Life as a Ph.D. student can be a lot to juggle. Throughout the years of completing coursework, studying for qualifying exams, securing funding, conducting fieldwork, and writing a dissertation, there’s the additional task of teaching. With teaching, comes the lesson plans and office hours and detailed feedback on assignments and grading. It’s easy to see how teaching, on top of the other duties a graduate student has to manage, can seem like a burden.

Unless, like for anthropology Ph.D. student Katie Cox, it’s not. “It’s just really fun,” she says. And as if she’s anticipating doubters, she adds, “Honestly!” This isn’t to say that teaching is not a lot of work for Cox. Lesson planning could eat up all of her time if she let it and she finds that even when she’s doing personal things, like watching tv or listening to podcasts, she finds a way to connect it back to teaching. It’s just that for her, teaching doesn’t feel like such a chore.

Cox’s commitment to teaching has not gone unnoticed. She was recently awarded the Most Promising Future Faculty Member award by members of the Academic Senate Council on Teaching, Learning, and Student Experience. Cox was one of three students selected from a campuswide pool of nominees as part of this year’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching awards. She was recognized not just for her effectiveness as an instructor, but for her great promise in research and her service to her department, profession, and university. Cox, who is in the fifth year of her program will receive a one-quarter dissertation fellowship provided by the Vice Provost of Graduate Division. 

Paying it forward

“She really takes the teaching mission of the university seriously,” says anthropology assistant teaching professor Angela Jenks, who nominated Cox for the award. “Not only did she seek out opportunities to improve her own teaching, but she sought to provide opportunities for others, too.”

In addition to her duties as a TA, Cox has served as a fellow in the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation’s Pedagogical Fellows Program and as a mentor in the anthropology department’s Graduate-Undergraduate Mentorship Program. She has also co-created a series of workshops with Jenks to provide pedagogical training to her fellow graduate students, as well as developed a learning community between faculty and graduate students to provide workshops and design courses.

“Katie stood out immediately. She had a deep level of intellectual engagement with the material, and at the same time, she was very generous in the way she engaged in scholarly debate. She was also very generous with the time she spent with undergraduates. She provided detailed feedback and really worked with students if they needed help understanding the readings,” says Jenks.

Something bigger

“Teaching has been a huge joy for me,” says Cox. “It’s been the aspect of academic work that I’ve found to be the most energizing and most creative, partly because it’s the most collaborative. Even when you’re alone planning a lesson, you’re having an imaginary conversation with your students. It’s always collaborative.”

In addition to opportunities for collaboration, Cox is motivated by a higher purpose. “We have the opportunity in academic spaces like classrooms, to explore big societal problems and see them from different perspectives. Teaching can be a way of building knowledge and to generate approaches to issues that can change the world in ways we haven’t been able to imagine. In research, it’s really exciting when you discover something you didn’t know before. Teaching multiplies this. The more I develop my skills as a teacher, I can participate in something bigger than my own effort. That’s really inspiring to me,” she says.

Like many who gravitate toward teaching, Cox has been fortunate to have teachers in her life that have shaped her. “I’ve had teachers who really challenged me to see the world in different ways and who were able to see the potential in me and others. In moments when I became discouraged over what I didn’t know, I felt lucky to have teachers who helped me recognize what I did know and how that was still important. These teachers invited me into a conversation and helped build my confidence. I still carry this confidence to my own research and it’s something I think about as I teach,” says Cox.

Professional potential

As the recipient of the Most Promising Future Faculty Member, Cox was also recognized for her research. She has received an extremely competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and has recently been selected to be a contributing editor for Cultural Anthropology, a premier journal in her field. She’s currently conducting field research for her dissertation in Los Angeles and Orange Counties and plans to explore how scientists, activists, and policymakers work to address racial environmental health disparities in Southern California.

“Even when U.S. public policy has improved environmental quality overall, racial disparities in environmental health have persisted and even increased. We’re missing something here. Environmental pollution is not new. Racial violence is even older. But I hope people are having braver conversations about race and the environment,” Cox says.

Unexpectedly an Anteater

Cox has done so well at UCI, it’s hard to believe her attendance was ever in doubt. But during the recruitment process, she was confident she was going to enroll elsewhere. She attended UCI’s anthropology recruitment weekend more out of curiosity than a belief that her plans would change.

Over the recruitment weekend, she was inspired by the creativity of students’ research and the mutual support they seemed to provide each other. She felt that graduate students were supported by faculty in ways that stood out. She felt the graduate students she met were fueled more out of genuine curiosity than competition. Her plans changed.

In the coming months, Cox will continue to conduct her field research. While life beyond her dissertation and graduation is less defined, it will most likely involve collaboration. “My teaching experience has made me think of research in a different way,” she says. “I’ve learned what creative ideas can develop from working together. This is what makes me excited.”

--Jill Kato for UCI School of Social Sciences

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