Thoughts from a first semester TA

Posted March 10, 2015 by Anya Vostinar in Graduate Life / 0 Comments

I’ve been lucky in my graduate career to never need to TA to fund myself. However, my advisor made the excellent point that it is important to know whether you like teaching when considering trying to become a professor and I honestly didn’t know whether I did or not. I have to admit that I was pretty intimidated by the idea of TAing at all since we’ve all heard the horror stories of a crazy amount of work and horrible students. Therefore, when asked what my first choice of a class would be, I decided that the intro to programming class that teaches brand new students Python was a safe bet (my undergraduate career was pretty Python heavy). I figured that I should be fairly familiar with all the topics covered and wouldn’t need to brush up much given I still do a lot of scripting in Python.

For the most part I was right: I can help my students even when I haven’t had a chance to read over the textbook chapter completely for the week and can explain why they are getting a result that confuses them or help them solve a bug without breaking much of a sweat (very much figuratively since the lab we meet in is crazy overheated!).

More importantly though, I’ve learned a lot about teaching and my feelings towards teaching:

  • Grading is made infinitely easier with assignments conducive to automatic scripts and an outline of which sections will have how many of the points. There are a number of TAs for an intro course at a big institution obviously, but every student’s assignment is run through the same auto-grader that produces output for the TAs to use in their grading. This combined with a text file that is also put into every student folder (and an online hand-in system) with an outline of how the points should be distributed has made grading monotonous but much less stressful I think. I’m quite convinced to endeavor to create a similar system when I teach my own classes.
  • Students generally have pretty good attitudes towards me and the class even if they aren’t getting a perfect grade. I have plenty of students who get lost or frustrated at times, but they have always been willing to keep trying and work with me through their problem. I think our tendency to tell the horror stories makes it seem like undergraduates are rude or lazy more often than they actually are ;-). I could just be lucky and have a great lab section too!
  • I have no problem marking a student down when they don’t follow the directions of the project and I’m not even very broken up when I have to be firm to their face if they object to my grading. It helps a lot that the professors for my course are extremely supportive of the TAs and insist they are happy to be the “bad guy” if it is easier for us to blame them for a rule. I haven’t found that I really need to rely on that though.
  • My students have been wonderfully understanding of my physical disability this semester. Because of a pinched nerve, I’ve been walking slowly and with a cane all semester, which is a bit challenging when the lab is packed full and I need to dash about to computers to help students. I’ve never detected any student being annoyed that I take a little bit longer to get to them and they’ve all been very gracious when I’ve asked them to scoot in their chair for me to get by. Not all undergraduates on campus have been so polite.
  • I find help-room hours invigorating. I am in the help-room four hours a weeks for two two-hour blocks (though one is immediately after my lab, so that ends up being more like a three-hour block when lab ends early). I have found that I really enjoy sitting with a student and helping them figure out the logic to solve a problem no matter how basic we need to get with programming to make sure they understand what is going on. I feel bad when help-room is packed and I simply can’t spend as much time as I’d like with each student though.
  • For some reason the opposite is true of email. I’m finding more often than not, an email from a student will trigger a fair amount of sighing from me. I’ve been trying to think of why this is, and it seems likely that it’s because the tone of emails is quite different than the desperate expression of a student in help-room trying to figure something out.
  • Piazza is a great tool for a class like intro programming where there are lots of little questions and most students have the same question. However, students aren’t great at looking through the answers already there. It is really nice when a couple of students just love the subject so much that they end up answering a number of questions without any bribe to do so.
  • Weekly staff meetings where all three professors and all the TAs meet for 30 minutes to an hour is a great way to touch base on how things are going and get to know each other. I feel a lot more comfortable emailing my fellow TAs and the professors now that we’ve bonded over gluten-free chocolate banana cake!

I’m almost certainly missing some of the random thoughts I’ve had during the semester so far, but this list is definitely long enough ;-). Do you have any tips for a first-time TA?

Anya Vostinar

I’m a doctoral student in Computer Science and Engineering and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior at Michigan State University. I am studying the evolution of various group dynamics such as altruism, cooperation, and mutualism using computational tools such as Avida and simulations. I love organizing outreach activities to bring local school children to BEACON as well as developing educational tools that take advantage of technology.

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