Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence: Graduate Student Spotlight | Karen Schlag

Moody Graduate Student Spotlight: Late Spring 2022

Karen Schlag is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies. She was a multi-year Assistant Instructor for the department’s Language, Communication and Culture course, and is currently a teaching assistant for Dr. Dina Inman Ramgolam’s Digital Communication class. Before starting her doctoral program at UT, she worked at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) as a lecturer.

Karen Schlag

A woman, Karen Schlag, smiling for the camera next to with brown hair next to a black dog with white around it's mouth

How does your teaching intersect with your research?

I taught a variety of communication courses at UHD, and I wanted to go back to school to get my doctorate—to enhance my teaching and get back into research. I came into this program as a generalist. I was like a kid in the candy store thinking about ‘What do I want to study?’ I had some amazing classes with my advisor, Dr. Anita Vangelisti, and with Dr. Erin Donovan that geared me towards health communication. A class with Dr. Karen Fingerman in Human Development and Family Sciences got me interested in thinking about issues related to aging and communication. My dissertation looks at support-seeking by caregivers whose loved ones are living with dementia. These caregivers may also at times face managing dementia-related family stigma. I’ve also looked at family maintenance strategies for families who are forcibly separated as a result of one family member being deported. Overall, I’m drawn to researching issues pertaining to how families practice resilience when they are heavily strained.

One thing I’ve always loved about the classes I have taught is that students will say ‘This applies to my everyday life.’ The topics I research can be shaped to fit the context and life experiences of undergraduate students who I might be teaching.

How has your teaching changed from the first time you were a Moody teaching assistant to now?

The first semester I was here, I was a TA for a class called Difficult Conversations, with Dr. Madeline Maxwell. She’s amazing and I learned a lot from her about strategies for giving students more opportunity to lead class discussions and share their own takes on the class material. I’ve also had more opportunities at UT to find and share a broader range of course material in my classes. Dr. Maxwell was also the faculty coordinator for the Language, Communication and Culture class that I have taught at UT. She was great about letting the team of assistant instructors contribute to the curriculum. She was very open to letting us contribute readings for the class that were wide in scope, inclusive and geared to be relatable to the students.  

In my own teaching, I also started to develop more research-related activities to conduct in class, such as pseudo experiments. Those are fun! I also began developing more ways to interact with students individually. That just made it more enriching. Students could get extra credit to come to office hours individually, but then I would also ask them to come as a group and do feedback checks on their group projects. I love having them tell me about their work in a more relaxed, less structured space. This was especially useful when teaching over Zoom. I also like using flipped classrooms where I ask students to bring in some of their own examples and ideas when we are covering class material. It’s all about ‘How can I get the students to engage with the class and with me?’

What are some ways you collaborate with students to promote engagement?

The class I was an Assistant Instructor for (Language, Communication and Culture) was writing intensive. We didn’t really have exams—we just had lots of essays. So along with finding ways to interact individually with my students and planning in-class activities, another way I tried to engage them is through how I provided feedback on their work. I’ve always tried to be conscientious about communicating with my students when providing feedback, but I think at UT, working with the professors and other graduate students here, I started to develop ways to give students feedback that’s collaborative in spirit and where they feel empowered. They may have written a sentence that’s not as clear, but you can still see there’s a really good idea in there. You don’t want to crush that idea. You want to say ‘Oh, I really like this idea you have; I see where you’re going. Let’s think about how we can lift it up.’ If it's a claim or argument, you’d point it out as ‘This idea’s really interesting. Can you give me more details, or support it with more evidence to really elevate that idea?’ I picture feedback as working together on the project.

I have had students tell me they’ve really appreciated my feedback, and every once in a while, you get a student who’ll come in and talk about their paper—and they get really, really excited. They ask you questions, but they don’t always let you answer, because they’re so excited talking about their ideas. And I can tell that when I do give them feedback, they’re taking it as more of a collaborative effort. I was part of a conference panel here at UT a few years ago where I talked about the idea of getting undergraduate students, who may feel anxious about writing, to think about a writing assignment not as a task they have to get through, but more as a way to express their own ideas and their own voice. It’s my job to set the stage so they can find the links between course material and their own lives. And then just run with it and I get to help facilitate the development of those ideas. The more they take on themselves, the more they’ll really get out of the writing project.