The TA

by Ebony Tower Contributors

A Teaching Assistant or TA as it is often called is, first and foremost, a job.  It is a job in which you may receive payment in the form of a graduate stipend, a salary or, occasionally, as a trade off for subsidized housing and/or meal plans.

Some programs will allow you to choose which courses you’d like to TA for and other programs have faculty or staff assign each graduate student to a course. In programs where you can choose which courses you’d like to TA for, you should quickly familiarize yourself with the kinds of courses offered in your department. Moreover, you should think about building rapport with any senior faculty or ABD (all but dissertation) colleagues  you’d like to work with.

At some universities, graduate students are only allowed to TA. In other words, they can not be listed as the primary instructor for any courses until they reach ABD. If you are interested in gaining experience teaching, this may at first seem like a hindrance however, you can also see it as an extended learning period. The TA experience is like teaching with training wheels. To make the most of your TA experience , The Ebony Tower has compiled a list of critical tips for beginning and getting through your TA-ship.

Be In The Know About Your TA-ship.

Again, the TA position is first and foremost a job. You should note and refer back to any formal documents stating the the hours and responsibilities that come with this job, even before you begin working, to avoid  misunderstandings or time mismanagement. TA-ing will coincide with a number of other things in your life including your coursework and your first responsibility should rightfully be to your academic work. However, you could find yourself in a situation where the TA workload is taking over your life and that will be the time to go back to that official record of the number of hours a week you are required to dedicate to TA work before approaching someone about this problem. Which leads us to our second point…

Make Communication Count

If your department doesn’t have a formal written record of how many hours a week you are required to work as a TA (this includes holding office hours, time spent grading, preparing lectures and fixing the Blackboard site) you should get that information from a senior faculty member, staff or the professor you are TA-ing for in writing.  In general, any information you need throughout your academic career that is important should be accounted for in written form and in this day and age that may mean via email.

Make it a habit, when dealing with students or professors, to always make sure you have receipts! Many graduate students have had to learn the hard way, i.e. after a student goes to the Dean because she claims she was offered an extension on an assignment she failed or an overwhelmed adjunct starts telling people in your department that you are the laziest TA he’s ever had. The last thing you need to worry about is getting caught in a “he said-she said” battle with a senior faculty member, resulting in a tarnished reputation. So, as redundant as it may seem, as soon as you acquire logistical information from someone,  follow it up with an email that looks like this:

Dr. Jones, Thank you for clarifying that the deadline for grading student work is 48 hours after submission. If I have any further questions, I’ll reach out.

Same thing when dealing with students- especially with questions and issues arising from grading. Save yourself the headache and get receipts!

A Golden Opportunity

TA is like teaching with training wheels, meaning you can get as much out of the experience as you want. Generally, professors are open to letting TA’s lecture a class or two and I recommend that you try it! Your first lecture may be overwhelming and scary, but take the opportunity to get over the butterflies with the support of a seasoned professor.

Moreover, TA-ing is the perfect way to gather information on which methods of teaching work in the classroom. So pay attention! See what the students respond to and what they don’t. Note which attendance policies work best. Keep in mind however that every school and location has its own classroom culture. But don’t let a golden opportunity for flexing your teaching chops and developing strong interpersonal skills pass you by.

Leading Sections

For departments with extremely large lecture courses, a TA may be used to lead smaller discussion based sections. If this is the case, make sure you communicate often and clearly with both the professor and the other TA’s, so you are all working in tandem despite leading separate sections. Ask colleagues who have TA-ed for your course previously for advice! Use whatever teaching resources you can find. Some universities even have a teaching center that offers teacher training sessions. 
Finally, the best advice I can give all TA’s is to be open to receiving questions during office hours and asking students for feedback as you go along. It’s more important to take negative feedback and adjust your teaching techniques than to find out after the fact that students were not connecting with you via end of the semester teaching evaluations. Ouch!

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