The Filene Teaching Award is given out annually to the graduate student teaching assistant who best exemplifies the qualities of a college educator. One of this year’s recipients, Paige Rinker, is a PhD student in the Mathematics Department.
Paige Rinker understands the fear of math that so many people feel. Having served as both an instructor and a teaching assistant for several undergraduate math courses at Dartmouth, she has seen firsthand the powerful hold it can have on students. She says it was most prominent in the Math 1 class she taught, and so it might be surprising to learn that she counts this course among her favorites.
Math 1 is an introductory calculus course designed to help students strengthen their math backgrounds (while simultaneously learning calculus). This secondary focus tends to attract students who are more apprehensive about math.
“Eradicating this fear is one of my loftier goals, and I know I won’t always succeed. But there is nothing more rewarding than when one of these students admits that math isn’t so bad, after all,” explains Rinker.
Rinker says that she tends to employ a loose lecture style, encouraging students to discuss problems and share ideas with their peers. In addition to facilitating collaboration, Paige also incorporates various written assignments into her curriculum. In her Introductory Statistics course, Rinker has students formulate responses to articles about applicable uses of statistics in everyday life. Often, these student essays both facilitate and even direct the focus of classroom discussion.
“My goal is for students to ask questions. It’s something I work really hard at – creating the sort of environment in which students feel comfortable and free to ask questions,” says Rinker. “More than anything, that drives my teaching style.”
“I don’t like to feel as if I’m performing in front of students,” adds Rinker, referring to giving one-sided lectures. “And from a pedagogical standpoint, it’s better for the students to drive the class… On the best days, everything we do is an answer to someone’s question.”
Many math majors and minors experience upper-level, abstract mathematics for the first time in taking a course like ‘Math 31: Introduction to Abstract Algebra’. When she taught this course, she anticipated that the primary challenge would be in conveying the complex material; she found that it represented a “very different” sort of teaching challenge. Many of the more experienced students weren’t used to such a collaborative classroom environment and were often hesitant to participate in discussions. Rinker describes breaking down students’ preconceived notions of what a math class should (or could) ‘look like’.
Given her reputation as an outstanding teacher, it’s surprising to hear that Paige didn’t initially see herself in the world of academia. Upon first arriving in college, she thought that she was going to major in engineering.
“In college, I watched my professors have so much fun with their students, and I could see myself deriving the same pleasure from working with undergrads… Obviously, I love math, but teaching is what drove me to go to graduate school,” says Rinker.
Having graduated a few weeks ago, Paige will start her new position as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at John Carroll University in the fall.
Muses Paige, “I’m really going to miss my Dartmouth students.”
by Erin O’Flaherty
photo by Wesley Whitaker