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What piece(s) of advice would you give to new TAs?

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On 5/14/2014 at 10:19 PM, surefire said:

All excellent advice so far! I only have a couple of specifics to add.


- I would echo what rising_star said re: accessing your university's teaching centre, where available. The workshops through this resource are incredibly helpful to aid not only your students' development, but your own efficiency.


- I would also echo what jullietmercredi said about organization. It is absolutely worth the time to come up with a system for organizing; it will be worth it even if you have ONE student/essay that goes AWOL, as you'll be able to quickly ascertain what's up (every semester students seem to top themselves in the creative ways that they disregard my submission instructions, while you should resist the urge to coddle, a good organization system will ensure that you can detect these hiccups quickly).


- On the organization front: I would also encourage you to spreadsheet your hours. I work at a Uni with a union, so there are stipulations about workload whereby one can grieve/remedy situations of over-work. I understand that this varies around universities, so I would encourage you to get acquainted with your departmental/university culture on the TA front and find out how TA assignments are comprised and what routes there are to address issues - in any case, track your hours. If a prof thinks that marking each mid-term test should take you 15 minutes, and you take a half hour for each, that does not mean that you suck at marking (though it is true that you'll take some time to find your groove), it might mean that there needs to be an adjustment in terms of the assignment or the hours that are expected/available to mark it. Think of it this way: if you just put your head down and do the excess work, some poor schmuck TA that does the class NEXT time will have to contend with the same issue. Again, find out the routes to address issues and gauge your departmental culture on this - it might just be a matter of informally discussing things with the prof, it might be a matter of submitting something to the uni HR so they can adjust the TA assignment. At the very least, spread-sheeting will help you get acquainted with how many hours each task in a semester requires, so you can predict how to plan your NEXT semester AND you can concretely see how you are becoming more efficient in each task.


- Have a "warm fuzzies folder". Every nice e-mail from prof or students, solicited or unsolicited, goes in the folder. This will make it easier to compose a teaching dossier later on. If someone says something nice about what a great TA you are, ask them to put that sentiment in an e-mail and send it to you - that might feel weird, but self-advocacy is a good skill to hone.


- I'm a strong advocate of the electronic rubric. That is, typing up comments in a word doc rubric and stapling these to the essays, rather than printing blank rubrics and writing in them. This has several benefits: (1) There's no question that my comments are legible; (2) I can send the whole doc to the prof, if they're interested, so that they can get a sense of trends in the comments and/or they have the comments on-hand if a student comes in to complain about the mark; ( 3) I find that students tend to skim comments if I put lots of them on BOTH the paper and the rubric, so I mostly put them on the rubric (which I have space for, as I'm typing them up) BUT I refer to specific examples from the paper (that is, global comment and then, "see the example I've commented upon on page 5"); (4) I can CHANGE the damn comments/mark if need be; scribbled-out comments on a student's paper both look messy and sometimes prompt students to complain - "I can see that you gave me a 4.5/5 then changed it to 3.5, whyyyyyy?"; there will be occasions where you have to go back and adjust - say, if you dock big marks initially for students who missed a certain component, but then it turns out that the majority missed this component, you might re-visit the assignment question and realize that it was confusingly phrased and be inclined to deduct less - so electronic marks help with this.


- Don't be afraid to sometimes tell the students that they're being inappropriate or unprofessional, it's a courtesy, really. If a student sends an e-mail that makes you cringe, tell them so. Don't just say, "that's inappropriate" and also refrain from an exhaustive point-by-point, just point quickly to the irksome thing and then address the request. Many of them will not reward you for this effort by amending their correspondence/conduct. However, I find that those that do rise to the occasion appreciate the advice - after all, it helps then glean more expedient/favourable responses, right? 

What's the meaning of electronic rubric? Is it like standard for marks? Many thanks!

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On 5/16/2014 at 10:25 PM, hashslinger said:

We typically get jobs anywhere from SLACs to R1s to R2s and very teaching oriented colleges to community colleges.

Could you explain the meaning of R1 R2 SLACs? Thanks!

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On 7/6/2018 at 10:37 AM, YAO ZHAO said:

Could you explain the meaning of R1 R2 SLACs? Thanks!

R1: top-tier research university (Ivies and pseudo-Ivies, state flagship campuses, etc)

R2: second-tier research university (still research oriented, but with less money and reputation)

SLAC: Small Liberal Art Colleges (primary focus is on undergraduate education, smaller student bodies)

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What follows are recommendations that others haven't already been discussed in great detail (or I just flat out missed). I offer no comment on previous recommendations that I find controversial. I offer no guarantee or warranty that any of the suggestions that follow will work for you.

