Carnegie Mellon University
April 03, 2023

2023 Graduate Student Teaching Awards Announced

Dietrich College recognizes two graduate students for their exceptional teaching

By Marissa Pekular

The Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences has recognized two graduate students — Zhongxia (Ricky) Zhao and Robyn Rowley — for exceptional teaching and mentoring. Zhao received the Graduate Student Teaching Assistant Award of 2023, which recognizes remarkable distinction, dedication and creativity as a teaching assistant.  Rowley was awarded the Graduate Student Teaching Award of 2023, which recognizes outstanding expertise regarding curriculum development, teaching and student mentoring. Their creativity, drive and passion represent the motto of Carnegie Mellon University — “My heart is in the work.”

A Passion for Teaching from the Start

Zhao’s research in the Philosophy Department is focused on game theory and formal epistemology. Before coming to CMU, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics from Princeton University. Zhao was turned on to the idea of philosophy while playing his favorite boardgame, Go, with a friend.

“I decided that I wanted to study philosophy that is related to my previous math experience,” Zhao said. “From that, I decided CMU has the best department [for my interests].” 

Zhao has always enjoyed teaching. Throughout middle school and high school, he taught people how to play Go at a local Chinese school. During his undergraduate experience, he gave various guest lectures in math classes and summer camps. He has also taught Chinese and English. 

“Because I started teaching when I was young, I discovered the various difficulties and challenges that come with teaching,” Zhao said. “It’s almost like a puzzle for me. I try to figure out how to improve my teaching.”

As a teaching assistant for various philosophy courses, Zhao has helped professors with grading assignments and lecture prep and has led class discussions during recitations. 

According to Christina Bjorndahl, assistant teaching professor of philosophy and supervisor for graduate student teaching assistants, Zhao stood out when he took over responsibilities for teaching a course when the professor had an unexpected absence.

“Ricky is an outstanding TA, but he distinguished himself especially in Spring 2022,” said Bjorndahl. “Ricky [along] with another TA took over teaching the class, and they did a wonderful job.”

Most of Zhao’s students are in their first year, and he appreciates these eager-to-learn, fresh perspectives that are unique to underclassmen. According to Zhao, philosophy often allows for deeply interesting discussions regarding hard-to-answer questions. He enjoys listening to what students think and what their reasoning is.

“It is cool to have an impact as an instructor in students’ lives,” said Zhao. “That is one of the reasons I treat this job with a lot of care.”

Receiving this award was a pleasant surprise for Zhao.

“I didn’t feel like the work I was doing warranted an award of some kind,” he said. “I was simply doing things I enjoyed, [but] I was honored to have received the nomination from my department.”

At the end of this semester, Zhao will receive a master’s degree in Logic, Computation and Methodology as the entry point to his Ph.D. program. He plans on continuing in academia after completing the program and teach in some capacity.

Evening the Playing Field for All Students

Rowley, a Ph.D. student in the English Department, is working toward a degree in literary and cultural studies focused on contemporary American literature and visual media. Before coming to CMU, Rowley received a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies from California State University, Bakersfield.

Rowley decided to continue her education at CMU because she wanted to conduct dynamic, interdisciplinary work by investigating various relationships within different texts throughout pop culture. She went on to receive a master’s degree in literary and cultural studies and now is in the sixth year of her Ph.D. program. 

Rowley finds the close-knit community in the English Department to be supportive, especially for her studies and family responsibilities. She has an invested interest in feminist scholarship as well as identity, gender, sexuality and race. Rowley explained the department has a significant theoretical investment in this type of scholarship as she has worked closely with several mentors, advisors and fellow scholars.

“Who I am as a woman and a mother; it’s not unrelated to these scholarly interests,” said Rowley. “It’s part of who I am as a scholar. [Being] a first-generation college student, I am interested in thinking what all of these things mean within academia. All of these aspects influence my teaching.” 

Rowley arrived at CMU wanting to be the kind of mentor and teacher that helps students like herself who have non-traditional pathways. Whether it be first-generation status or arriving in academia later, she wanted to be the support system for students of all backgrounds. 

“Robyn is not only extraordinarily organized and effective as a teacher, but she has her finger on where students are at: intellectually, culturally and personally,” said Marian Aguiar, associate professor of English. “She’s sensitive to them as people."

Rowley has been teaching students at CMU since 2018 in courses such as inequality, gender studies and first-year writing. She even created a course that she instructed, called “Gender, Power and Popular Culture.” 

Rowley designed this course to investigate the messaging in media consumed by the biggest audiences in American culture. The class analyzed Doja Cat music videos, compared “Seinfeld” to modern sitcoms and explored how both conveyed the topic of reproductive rights and different aspects of femineity, masculinity and sexuality.

“I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with so many talented and motivated students over the years,” said Rowley. “I love helping them navigate their own scholarly interests.”

After completing her Ph.D., Rowley plans to continue her role as an instructor.

“My teaching experiences at CMU have been so fulfilling,” said Rowley. “It’s really rewarding to know that I’m recognized for having an influence on students. I have so much gratitude for [them].”