The Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight features interviews with graduate students and postdocs doing innovative teaching work at WashU. Look out for future installments of this monthly column on our website.
“I always try to make sure that I engage the students where they are and help find a way for their interests to come to the forefront,” said Tyler Gahrs, a graduate student in the Department of Germanic Language and Literatures with a graduate certificate in Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Tyler teaches introductory and second-level German courses at the university and also assists with film courses.
Tyler is actively involved in graduate student professional development at WashU. He is a member of the Teaching Center Graduate Student Advisory Council and the communications officer for the Graduate & Professional Student Advisory Council (GPAC) to the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
Tyler has a Bachelor’s degree in German Language and Literature from Oakland University, where he was president of the German Club and the winner of the 2015 German Translation Contest. He earned a Master’s degree in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Washington University in St. Louis, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. with a research focus on the role of language and translation in Holocaust film and literature.
In an interview with the Center for Teaching and Learning, Tyler discussed how meeting students where they are can facilitate learning. He also emphasized how finding a community of like-minded peers can enrich teaching and professional development in graduate school.
How did you become interested in German?
My dad’s family is originally from Germany. I took classes because I wanted to learn the language and have that connection. Then I became interested in teaching. As I tried to figure out what direction to go in teaching, I liked the environment and teachers I had in German class. I originally went to college to become a high school teacher, but I wanted to do more research and teach at the university level, which is what brought me to grad school.
Why did you decide to focus your research on the role of language and translation in Holocaust film and literature?
I think part of it was, teaching involves thinking about language and the role it plays in beginning and intermediate German classes. My graduate advisor, Erin McGlothlin (Chair of the Department of Germanic Language and Literatures and Associate Professor of German and Jewish studies) taught a whole graduate student seminar on representation in Holocaust film and literature my second or third year. That opened the door for my research. Language and translations are really powerful in Holocaust representations.
Tell me more about negotiating “unspeakability” and challenges of representation in literature and film. Do you present these themes in your teaching?
Yes and no. In a language course, we always deal with questions of language and what you can say. We don’t always bring up the Holocaust if it’s not pertinent to the course. But because the students encounter language boundaries, especially as their language skills grow, they’re always pushing the boundaries of what they can say. We touch on it tangentially.
What are your goals in the classroom?
I always try to make sure that I engage the students where they are and help find a way for their interests to come to the forefront. As students learn in German class, they want to talk about things they’re interested in. Meeting students where they are is something I try to do to engage their interests while they’re learning German and join the two so they’re complimentary and not separate.
What are some of the challenges of teaching, and how do you address them?
As a teacher, time management has always been something I’ve had to work with, both in terms of putting a lesson together and in terms of staying on top of the syllabus. One of the things that comes up when trying to solicit the students is sometimes a lesson gets pulled in a different direction. I learned to be flexible and creative because this issue has come up so often.
How have Center for Teaching and Learning programs or events enriched your teaching?
I think the thing that’s been the most impactful is getting perspectives and insight from other graduate students and peers in other departments and disciplines. The Teaching Center Graduate Student Advisory Council and EPIC program have been great because they allow me to discuss similar problems or questions with peers from electrical engineering, psychology, and biology who are teaching completely different subjects or in completely different ways but encounter similar situations in the classroom. Finding community there has been one of my favorite parts of graduate school.
What advice do you have for graduate students who are teaching or considering teaching?
The earlier you engage, the better. If you have questions, it’s never too early to take a workshop, learn more, and get involved. That community and the amount of resources you have will only grow as you stay involved. Regarding the Center for Teaching and Learning workshops and engagement, it’s one of those spaces where there’s no such thing as a dumb question. That’s not always the case in grad school. It’s a very welcoming and inclusive and rewarding experience and community.
What are you future teaching aspirations, and how do you plan to achieve them?
Teaching is something that brought me to grad school. I want to pursue something that enables me to keep teaching in one form or another and engage with students and faculty in a university setting. I’m not quite clear what that is yet. Teaching is one of the things I enjoy most, and I want to keep in my career plans.
What was one of your most influential classes?
My most influential class was a high school biology class. My high school was situated next to state park. We had the opportunity to go out and see the pond and all the things we’ve been talking about and get wet. Things like that helped shape the applicability of what we’re teaching in the classroom and its broader impact. My teacher really focused on, yes it’s in the book, but it’s also a part of the world we live in.
Who are some of your favorite teachers, and why?
A couple of my German professors from undergrad. Chris Clason, who is now enjoying a very well deserved retirement, taught German history and covered medieval stuff that his students weren’t necessarily interested in, but his enthusiasm and jokes helped us engage with him because he taught it so well. He made it accessible for us.
Seth Howes (Assistant Professor of German and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Missouri) was in his first or second year of out grad school when I took his intermediate German course. He brought energy to the classroom. He jumped up on a desk to make a point about German grammar. He made the class exciting because he was excited about it. That inspired me. Even if it’s a 9 AM class at the end of the semester where everyone is drained, it inspired me to do well because he did well.
What are your favorite classes to teach, and why?
Definitely German 102, our second-level German course. I’ve taught that a couple of times now. That’s always the most interesting for me because students come in with varying experiences of German. The way the students grow in their German abilities and confidence is exponential. It’s always a great community that forms because we do active learning. It’s a fun environment to teach in because of that.
One of my other favorite classes was a discussion section for an intro to film class I taught a couple of years ago. The supervisor, Colin Burnett (Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Program of Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis), made sure AIs were involved. The class put a new lens on thinking about film. It’s one of the classes where learning is fun because students are interested and engaged. The relevance is there already so students are excited to walk in the door.