now that I think of it, it took learning a language (German) to lead me into a specific direction in History (early modern Germany); and now, after having spent all this time in Italian studies, my PhD plan includes Italian topics—coincidence? Interdisciplinarity is nothing new, historically, and it’s neat to see some of that revived when students and faculty from several departments are mixed together in this way.