When teaching assistant Andrew Cockrell works with students, he leans forward at his desk, listening intently, focused on whoever has the floor. He smiles, he jokes, but he also keeps himself and his students on task.
Cockrell pushes the undergraduates he teaches. He also pushes himself — hard.
For his work as a teaching assistant, Cockrell has won an Excellence in Teaching Award.
“In my 32 years as a faculty member in this department, I have never seen a TA or lead TA who has displayed Andrew’s level of initiative, enthusiasm and commitment to TA excellence,” said Peter J. May, chairman of the Department of Political Science.
Elizabeth Kier, an associate professor of political science, said two words recur in student comments about Cockrell: “enjoy” and “inspire.” Kier said: “Andrew’s sections are fun. He cleverly designs debates that encourage students to pit different theorists against each other.”
Who would think, she added, of staging a smackdown between Christopher Layne, the 21st-century American realist, and Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century idealist?
Cockrell is quick to credit professors such as Kier and Jon Mercer for mentoring him. He’s equally quick to credit students, both his peers and younger ones. “I went in expecting there would be smart students, but there are brilliant ones. Having a classroom full of smart, engaging students makes teaching easy,” he said.
Cockrell came to the UW with a master’s of philosophy in politics from Oxford University and a bachelor’s degreecum laude from Willamette University.
After Cockrell had been a UW teaching assistant for two years, he was assigned to teach the quarter-long training course for new teaching assistants. He redesigned the course, bringing innovation to standard things such as grading and feedback. He also brought in “celebrity guests”: experienced teaching assistants who addressed issues such as lessons plans and managing the classroom.
Joannie Tremblay-Boire, a doctoral student in political science, took the training course when she was a new teaching assistant and then became one of Cockrell’s colleagues. She noticed how, when revamping the course, Cockrell asked his peers what was working for them in the classroom. Tremblay-Boire has also noticed Cockrell greeting students by name, even when it’s been a while since they’ve been in his course.
Natalie Nguyen, who is in the section Cockrell teaches as part of Mercer’s 400-level course in international conflict, said Cockrell has been the best teaching assistant she’s had at the UW. He’s approachable, she explained, and he helps students understand multiple perspectives on the same issue.
For his work, Cockrell won the 2010 Department of Political Science award for best teaching assistant.
But it’s not a case of gliding from success to success. Asked what he’s failed at, Cockrell talks about things he feels he should have done or said in the classroom.
During his second quarter as a teaching assistant, for example, he overheard two students joking. One of the students said, “Oh, that’s so gay,” referring to something dumb or silly. Cockrell ignored the remark but later wished he had reminded the two of the hurt that throwaway remarks can cause.
“Everyone needs to feel welcome in the classroom,” he said.
Later in the quarter, he overheard a similar conversation among other students. That time, he spoke up.
If all goes well, Cockrell will soon begin his dissertation. The native of Vancouver, Wash. thinks that once he has the doctorate, he’d like to teach at a small college in the Pacific Northwest.
“I grew up here,” he said. “I want to stay close.”