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March 3, 2013

The TA Guidebook: How to Not Suck

This post originally appeared on http://thecamspuscompanion.com and was written by a staff writer.

Bad Teacher Film

At this point in the semester, in a post-midterms world, you’re probably wondering what the hell happened to severely impair your comprehension of whatever course you’re taking. Yeah, it’s true that you probably could have spent more time studying, but then again most people don’t feel as though they studied as much as they should have. It also would have helped not to be totally sleep deprived for the last 3 classes before the midterm and to have actually read some of the materials, instead of skimming.

But really, you can only blame yourself so much for the shit-show that was your midterm experience. On some level, your TA was probably to blame for misinforming you, emotionally and mentally draining you, and generally just wasting your time with bullshit one hour discussion sections. Unfortunately, there probably is no way for you as an undergrad to modify your current TA’s questionable methods of erudition. But, you can hope that your awful TA will read this post and start getting his/her act together (or at least you can anonymously send this to them)…and at the very least, if you’re in the process of applying to be a TA for next semester, you’ll at least have a cue.


TA totebag

1. Take it Somewhat Seriously

For the most part, working as a TA is a pretty sweet deal because all you have to do on your end is grade and lead a discussion section once a week, and in exchange you get paid, a resume-booster, and the opportunity to develop a relationship with a professor who could hook you up for the rest of your academic career. Honestly, if English undergrads were allowed to TA intro level classes at my college, I would have jumped at the opportunity in a heartbeat.

But, as much as it is awesome for you getting this gig, you have to remember that when you take on this job, you are responsible for ensuring the academic well-being of 12-20 simultaneously skeptical and highly impressionable college undergrads. It can’t be all about you, which is hard to do when you’re at college. So, make sure you arrive to the section you’re leading on time, you dismiss everyone on time, and that you’re actually prepared to lead the discussion. Don’t annoy your class by failing to understand and articulate the professor’s expectations and make sure you actually pass back assignments within a reasonable timeframe. You’re not a tenured professor yet, who can do whatever the hell they want and pass back midterms at 2 weeks after the end of the semester. Know your place in the academic food chain.



2. Nobody cares about your research

It stings, I know, especially if you’re a grad student TAing a class and the professor briefly mentions a topic you’ve been pouring over for months in a crowded corner in the grad student offices. But, if you’re TAing a survey course, odds are that your undergrads won’t be quite as interested in your obscure academic interests in early articulations of Marxist thought in Byzantium. So keep discussion of the professor’s lectures in connection with your own research to a bare minimum, and at most, whip out an allusion to your research in one-line every couple of weeks. Assume any interest from undergrads regarding your research is feigned, because quite honestly, it most likely is an attempt to enter your good graces for a grade bump.

3. Don’t be a hard-oresearching_woman

It would always amuse me my freshman year whenever I’d get higher marks on papers that my tenured professors would grade over the ones that the grad school TAs would grade. I totally get not wanting to have your professor think you’re a wimp, but there’s no reason to treat every paper you read from an undergrad as a masters’ dissertation, particularly if you’re TAing an intro level class. What TAs sometimes forget when they’re working with freshmen and sophomores is that they’re dealing with a bunch of newbies who are touching the material for the first time. Obviously, you shouldn’t be handing out A’s left, right, and center, but you also shouldn’t be “peer reviewing” your students’ papers because they are not your peers.

Also, make sure that if there are multiple TAs for the same class that you’re all on the same page. If the other TAs are mellower than you, you may find your class size shrinking week by week.



4. Call people out

C’mon, you know who’s done the reading and who’s just pulling things out of their ass. When I was a sophomore, there was this junior in my City Novels class who clearly had never read any of the books, or if he had, he was a total idiot and didn’t know what he was talking about. It used to drive my entire row in the lecture hall where we had section up a wall. Our TA was way too nice and polite and would patiently wait for him to finish his long ramblings that were total BS. What she really should have been doing was calling this mofo out every class so that someone with an actual contribution to make could speak. You know precisely who these BS artists are. Don’t cushion the blow with them. Shut them down so you don’t waste everyone’s time and so your class doesn’t hate you for facilitating this kid of BS.


5. Explain, don’t regurgitatehalf_teaching_assistant_half_ninja_magnet-p147041301897455711envtl_400

If I wanted to rehear the lecture from Thursday, I could just go online and find a university-sanctioned recording and replay it in the comfort of my own home. Your role as a TA should be to clarify and explain, not regurgitate the obscure language the professor used in the lecture hall. It’s bad enough that most of these discussion sections happen Friday morning, at which point everyone is either hungover or already in weekend mode. Dumb it down for us all in discussion section and then give us examples to deepen our understanding. That’s all we really ask of you.

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