The two types of teaching assistants (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.

Originally posted  on November 13, 2012

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done. Continue reading “What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)”

Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

One important aspect of being a teaching assistant is learning to teach non-majors, since in many cases, these students don’t come to class with a strong interest in the subject or with particular or special motivation for the course (it is, after all, not in their major subject). In my experience in mathematics, I have seen that the plurality or majority of teaching resources seems to be spent teaching students outside their respective department (at least by some measures, e.g. number of courses offered). This is probably true of many other departments. Teaching majors being a serious and core priority, teaching non-majors should nonetheless be a different, but still important, sort of priority. Continue reading “Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)”

Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few: Continue reading “Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)”


In the past month, two of my three closest friends from high school have either gotten married or placed a down payment on a house. Two weeks ago at the wedding, the single one, whose house is still currently in the process of being built, showed me pictures of the structure and mentioned how real it felt as they began to put the windows into place. Being stuck in grad school while close friends make these huge commitments is less than ideal to say the least. As their future gets clearer, they pose questions about the cloudiness of mine and as I’ve posted on the blog before, my aspirations of going into academia don’t necessarily impress my trio of friends: The Dentist, The Surgeon, and The Homeowner.

Seeing their lives progress while much of mine has remained at a stand still somewhat made me question my chosen path. These interactions combined with the barrage of academia job applications I’ve sent out without much any response hasn’t been positive reinforcement that this is going to be my career.  Even if I thought industry was a good fit for me, I haven’t had any sort of formal experience since my internship in 2009 and wouldn’t really know where to begin to make the switch. Most of my professional experiences the last 4 years have been so focused on teaching, I’ve been honing skills that I’m not sure how valuable they would be in an industry setting. Sure, my public speaking is much better, and I’d argue I can communicate science better than most of my peers, but even students from my department who have much more impactful research and leadership experiences than I do have struggled finding a job.

About a month ago, I set a deadline of June 1st as when I’d start looking for positions in industry,  just to see what was out there and if I could find a position that would work for me.  That was Monday.  However last week, the instructor for the summer course I’m TAing for had a conflict and needed me to cover her lecture.  I’ve given talks at conferences and departmental seminars, but this would be the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to probably outside of my high school graduation.  It was an introductory lecture, Biological Molecules, teaching the building blocks of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids, something I had no problem teaching but given this was my first time, I had this odd feeling of nervous excitement, similar to Christmas morning as a child, heading into the lecture. 2 hours later…okay, you caught me, I let them out early. 1.5 hours later, I felt inspired and confident that that all the sacrifices I’ve made to be here have been worth it, and that the wedding and the house are still in my future and I’ll get to them.  First comes the hard part, finding someone to let me teach.

Teaching Assistants: Teachers in Training

Serving as a graduate Teaching Assistant or “TA” provides graduate students with opportunities to experience and learn what it is like to teach. The role of the TA often depends on her/his subject matter expertise for the course. Whether serving as a professor’s assistant or primary teaching support, teaching class part-time, or as the primary teacher for a course, a graduate student TA experiences firsthand the joys and challenges of teaching. Serving as a TA is often the first real teaching experience for those aspiring to become a faculty member. Although TA’s usually have experience performing research, writing, and working with colleagues both faculty and graduate students alike, they often lack real teaching experience. Serving as a TA helps them understand the important difference of being in front of the classroom and sitting within it.

TA’s are compensated. TA’s receive a significant stipend plus payment of their tuition and fees. In return, TA’s work 20 hours per week. TA’s usually have some background in the course or courses for which they serve as a TA. TA’s often have taken the course or related courses for which they serve as a TA. In return, TA’s often have office or lab hours in which they work with students. TA’s help grade exams and papers subject to the professor’s judgment. Also, TA’s may lead exam review sessions. Most importantly, professors often assign TA’s to work one-on-one with students having difficulty with the course.

All of the TA’s roles and responsibilities not only assist the professor, help students learn the course’s content, and build a sense of classroom community but also provide the TA with valuable training. How well a TA benefits from this training is directly related to how well s/he teaches when s/he becomes a professor. This training enables a TA to better communicate her/his expertise to her/his students when s/he becomes a faculty member. Serving as a TA is integral to a TA’s success when s/he becomes a professor because the experience will enable her/him to teach more effectively and enhance students’ learning.

Learning to Teach Something New

I have taught school finance as an adjunct professor at the graduate level for many years, and my ideal role is that of professor. I enjoy teaching, writing, publishing, and research. One of my greatest joys is observing how students begin to grasp school finance concepts and budgeting principles before ultimately developing an understanding of how proper school finance is linked to the provision of a top quality education. Like all students regardless of age, educational setting, or grade, the epiphany occurs differently and at different times for different students. Most importantly, the epiphany occurs and serves my students well over their careers.

The overwhelming majority of the students, who have attended my school finance course over the years as part of their Master’s in Education, are teachers. Almost all of my students report feeling some level of trepidation when registering for the course because school finance has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences. However, my students report that they find it instructive to attend a course that has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences because it helps them focus on understanding how students learn new things and, perhaps more importantly, how to hone their skills for teaching concepts that their students find new.

I help my students overcome their trepidation by demonstrating how they have performed many of the budgetary process steps that we discuss in the course in their own life; they called them something different but many of the underlying concepts are the same. Slowly but surely my students gain confidence. Many of my students have told me following the course that their experience in overcoming their trepidation for attending a course focusing on “something new” and learning the new material has informed their pedagogy.

Perhaps we can all benefit from accepting challenges to learn new things especially when these new things seem outside our comfort zone. Moreover, perhaps those studying to become teachers will work hard to understand what it is like for students who feel challenged learning new material because they fear they might fail while doing so. Similarly, those studying to become teachers might incorporate this understanding in their teaching by demonstrating the keen sense of accomplishment that stems from learning something new and realizing a return on their investment that overwhelms their risk.