My background

I was trained and mentored by a professor who won a university award for teaching and a national award for teaching, wrote a well regarded pamphlet on teaching history, and was ultimately the university-wide SME on teaching undergraduates. (Hereafter Professor Sierra)

I did my outside field in the school of education' with a professor whose many hats included training teachers to teach, consulting, and some session work. (Hereafter Professor Charlie)

Prior to graduate school, I had aspired to be a professor known for teaching. With this objective in mind, I deliberately studied under historians who struck me as great teachers to the point where I dropped professors who were clearly awful ones.

My experience

Ten (10) total sections in the history department, all but two (2) in my areas of emphasis.


From Professor Sierra.

  • Hold the line on grades at all costs.
    • Grade inflation is a blight upon the Ivory Tower that diminishes the reputation of a department and the value of a degree.
    • Develop and adhere to well-developed evaluation rubrics.
  • Give comprehensive feedback to students so they understand why the deserve the grade they received.
  • Make office hours mandatory after midterms
  • Do not throw students curve balls when preparing them for exams.
    • Every question he ever posed on an exam or allowed me to write were right out of the course materials. Fastballs at 119 MPH.
  • A syllabus is a contract.
  • Hold the line on grades at all costs. (After penciling in grades, go through everything again.)

From Professor Charlie

  • If a student is motivated to learn and does not achieve her educational objectives it is the teacher's fault. (This one stings.)
  • If a student is motivated to learn, do not attempt to alter that student's motivation.
  • Technology is a tool no more, and often less, valuable than other resources. (He could point to the research backing this up.)
  • Give information in small clusters of 7 +/-2 . (This tactic is related to the concept of "working knowledge" in cognitive psychology.)
  • Students are like "abused children" and can respond as such, so don't take feedback too personally.
  • The second best tool he shared -- distribute an evaluation form at the beginning of each and every class meeting that allowed for anonymous feedback.
    • Sometimes, the feedback was brutal.
    • Most of the time, the feedback was painful (because few hand in the forms).
  • The best tool he shared was a frame of mind that made supporting students so they could reach their goals the only objective of teaching.
    • "You're going to tell me what you want to achieve, and I'm going to give you some support."
      • This position means that if a student wants to pass a class, it's your job to support that goal.

My Lessons Learned

  • Having students complete, by hand, a student information sheet that includes fields for interests, course objectives, contact information, and schedule can pay huge dividends if:
    • You schedule your office hours in a way that accommodates the schedules of most schedules.
    • You read carefully their interests and objectives.
  • Memorizing the names of all your students by the second section meeting will earn a lot of respect.
    • FWIW, I used an instant camera to take photos during the first meeting, had students write their names with black sharpies, and spent as much time as necessary that night to learn the names.
    • For the rest of the semester and beyond, I paid students cash out of my pocket if I couldn't remember a name.
  • Make a commitment to your students.
    • Throughout the semester, I would beat the drum that I was their advocate with the professor who had final say on grades.
      • I implored "Put me in a position where I can make a convincing case that the high B you earned by the numbers should be a B+."
        • Many students responded to this offer and worked harder and harder as the semester wore on, and they got the bumps (and in a few cases, the lumps) they deserved.
  • Grading blue books
    • Time consuming, often painful, I eventually found a workflow that saw me going through all the responses for a specific ID term, short essay, or long essay so that I could understand what better responses looked like compared to less thoughtful ones.
    • From there, I'd work on the responses that merited a straight grade and then the pluses and the minuses.
    • Throughout, I'd use the rubric which also had abbreviations for recurring issues.
  • Extra credit
    • With a professor's prior approval, I'd offer extra credit opportunities.
    • In general, they were easy to evaluate because the task would be something I'd already read/seen/heard and students would often not want to pay the cost in free time.
  • Have a realistic sense of who you are as a person.
    • "Yours is not a smiling face," Professor Sierra told me after three undergraduates cried in my office on consecutive days, the third would go on to start in the NFL.
    • From that point forward, I've worked on softening the edges, but I understand that an edge will probably always be there.
  • Your department will form opinions if you are placing too high a priority on your TAing.
    • During midterms and towards the end of the semester, there would be multiple 18+ hour days on campus, doing the TA thing. 
  • Recognize, document, report, and avoid the crazy
  • Use in-class group projects to put the burden of disruptive students on other disruptive students.
    • That is, if you have five students who are constantly causing you issues, divide your section into groups of five with those five students on the same team and appoint the chief trouble maker to be team captain. 
      • The other teams will pretty much run themselves and do well so you can focus your support where it's most needed.
  • Luck of the draw is a huge factor in how well a section goes.
    • One semester, you can have a critical mass students who "get you," like the class, and love the professor and off you go.
    • Another semester, you can have a critical mass of students who are in the class because nothing else was available, don't like the materials, don't get the professor, and have a "fuck you very much" attitude no matter what you do. Big smiles and fun times await.
  • Before the first day of the academic year, you want to get a clear sense of how your department, the college, and the university value academic integrity.
    • As a collegian, the riot act on plagiarism was read during every first meeting of every class.
    • As a graduate student, such a process was not in place. So, when I caught some students doing shady things and did my job as I understood it, I found out that my expectations were out of whack with established practice. I am not bitter; it's purely and absolutely by coincidence that I've made a living in the private sector since then.

