Article by Carmen Ruyle Hardy. Originally published on SOURCE as part of the College of Liberal Arts’ feature,“CLA GRADUATE STUDENTS: THINKERS, MAKERS, AND LEADERS OF TOMORROW: Stories of research, scholarship, and creative artistry by graduate students at Colorado State University” 

Graduate Programs in the Liberal Arts at CSU

“Nefratiri has not only been one of my favorite professors in the Sociology department, but one of my favorite in my entire time here at CSU. She has ignited a fire within my academic career that has made me strive to learn more and more; something that I have never experienced before.” – SOC 301 student, Spring 2020

While this may sound like the introduction for a tenured professor being honored with a distinguished teaching award, it was a nomination for Nefratiri Weeks, Sociology Ph.D. student, for the department’s annual Outstanding Graduate Teaching Instructor (GTI) Award that she won in 2020.

“Our GTIs offer a deep, diverse pool of expertise,” says Dr. Pete Taylor, sociology professor and department chair. And students across campus are reaping the rewards of such knowledge and talent.

In Fall 2021, Weeks, who typically teaches theory courses for sociology majors, was assigned SOC 320: Population-Natural Resources and Environment, a course often sought by natural resources students. Knowing they’d already learned statistics around deforestation and other such facts in their natural resources classes, Weeks based her social science course on applying sociological concepts like the ‘treadmill of production’ which directly impacts natural resources.

Nefratiri Weeks
Nefratiri Weeks, Sociology Ph.D. student

“It was really fun to have people who weren’t sociologists learning sociological perspectives in order to think more widely through problems they are dealing with,” says Weeks. “I was a little worried at first because I told them repeatedly ‘this won’t be a typical class where I tell you things on a Powerpoint and you regurgitate them back to me. In this class we’re thinking critically, and we can argue with each other.’”

On the last day of class, Weeks received accolades like, “This was the best class I’ve ever had!” and “You’re an amazing teacher!”

Nefratiri teaching
Nefratiri Weeks teaches SOC 301 Development of Sociological Thought

Weeks attributes her success in creating what she calls “conversational classrooms” to consecutive semesters as a GTI that have allowed her to finetune her skills and welcome controversial issues. “A tactic I’ve learned is to set up my lectures so there’s a conundrum, then literally sit down with them to discuss,” she explains. “I take myself off stage and put the critical thinking in their court.”

GTIs like Weeks are Sociology Ph.D. students who have completed three years as teaching assistants and a variety of instructor trainings. In managing their own classrooms, GTIs play a vital role in meeting CSU’s demand for Sociology courses.

As recent students themselves, GTIs have unique ways of connecting with students and fresh perspectives on what makes class settings strong. “Being able to shift directly from being in class as a student, to assisting faculty and seeing their strategies, to entering the teaching world has been very beneficial,” explains Austin Luzbetak, Sociology’s Outstanding GTI Award winner in 2021. “If there had been a lot of years in between those things, I would’ve lost a lot of the vital experiences of being a student.”

“I doubt any other class on campus was able to engage its students and material as deeply as Austin was able to during this time of a global pandemic, record setting wildfires, and hectic national and local elections.” – SOC 359 student, Fall 2020

Austin Luzbetak
Sociology graduate student and teaching instructor Austin Luzbetak

While social unrest provides an endless supply of course material, some GTIs take on the timelessly tough topic of statistics. Research methods are an important component of the sociology degree, yet a common source of struggle. Once again, GTIs’ abilities to relate to students can make a big difference.

“For the first time in my almost two decades of going to school I get excited for my math class thanks to Kellie [Alexander]. She is patient and offers countless methods of support.” – SOC 210 student, Fall 2021

Kellie Alexander
Sociology graduate student and teaching instructor Kellie Alexander

Taylor also credits GTIs as instrumental to Sociology’s successful pivot to remote learning in spring 2020. Many were already skilled at teaching online and became key contributors as the department gathered virtually to share resources. “Teaching helped me foster a sense of connection in a time that was alienating for so many,” says former GTI India Luxton.

Weeks also overcame obstacles created by the pandemic in her dual role as Sociology’s undergraduate internship coordinator. As organizations cancelled or cut hours, she had to find ways for students to work enough hours to stay on track for graduation. The partnership she created with Sociology instructor and Fort Collins Police Services (FCPS) Lieutenant Kevin Cronin shifted FCPS interns from in-person duties to an intense research project on sexual assault. “Student still got spectacular real-world experience while being in lockdown,” Weeks explains.

Indeed students, faculty, campus, and even the community benefit from the many opportunities Ph.D. students seize as GTIs, program coordinators, research assistants, and more. “I have immensely enjoyed the opportunity to teach at this level at CSU,” says Alexander. “One of the greatest rewards is seeing students overcome challenges and feel pride in their progress. My GTI experience also reinforces my career interests and is useful preparation for the future.”

The Department of Sociology offers a Ph.D. and an M.A. in Sociology. Visit the department website to learn more about these programs.