Anna Cwikla, a Ph.D. candidate and a course instructor at the University of Toronto, is the 2018-2019 recipient of the June Scott Teaching Excellence Award for Teaching Assistants for her outstanding work as a teaching assistant (TA) in the History of Religions department at UTM. As the head TA for RLG101H: Introduction to the Study of Religion, Cwikla demonstrated excellence in supporting her fellow TAs and students, leading to Dr. Ken Derry, an associate professor at UTM and the religion course’s instructor, nominating her for the award and Dr. Sarah Richardson, a lecturer at UTM, writing a letter of support. The Medium sat down with the award-winning TA to discuss her approach to teaching, her own experience as a student, and her current research.

With respect as to why she thinks she was nominated for the award, Cwikla remarks, “I’m very approachable. I have a sense of humor. I’m just me [which] I think resonates with students. When I introduce myself, I tell them my name, my interests, and that I’m an avid Pokémon Go player.”

Cwikla further relates to students by referencing popular culture when discussing course concepts. For instance, a discussion of the Gospel of Matthew once reminded her of a popular scene from the sitcom, The Office. Cwikla used the sitcom’s characters and scenes to help her students understand the material and remain engaged with it.

Cwikla’s passion for teaching and her commitment to supporting students really comes across in our conversation. “To be an effective teacher, [you have] to recognize that students have a lot of other commitments and you should be reasonable with your expectations,” she says. Another vital component of teaching is the human interaction with students. As opposed to the traditional structure of attending a class where the instructor talks, students listen, and both part ways with no engagement, Cwikla tries to maintain a real connection with her students. “I try to learn their names as fast as possible. It feels natural to learn someone’s name if you’re spending so much time with them.” Cwikla also believes that doing the littlest things such as greeting a student if you see them around campus can go a long way. “If you care about your students, everything else falls into place.”

Currently, Cwikla is working at the St. George Campus as a course instructor for RLG241: Early Christian Writings. In the winter semester, she will be a TA for RLG394: Religion in the Game of Thrones. Her Ph.D. research involves analyzing women and gender in early Christian texts, specifically texts not commonly studied or known about, such as the Nag Hammadi Codices discovered in 1945 in Egypt. These texts include a number of early Christian documents that most people do not know exist. Specifically, Cwikla is examining how women are depicted in the Nag Hammadi Codices and how they were exploited by men for power and politics.

Cwikla credits her interest regarding women in Christian texts to Dr. Heidi Marx, an associate professor of religion at the University of Manitoba. Cwikla completed her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of Manitoba and highly enjoyed the engaging course on women in Christian texts taught by Marx. “I just became hooked on studying these texts through taking courses with Heidi Marx,” she says.

Interestingly, teaching was originally not one of Cwikla’s main interests. Her research interests brought her to the University of Toronto for her Ph.D., which required her to work as a TA. Studying religion was not what Cwikla ever imagined herself doing either. Like many students, Cwikla entered the University of Manitoba as a science undergraduate student, assuming a science degree would lead to a good job. However, she found herself sitting in her first-year biology and chemistry labs, waiting for them to end so that she could attend her religion elective. Eventually, she realized her passion for religion and pursued it as her major. 

Now a Ph.D. candidate and an award-winning TA, Cwika also plans to work in editing. “One of the very fulfilling parts of teaching is seeing a C student [progress] to an A because they have incorporated your feedback in writing,” she explains. She plans to attend the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego, California with the $2,000 she received alongside the award. The conference is one of the largest conferences in the field of religious studies and attending marks a milestone in Cwikla’s career.

To finish, Cwikla advises current students to not “be afraid to ask your TAs for help and [to not be] afraid to say ‘thank you’ when they are doing a good job.”

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