Roelsgaard thrives as a teacher and scholar
By: Yasmeen Ebada
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism doctoral student Natascha Toft Roelsgaard was one of four graduate students at Ohio University who won the 2019 Graduate Associate Outstanding Teaching Award (GAOTA) in Spring 2019.
Roelsgaard received $500 and a framed certificate at an awards ceremony at the end of the semester.
Roelsgaard said winning the award was overwhelming and unexpected. Being a graduate student is difficult and getting that pat on the shoulder acknowledges that she must be doing something right, she said.
“It’s kind of wonderful and humbling in a way because you are just one tiny person in the bigger scheme of things. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance at winning something like this and getting the acknowledgement from your students,” she said. “I think it’s just wonderful to have that affirmation from your students saying that you learned something and that they learned something so much that they took something away with it that made them want to nominate you for an award.”
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Director Dr. Robert Stewart said Roelsgaard is a gifted instructor.
“Her students respond to her exceptionally well, which makes her highly effective in the classroom. We’re lucky, as are our students, to have her in our program,” Stewart said.
The top teaching award process at Ohio University is conducted entirely by undergraduate students who volunteer their time to serve on a selection committee. During the first part of the selection process, nominations are collected through an online ballot. Then the GAOTA committee, consisting of 10-14 students, holds interviews with the eight finalists, and then, if possible or practical, they observe the classes or labs in which the finalists teach. The students follow a script of general questions for the interview, including questions about their teaching philosophies, scholarly accomplishments, research interests and what they value in and outside of the classroom. From the online ballots and the GAOTA committee interviews, the four winners are selected.
Roelsgaard does not like the idea of evaluating students based wholly on their grades, and she does not believe in this idea of the perfect grade. She does not believe that is what students need to achieve from a class.
“I believe in the teaching experience, and being able to share your knowledge, gain knowledge and share your experiences in a classroom. Connecting with your teacher and fellow students is essential because we so often tend to focus on getting an A and then getting out of here,” she said. “Instead, I want to create a safe and open-minded classroom where everyone is welcome, where everyone can bring their thoughts to the table and everyone is respected for who they are, more than what they can do as a student.”
Roelsgaard believes in instilling a desire in students to learn by challenging them where they are, so that means tailoring the course work to the individual student, allowing them to work on what they are interested in. For example, in her Journalism 3700 class, Advertising and Public Relations Writing, instead of having everyone do the exact same thing on the same campaign, she let them choose a topic that reflects their values and interests.
“You work with them and you encourage them to constantly do better by reediting, revisiting their topic and by making them peer review each other’s work. I make them discuss it in a public place, so it’s not just here is an assignment go home and submit it,” she said. “It’s a constant process, and I think the best thing you could do as a teacher is support your students inside and outside of the classroom. It’s not about lecturing, but about having open discussions and meeting them outside of the classroom. I make it clear that they can come see me when they have questions about their work or anything else.”
Ally Lanasa, a senior majoring in journalism with a minor in English, had Roelsgaard as a teaching assistant (TA) in the Journalism 4900, the Media and Civil Rights class. She said she gravitated toward Roelsgaard very quickly because of the way Roelsgaard carries herself.
“She’s confident, yet humble. She is extremely knowledgeable about an array of cultures that differ from her own. She teaches in a manner that helps you learn about a subject without feeling incompetent for not already having that awareness,” Lanasa say. “She embraces diversity, establishes an environment in which everyone belongs and encourages students to share their voice. It’s true what they say about empowered women empowering women, because she has encouraged me in countless ways.”
Lanasa said not only is Roelsgaard an exceptional educator, but she is also one of the most empathetic people she knows.
“She cares about each of her students, and she checks in to make sure they are doing okay inside and outside of the classroom,” Lanasa said. “I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the award. There is no stopping Natascha. I have no doubt that she will become an amazing professor at a university in the near future. I sincerely hope that our paths cross again after our time at Ohio University because I still have so much to learn from her.”
Lanasa said one of the most touching parts of her experience on the civil rights tour over Spring Break with Roelsgaard was how she would collect local newspapers for Lanasa because she studies community journalism.
“I admired how she paid close attention to the little details about each of us,” Lanasa said.
Professor Dr. Michael Sweeney and Roelsgaard’s advisor, mentor and master’s thesis committee chair, recalls their first encounter four years ago when he realized how tall she is and realized that she is as smart as a whip.
“Truly smart people know that they don’t know or what they don’t know. She’s open to discussion, figuring things out, new ideas and she takes instruction really well,” he said. “I think she’s the ideal graduate student. She is smart and creative, but she is willing to listen to professors to get even more out of the subject than what she brings to it.”
Sweeney said it’s unusual for doctoral students to have publications before they graduate, but Roelsgaard had her first paper published when she was a master’s student.
Sweeney has known Roelsgaard as an excellent scholar, and he was delighted to learn that she is also an excellent teacher.
When Sweeney was the journalism graduate director, he sat in on one of the very first classes that Roelsgaard taught.
“She was well prepared, and she kept the conversation going, but this award I think demonstrates that one class was not an aberration,” he said. “She’s consistently good, her students are learning from her and they are enjoying the experience. This tells me she’s got the research and she has got the teaching; she is going to be a fantastic professor because you have to excel in both of those.”
Sweeney said Roelsgaard is a joy to work with for many reasons. She wants to research and write history that has an impact on our world today, and certainly capturing and sharing the lives of strong women of color is something we badly need in the United States, he said.
“We need role models to hold up against the onslaught of narrow-minded thinking. She has a passion for that. Beyond that, Natascha is a diligent, methodical and a careful researcher,” he said.
This is not the first time that an E.W. Scripps School of Journalism student has won the GAOTA. In 2018, doctoral student Bailey Dick also won and in 2015 Dr. Nicholas Hirshon won. Hirshon is now on the faculty at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.
In 1987, the Graduate Associate Outstanding Teaching Award (GAOTA) was inaugurated by the Provost to recognize outstanding teaching by graduate teaching associates at Ohio University.
This was not the only award that Roelsgaard has won in the 2018-2019 school year. Roelsgaard also won the Robert Lance Memorial Award for Outstanding Student Paper at the American Journalism Historians Association (AJHA) annual conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah in October, 2018. She also won the Maurine Beasley Award for the Outstanding Paper on Women’s History.
“What is significant about that is the paper that she won went through a double-blind review,” Sweeney said. “In a double-blind review, the papers are judged strictly on their merits. No one has any idea who wrote it, it could be a full-time professor or a 12-year-old. Her paper on its own merits, beat out some big names at the conference. That is validation of what we have all known, which is just how good she is. We can bask in the reflected glory.”