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This is another post for those who are just starting a grad program in the (North American) fall about what to expect. This one is on a topic that is a very common source of stress in grad school and especially that first semester. I was reminded about this area of graduate studies since I got my TA assignment schedule in my email recently. I was lucky in my first year of my PhD in that my program did not require me to teach, though I did miss it at times. Teaching can be a lot of fun and it can also be an overwhelming experience that keeps you from your own work, but only if you let it. Below I hope that you will find at least a little comfort in knowing that teaching is something all grad students have to do and, more importantly, if you are planning a career in academia something that you will be doing the rest of your life. I’m no expert, but I do believe that a research only job in academia is something that exists only in that movie Stranger Than Fiction (remember Dustin Hoffman in that movie? He was great). Anyway, here are some things about what you might expect from that harrowing first year of TAship.

You’ll Be Asked (forced?) to be a TA
Yes, a short semester ago you were the belle of the ball, apple of your parents’ eye, at the top of your game when you strode across that stage to proudly accept your BA (or other degree) from an old guy in a funny hat. And now? Now you’re the teacher?! But, no, you plead that you simply aren’t ready and all that stuff about the next step and making a difference that the valedictorian was talking about didn’t really apply to you. You’re still a student, after all and there’s no way you could talk to a group of people in a room. You just want to sit in lecture and be lectured at because, again, you’re a student with no training in actually talking to and in front of people. Relax, peaches.

TAing is seen by most new graduate students as a daunting task they are not prepared for. They are right, for the most part. However, your department is fully aware of your lack of preparation and they should provide resources for making the transition as easy as possible. Of all the new grad students I know and have known, without fail, by the midpoint of the first semester of being a TA they are into the swing of things and actually enjoying themselves. The first semester of TAing is, by its very nature, the most difficult. You are being thrown into the thick of things and your grad chair can’t hold your hand (besides, I think that’d be considered harassment of some sort) while you teach a class. So, you will have a few options available to you. Your best bet is that the professor you’re working for is organized. This is a crapshoot. I have worked with highly organized individuals, their antithesis, and those in between. The highly organized individual will have regular meetings with their TAs to discuss the focus of the course and tutorials, the final exam/essay, and any general topics related to the course. The highly organized and efficient prof will also meet with their TAs before the first class, if possible and then again soon afterwards but before the first assignment is due to assess/teach marking uniformity. At the other end of the scale, you are largely on your own. The unorganized prof for whom teaching is a thankless chore (and you will probably also feel this way at some point) will do everything in their power to do as little as possible and, unfortunately, this has a great impact on TAs. This is unacceptable and you are absolutely entitled to ask for help from the prof or grad chair. Keep in mind, however, that you will still expect to run tutorials and mark assignments even if your grad or department chair is powerless to change this prof’s evil ways.

There is good news, lots of it. You will have an in-built support system in other TAs and peers. Most large survey courses have at least a few TAs and you can bet that there will be one or two senior grad students who can help you out. If this is your first semester TAing and you are the only TA for a course, that should ring alarm bells. This might be the way it works at smaller institutions, but I figure if a class only needs one TA then it is either an upper division course that a first-year grad student shouldn’t be TAing for or the class is small enough that the prof doesn’t really need a TA. If you find yourself in a situation like this it’d be best to ask the question. Your colleagues should be willing to help you out.

So, you’ve got all the organizational stuff figured out and now you have to face a class of probably about 30 undergraduates in all stages of eagerness. If it’s a first-year course, you’ve got a majority of students who are taking it to fulfill some requirement of their degrees and there are varying levels of interest in the material. Then there are some who are trying to get A+ in every class so they can get into the business major or some other competitive major program; they have therefore taken Intro to University Writing or some other benign-sounding intro class with the hope that it is easy enough to put in minimum effort for maximum result. This is, of course, not always the case but it does happen. Your job is to facilitate conversation and cultivate understanding of what the professor said in lecture about that week’s material. Contrary to the word beloved by TAs the world over, it is not actually your job to teach anything, that’s the lecturer’s job. Your job is to make sure the students understand what was said, which means you yourself have to understand it extremely well. If you walk into a tutorial and do all the talking, you’re doing yourself a disservice because that’s not why you’re there. You can definitely start the class off talking – perhaps with a recap of the lecture – but more often than not you should not be the one talking. Now, that’s in a perfect world. I find myself talking more than I would like to sometimes, but it’s about hitting on the right questions and getting students to ask and engage in discourse.

I don’t have all the answers about how to be an effective TA, but I do know that you needn’t spend a disproportionate amount of time doing it. Most universities and colleges have strict guidelines about how many hours per week you are to spend on TA responsibilities. Stick to those hours and, remember, working as a TA is not your sole reason for existing. Make sure your students know this so they don’t expect that you simply sit around in your office waiting expectantly for their emails at all hours of the day and request that they respect your posted office hours and don’t expect immediate responses to their emailed questions. You are in a grad program first and foremost to work on your own research and learning. Don’t let TAing take over your life – because it can – and be a bit selfish about your priorities.

There’s plenty more to say on this topic, so I’m certain this will not be the final post. In the meantime, check out a few other TA- and teaching-related posts from bloggers Grad School Ninja, Isharacomix, Academic Sins, and TUFTS University Gradmatters.