“Teaching Assistant” is a state of mind

Working as a teaching assistant implies a very wide variety of experiences. For some, it’s a full semester of two hours sitting in a lonely office every week and very little else. For others, it requires two new lesson plans every week, with staggering piles of homework and tests to grade. For me, being a TA has landed somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I’ve had my hours of boredom in the office and I’ve had stacks of grading to do.  The most notable thing about my experience as a TA is that I’ve mostly worked with graduate students, who claim to be a different breed from undergraduates. In that sense, I feel like my experience has been a little atypical, devoid of the frustrations usually referred to by popular representations of academia (I’m looking at you, PhD Comics).

Despite the atypical nature of my experience, there are at least a couple things that I’ve come across that seem to be common threads for TAs. First is the frustrating duty of enforcing the rules set down by the professor and the University. There always seems to be at least one person that neglects or ignores his responsibilities as a student. TAs are usually not the ultimate authorities but they do bear a responsibility to keep people honest. It’s frustrating to work with people who are unwilling to make the effort to engage, or are blind to the effect their ambivalence has on those around them.

That being said, there are significant upsides to being a TA which often outnumber the negative aspects. Being a teaching assistant always brings the potential for engaging and educational interactions with students. While these interactions are often superficial they also contain the potential to be meaningful for both the student and the TA. On the student side, engaging with the TA shows dedication to learning and succeeding in class. It also gives undergraduates an opportunity to speak with someone that has taken a deeper interest in academics and may have some advice about careers. For the TA, speaking with students can deepen their understanding of the class’ subject. Being responsible for someone else understanding difficult concepts can clarify and sharpen one’s own understanding.

Working as a TA always reminds me of a saying I once heard: ‘you can’t truly understand something until you can bring about that understanding in others.’ That is more relevant for some TAs than others. Teaching an entire class on the history of planning in the United States is probably a bit more revelatory than helping half a dozen students with their GIS problem sets over the course of a semester. That being said, I think working as a TA has helped me refine not only my professional interests (do I want to be a teacher?), but my pedagogical interests as well (what do I want to teach and how?). It has made me a better student, a better teacher, and a better person all around.

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