Grad Student Spotlight: Cat Williams


Cat Williams

Growing up, the only constant in my life was school. As an introverted impoverished kid, I was definitely easy to overlook. However, time and time again, teachers would turn towards me and offer a kind word, a gesture of compassion, or opportunities for hope. From elementary school and through my undergraduate studies, phenomenal educators provided support and mentorship that transformed my life. By looking beyond the circumstances of my past, my teachers gave me a future. I never forgot my teachers’ kindness. And as I began my GTA-ship, I knew that I could finally begin repaying the kindness that was once given to me.

After three semesters, the most common comments on my TEVALs are a variation of “Ms. Williams cares a lot about us!” or, “Ms. Williams is really enthusiastic.” When combined, I think they say something very true about how I approach teaching. From day one, I tell my students that I am invested in their success and that I am genuinely interested in getting to know them as people. My enthusiasm towards my students is relentless and once they realize that I am being sincere, they open up a lot and actively engage in our classroom. Because I believe in them, I hope they learn to believe in themselves and the power of their own ideas. I think our current undergraduates face tremendous adversity, and it is our obligation as educators to empower our students as agents of change. Rising student debt, political instability, and the polarization of our nation are overwhelming factors that often make students feel like they have no agency within their communities. I truly believe that authentic engagement with our students can have a transformative effect on their lives, and in turn, the world we live in.

I was very shocked when I learned that the department nominated me for the Graduate Student Council Award for Excellence in Teaching back in October. This sense of disbelief was multiplied when I found out that I won the actual award, beating out all eligible GTAs at Kansas State. I was afraid to tell anyone because I kept thinking that it was a mistake. In my head, I already had a rational reason that it had been incorrectly awarded to me because my last name is so ubiquitous. When Dr. Carol Shanklin, the Dean of the Graduate School, called me in January to tell me I had also won the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools Award, I nearly hung up in shock because I thought I was being pranked! While I’m still a bit uncertain of my merit, I am grateful to serve as a representative of our department and the GTAs that put their heart into their classrooms each day.

The most nerve-wracking part of the entire process was the day my teaching video was filmed. It was surreal standing in my empty classroom at 7:30 in the morning, getting hooked up to a microphone, and being interviewed about my teaching. I felt so unworthy of this attention, and I was a bit embarrassed and kept stammering. I had no prepared remarks (which I realize in hindsight was a bit ridiculous) but when the time came, I just focused on being honest and speaking from my heart. After the interview, it was time to film my “teaching moment.”  Having a film crew follow you around immediately makes you so self-conscious! I kept wondering if I was moving my hands too much or speaking too fast, or if my students were going to react to our activity in the way I had hoped. Fortunately, I had an incredible group of students who were willing to laugh at my lame jokes and were actively engaged in our classroom community.

The activity I used was actually I learned from another professor in the English Department, Dr. Wendy Matlock. I had students create elevator pitches for their paper topics, and then “pitch” them to students in a speed-dating style activity. It was a fun lesson that allowed me to demonstrate my close ties with my students and my authentic regard for their ideas. However, it was also an implicit gesture towards how incredible our department is. Not only are our professors brilliant in their own areas of expertise, but they are phenomenal teachers. I’ve literally taken notes during my graduate-level classes just on the activities and lesson plans that my professors used (I’m looking at you, Dr. Longmuir and Dr. Brimhall!). While I’m so grateful for this award, I am entirely indebted to the professors in the English Department. Without them, I am confident I would not be the teacher, colleague, or thinker that I am today. I knew from a young age that teachers were powerful people, and as a graduate student I find myself once again in awe of their transformative magic.

— Cat Williams (M.A. ’18)

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