With the beginning of the new academic year and the second year of my PhD, I once again resumed my role as a TA after having been given a break by my department in my first year. Now, it might be a bit contentious to call TA work ‘teaching’ since it is usually seen as more of a discussion facilitating role. I consider it teaching since it is, unlike the large lecture hall format, a one-to-one classroom experience that often takes the form of a more traditional interactive teaching role. TA do not and should not be giving lectures during their classes: this is not the TA’s role. Nor should the TA be giving new information necessarily (although I like to begin each class with a little grammar lesson because I feel that is important) but this is at times important to garnering students’ understanding of the course material.
I do not intend for this post to be a how-to guide to being a good or effective TA. Rather, it is more of a confessional about the habits I have cultivated, good and bad, over my short career as both a secondary school teacher and a TA.
Confession the First
The prompt for this post came to be spontaneously during my class’ first exam. I was giving them the instructions and noticed myself speeding up every second I was taking up of their in class writing time. What I saw staring back at me was a room full of students’ faces that were saying “What is this guy’s problem? He’s more nervous than we are” and that was a bad place to be. I need to learn to take my time in explaining things. I am normally quite happy to not speed through things in the classroom, since this is a skill we are trying to instill in our students by having them read such things as poetry, but when it comes to examinations I get all flustered and end up talking like the Micromachines guy from the 1980s.
Confession the Second
I crack too many jokes in class. This is just how I am. Again, I think it might stem from nervousness but I have always felt more comfortable in front of a group if I am able to make them laugh. This is not to say that joking should be banned from the university curriculum, but I feel that it can work to undermine one’s authority if used too often. I have never received any negative student evaluations based on my tendency to joke, nor have I received positive student evaluations based on this criterion. Simply, I don’t know what to make of it. I’ve read plenty of prof reviews on sites like Rate My Professor (guilty pleasure) and it seems as though students value humour. I just feel like I might be overdoing it at times. Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. I guess I’ll just say a couple of Hail Marys and be on my way then, Father.
Confession the Third
As mentioned above, I read Rate My Professor. Why? Often to look what students are saying about profs I knew/know/am working with but just as often to see if my name appears there. So far it hasn’t. This both pleases and disappoints me.
Confession the Fourth
I hate marking. This isn’t necessarily a newsflash to anyone in higher ed, but here’s the thing: even though everyone hates marking, they seldom tell you why. I’ll tell you why I hate it. I hate it for all the banal reasons to do with repetition and tedium, but the reason I really hate it is because it’s a colossal waste of time. Let me qualify that: marking is a colossal waste of time when all most students really want is the grade at the end. Marking papers can take over your life and it can turn out to be all for naught. Your copious marginalia and thoughtful commentary at the end may never be read, but it needs to be there never the less. I do not blame students for this, but rather the system that forces us to do this type of marking uniformly. I have been in situations where the prof I was a TA for allowed us to ask (confidentially) which students wanted copious commentary on their papers/exams and that worked very well. This is not the done thing in most of academia. Would that it were.
Confession the Fifth
I am writing this post as my students sit an exam. I am a bad person.
Confession the Sixth
One of my favourite parts of being a TA is getting free books. Even if they’re books — perhaps especially — that I never would have purchased on my own. This is, in addition to low wages, one of the perks of the job. Cherish it.
Confession the Seventh
I don’t like all the things I teach and I don’t think I have to. Nay, I know I don’t have to. I feel a bit like Obama during the first debate with Romney at times when I am teaching a text that I just hate. Now, I haven’t had to deal with the ethics of ordering drone attacks on my fellow citizens or anything, but the kind of ‘my heart is just not into this’ performance he showed sometimes colours my class time and, for this, I am sometimes ashamed. It doesn’t matter what I like, it matters that I help my students do well because, when it really comes down to it, they likely hate more things on the syllabus than I do.
Confession the Eighth
Teaching takes time away from more important things (like my own work and research). This is the selfish side of academia and the old guard kind of mentality that teaching undergraduates is a necessary evil that should be avoided at all costs. I truly enjoy teaching, but there are times (see: marking) when I wonder why the hell it is that I am doing this when I could and should be doing something that will benefit me and my career. I have to remind myself that this teaching gig is for life and it is a large part of that career. Academia comes with teaching. Always.
Confession the Ninth
I sometimes procrastinate using my teaching as an excuse. I’ve got to get that novel read or those papers marked, right? Maybe it’s time to go over my students’ attendance just to make sure they’re showing up to class. Hey, I haven’t sent out a class email in three hours! These are all things that I do in order to avoid doing work that I need to be doing. I think we all do it at some point or another, but we don’t like to admit it. Even though I love my topic and the research that I do, sometimes it’s just overwhelming and I want to do something else. Not that the teaching stuff isn’t important or doesn’t need to be done, it’s just that your own work and research need to be priorities. Sometimes I’m grateful for the distraction of going to a first-year lecture as well. It’s comforting to just sit and listen to somebody else talk expertly about things. While I don’t think that this confession is all that damning, teaching can really affect your work and overwhelm your time if you let it.
Confession the Tenth (the Final Confession)
I love teaching. Yes, while a number of academics and scholars lament their roles as teachers to ‘unappreciative’ and ‘entitled’ undergrads, I love the challenge and, being the natural class clown, I relish the attention I get when I stand up in front of a class. It feels good to be the person in the room who is not only in control, but the ostensible expert in the field. I guess if I were in the habit of giving advice to people TAing for the first time or those who lacked confidence, I would say that you are the most educated person in that room and that affords you certain luxuries in terms of power dynamics. It is they who should be nervous of you and your enormous fountain of knowledge, not the other way around. Even if this isn’t the case and you have no idea about the topic you’re teaching (if that’s the case, I question how you got into your program) you should still be the most knowledgeable person in the room in your discipline. Upon rereading this section, it looks as though I love teaching because I’m on some sort of power trip. This is definitely not the case. I love speaking to a group but, more than that, I love the feeling of getting something back in the form of a really fruitful discussion or good points being made. There are times when I talk more than they do, but that’s okay.
That does it for this round of confessions. I’m certain to have more at some point. I feel absolved now. Now, how do I get out of this little booth?