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Spotlight Iowa City: Have knowledge, will travel

BY SHANE ERSLAND | NOVEMBER 12, 2009 7:20 AM

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Alex Cohen takes off for a road trip at least once a week — but the excursions are hardly relaxing.

UI teaching assistant Cohen, a graduate student in political science, zooms around in a rental car to teach a Globalization class. One week, he’ll travel for a day to Davenport, and the following week, he’ll be in Cedar Rapids and Ankeny for the 20 total students he teaches.

The driving is clearly time consuming — Ankeny is roughly two hours from Iowa City, and Davenport is around an hour — and so is the one-on-one time his students need.

“People have a lot of questions, so I end up coming early and staying late,” the curly-haired 27-year-old said, working on a computer in a Schaeffer Hall classroom on one of his off days.

Cohen’s class is part of a new program the UI offers to four community colleges in which students can earn a degree without coming to the main campus. Another graduate student commutes to teach an Entrepreneurship class.

Cohen’s friend and fellow TA James Rydberg sympathizes with his buddy, saying it would be challenging to teach at different locations.

“It would be hard to balance that, but it would be fun to drive around like that,” Rydberg said.

UI Assistant Professor Christian Jensen teaches the Globalization class on campus. Students can watch his taped lectures, the primary source of instruction, but they also have optional discussion sections.

That’s where Cohen comes in.

The fifth-year graduate student said a handful of his students come to the sections, but the majority handle their workloads strictly online.

“People learn differently. Some need human contact,” he said.

Jensen said it would be beneficial for the students to take advantage of Cohen’s sessions and use him as a resource.

“Alex has been very conscientious about working with the distance students,” he said. “He does what he can to accommodate their needs. I really think that if more of them took advantage of the meetings, they’d do better.”

The UI’s Distance Education program helps fund Cohen’s job, Jensen said, noting that the political-science department wouldn’t have the money to fund such a position.

Cohen, a Youngstown, Ohio, native, said the diverse background of classes he’s taken helped him land the job, given that it deals with the very complex topic of globalization.

“I know a lot about a lot of different things,” he said. “I’m not specialized; I’ve had a broad background in the courses I’ve taken, so I was a good fit.”

Still, the course presents some difficulties for Cohen, who got his undergraduate degree at New York University. One is age. The majority of his students are older than he is.

“Most of the people are in their 30s,” he said. “I haven’t encountered anyone as young as a typical UI student.”

Cohen said his one-on-one time with students has paid off. He grades the tests for the whole section, and his distance-learning students have done as well as the students on campus.

“After two exams, the scores were comparable with the UI students,” he said.


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