University of Calgary

Top TAs

SU recognizes role of grad students with new award

Stories by Meghan Sired
Photos by Ken Bendiktsen

Teaching assistants, or TAs—graduate students who help with course work—are a vital resource for students who are working towards their bachelor’s degrees.

Because they are still students, TAs are perceived by many undergrads as more approachable than professors. And, particularly in large classes, TAs are often more available for a quick question or some extra direction.

The University of Calgary’s Student’s Union is recognizing the importance of teaching assistants with a new teaching excellence award just for them—the Outstanding TA Award. Previously, the SU awards program had grouped teachers and TAs in one category.
Shannon O’Connor, SU vice-president, says honouring TAs separately ensures they receive the recognition they deserve.

“TAs play a big role in many students’ education and this should be reflected in our awards,” says O’Connor.

Kinesiology master’s student and teaching assistant Jared Fletcher, 25, says approachability, availability and knowledge are what set good TAs apart. The Winnipeg native, who was nominated for the Faculty of Kinesiology’s internal awards last year, suggests that his love of the subject matter and his attempt to keep things fun in the classroom got him high ratings with students.

“It’s just a little less intimidating to ask questions to a TA than to a professor. Also, we sometimes understand more what students are going through, while a professor might not understand how much work students are assigned,” says Fletcher.

The biggest challenge TAs face, says Fletcher, is time management. Juggling thesis work, projects and marking quizzes takes a lot of effort. Once Fletcher finishes his master’s, he plans to get his PhD and then start a teaching career.

The SU’s teaching excellence awards have been recognizing outstanding instructors for more than 30 years. Nominees are chosen for their ability to communicate broad and accurate knowledge of the subject matter, and are judged on self-confidence, ability to create enthusiasm, success at challenging students, ability to cultivate creative thinking, availability for consultation outside of class and the fairness and consistency of their grading.

Dr. Jeffrey Jacob, in the Faculty of Education’s Department of Teacher Preparation, was one of last year’s winners. He was nominated by many of the 16 students he taught in an ecological education class. Jacob credits the interesting subject matter of the class and a receptive group of students.

“The classes were student-driven and I was fortunate enough to be crazy about a subject matter that they were also very interested in,” says Jacob.

The teaching excellence awards committee is accepting nominations for the fall 2006 session until Nov. 10. Nominations in the spring session are combined with the fall ballots, and winners are announced at a special ceremony in April.

Easy-to-complete nomination forms are available online at


The University of Calgary’s Student’s Union has announced that its annual teaching excellence awards will have a new category—for outstanding teaching assistants. Previously, TAs—graduate students who help professors with courses—shared the same awards category as instructors. This change reflects the increasingly important role of TAs, says the SU. On these pages, meet some of U of C’s finest teaching assistants.


Romney Humphries

Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Faculty of Medicine
Specialty: Bacterial pathogenesis
Research: Determining the mechanisms by which Enteropathogenic E. coli attach to the host cell, and developing carbohydrate-based drugs that disrupt this attachment, thereby preventing infection.

“I find that working with an enthusiastic group of undergraduate students is inspiring, in that I get to experience science through the eyes of someone who is learning the concepts for the first time. Furthermore, teaching really helps reinforce what I already know—students I work with are constantly challenging me with perceptive questions I would not have necessarily considered on my own.”

Romney Humphries says working with undergraduates is inspiring.


 Melanie Neumeier

Faculty of Nursing
Specialty: Cardiac surgery
Research: The experience of emergency coronary artery bypass patients.

“Working with students helps me remember how far I’ve come since I started nursing, and how much I still have to learn. I think students respond to a TA because we’re not threatening, we realize what it’s like to be a student because we’re taking classes too. I think it helps that I’m still nursing too, so the students know my experiencesare current." 

Melanie Neumeier says TAs seem less threatening.


 Michael Fenton

Faculty of Fine Arts, Department of Drama
Specialty: Directing
Research: A thesis production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.

“I like the opportunity to assist a professor in teaching a subject that I hold a strong interest in. It’s important for students, because they have an opportunity within the classroom to receive guidance and opinion from two individuals instead of one.”

Michael Fenton on the set of the play Baal, as actors (L-R) Julie Orton as Sophie, Phil Keyes as Baal and Mike Rogers as Ekart, rehearse a scene.


Andrew Hunter

Schulich School of Engineering
Specialty: Mobile mapping, GIS, spatial statistics,
Research: Acquisition and analysis of grizzly bear locomotion.

“As a researcher it is very easy to live in our own little world oblivious to what is happening outside our office door. Teaching requires we take notice, and be aware of what is happening around us on a personal level. I would like to believe that I can make a difference, that I can help students get though their studies more effectively, and that I can help prepare them for the next steps in their life so that they can move forward with some confidence.”

Andrew Hunter helps give students confidence.


Iain Macpherson

Faculty of Communication and Culture
Specialty: Organizational theory, especially cross-cultural corporate communication, with a focus on Japan.
Research: The relationships between Japanese multinational corporations and cultural/economic globalization and liberalization.

“Even with an excellent lecturer, when in a class with hundreds of students, I think it’s important for someone to have the relative intimacy of a smaller tutorial, and hence easier access to a teaching figure. This might be especially true for some first-year students, I’d bet.”

Iain Macpherson says that tutorials are more intimate.