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I actually led a discussion this morning and I had no idea what I was doing (because the prof did not give me clear guidelines). But it went okay. But I feel like the students could tell that I did not know what I was doing 

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I clearly have a feminist stance due to my research topic as a grad student but I am a TA in a not-so-related social work class. I'm 100% sure that some students will be unhappy about that in their final evaluation at the end of the term. 

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I incorporated a lot of gender theory into my courses during my MA TA days, and every semester I had one student who wrote in their evaluation that I had somehow tried to push my liberal agenda. The school where I taught was a very rural university, and for a while I was very upset that some students perceived this. Yes, I am a liberal, so that's not what upset me. What upset me was the idea that I'd made my students feel uncomfortable and pressured rather than feel open to discuss their own ideas and think critically. 

Then, I made a word cloud of all the text from my evaluations each semester and felt way better. Most of my students thought I pushed them to challenge their believes in a way they felt safe. That's the goal, but some students just won't like what we have to say. Some won't enjoy being asked to defend their opinions and consider others in ways they have never done before. 

Also, I've learned that if I want to try something in my class which might challenge students (such as a difficult text or subject matter), I can approach my department head. She always asks why I think it's important and trusts me as an instructor. I think seeking support ahead of time can really re-enforce the way you perceive your authority in the classroom and strengthen your relationship with your department leadership.


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If you're TA'ing a large survey class and have to monitor attendance, set up assigned seats based on where people sit the first day and stick to it (if your prof is cool with it).  My first semester as a GA I had no idea what I was doing and the prof with whom I was working (who was awesome!) told me that I was free to do attendance however I wanted and told me about a couple of different ways that her TAs had done it in the past.  Unfortunately chose poorly; I opted to send 2 sign in sheets around the auditorium-one on each side-which was distracting to the students (~150 or so) and made extra work for me because I had to consolidate the names onto my spreadsheet after class three times a week.  It was only about halfway through the semester when I ran into a TA from another course who advised me to do assigned seating and just check the seats during class, at which point it was way too late to institute a policy like that.  Don't make extra work for yourself!!

Also if your prof gives you the chance to do a guest lecture, make time for it no matter how busy you are during the semester.  I was pretty swamped between my own classes and TA'ing responsibilities the semester I TA'd a World History course and passed on the chance to do a lecture on late colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa which would have been a lot of fun to do and great experience, and I really regret that.

Finally, keep track of any earnest students who actually show up to your office hours or study sessions (should you offer any) and pass their names along to the prof with whom you're working when the end of the semester rolls around, if you get the sense that the prof has any interest in that information.  I had 4-5 dedicated students who would come by and go over test results, ask questions about the readings, etc. a couple of times a month and they all got grade bumps during finals.

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Has anyone had experience having to TA or teach fellow grad students, some of whom are in your same lab? If so, how was that experience for you? Any advice? 

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On 1/9/2020 at 3:50 PM, Regression2theMean said:

Has anyone had experience having to TA or teach fellow grad students, some of whom are in your same lab? If so, how was that experience for you? Any advice? 

Yes, but they were in a different department, so we had only met once very briefly. Generally it was all fine; in this case they were taking an undergraduate course so they came in knowing there was a graduate TA. I felt a bit weird grading them, but I think they did value my feedback, and it helped that their assignments were pretty good. I had to meet individually with each student about their research paper, and our meeting was really nice because it actually felt more conversational and less awkward. We could also get into some deeper discussion because they were naturally more advanced than my other students, so instead of having to explain the basics of how to pick a research topic, we could talk more about methodological issues, sources, etc. It ended up being a good learning experience for both of us! I think it boils down to: 1) don't baby them, and 2) be really open to what they have to say. 

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