Teaching Assistants: Not Employees, but Apprentices

Let’s talk about Teaching Assistants. The structural importance of TAs is on the rise and, in Canada at least, mammoth introductory surveys require an army of graduate student labourers. This is because we are trying to ward off the crisis in the universities by exploiting not adjuncts (as they do in the United States), but TAs. We’ll just call that a Canadian cultural quirk. Actually, there’s a lot to say about the differences between Canadian and American Universities at the moment, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, I want to stick to the common ground and discuss the role and training of TAs, not how many are employed at any given university.


[The Simpsons’s take on TAs: graduate students being whipped by their supervisor for stealing crumbs at the park before their grading is done]

I’ve had all sorts of TAs: graduate students who have had completely different careers before entering the academy, MA students working in fields completely unrelated to the course to which they’ve been assigned, and senior Ph.D. students who study the relevant field. I’ve also had both men and women work under me in this capacity – though it’s been mostly men, I think because I tend to teach political history – and I have supervised TAs both before and after I completed my own doctoral degree. Some of my TAs have been brilliant, innovative, and natural teachers. Others have needed more guidance to get them on the right path. And then there were the ones which were total disasters, but who couldn’t be fired because their Teaching Assistantship was part of a funding package designed to finance their studies – thus highlighting the unconventional nature of this form of “employment.”

Now, the first time I had TAs I started out naively thinking that this was a relatively normal employer-employee situation, albeit complicated by the fact that I was used to interacting with these people in a non-hierarchical way (the first year I had TAs, I was still a Ph.D. student, and one of the gentlemen working for me had invited me to his house for a dinner party just before he was assigned to my course). I went over my expectations at the start of the semester, and even spent time workshopping how to grade papers, despite the departmental training they had all already received. But I thought that this was the extent of my obligation to my new assistants who were there, I assumed, to make my job easier. Go ahead, laugh! It’s undeniably funny. And if I could go back in time, I would slap past Sarah in the face and try to knock some sense into her because, in many ways, TAs made teaching a heck of a lot more difficult. Coordinating a team, trying to ensure grades were allocated fairly and consistently, and simply trying to make sure tasks were completed on time, all added stress to my already stressful life.

Part of the problem was that it had all seemed so clear-cut at the start. We were all getting paid to do a job. We all had contracts, and the TAs even got an hourly breakdown of their tasks, which implied this was a work situation where people were being paid to deploy skills which they already possessed. Ha! How wrong I was! And that’s when someone explained to me that “TAs are not helpful; they are an opportunity for mentorship.” As mean as that sounds – and if I’m being honest, these words were very much the product of exasperation and frustration – there was a useful paradigm shift embedded in that angry outburst.  One needs to remember that TAs are not there merely to work; they are there to learn how to teach and how to deploy the knowledge and skill sets amassed during their studies. It was only after I took this (albeit unintentional) advice on board that TAs became more helpful, and the entire situation more manageable. My more recent experiences with TAs have been significantly less problematic, and I firmly believe that this is because I now consider their position to be one which straddles the line between employee and student.

MA and Ph.D. students are not just apprentices to established researchers; they are teacher’s apprentices as well. And although there is a mentorship system in place that assigns academic supervisors to guide these men and women through the labyrinthine process of researching and writing, there is no formal equivalent to help graduate students with the equally difficult terrain of seminar leadership and grading. Instead, we ask them to figure it out on their own, because “they’re smart people.” After all, we all had to figure it out on our own. If we can do it, surely they can too, right? Wrong. And wrong for so many different reasons. Most obviously, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have ever really “figured it out.” In fact, I suspect I will spend the rest of my life trying to improve and to adapt my teaching to student needs – even if I’m further along in this process than my TAs. Moreover, anyone who believes that they knew how to lead a seminar or grade papers the first time they were faced with these tasks is either superhuman or creatively reimagining the past. I know I didn’t know how to do these things. And grading, in particular, caused me problems because I had always been a good student. I didn’t know what a B, let alone a C+ paper looked like, and I was a nasty, vicious, beast of a marker as a result. Finally, some solutions just aren’t intuitive, and we will save our students, our TAs and ourselves a lot of hassle if we impart what little wisdom we do possess from the outset instead of waiting for problems to arise later on.


[I thought this image captured my early approach to grading quite nicely]

TAs will be exposed to numerous pedagogical mentors throughout their time in higher education, and a fundamental part of their education is the observance of different styles, so you can’t expect that they’ll be carbon copies of your pedagogical approach. What you can do is give them the tools to complete the tasks which you assign them, and expose them to as many different opportunities as you can so that they can eventually develop their own style. Some of this is basic, and you can do things like provide classroom guidelines. My own guidelines come in written form and stipulate the minimum feedback I’d like to see my TAs provide on student assignments. They also provide a rough estimate of what the average paper grade should be, explain the timeframe in which assignments must be marked, and outline a code of conduct vis-à-vis the undergraduates. But this is all pretty obvious. We also need to help TAs develop seminar strategies (it can be hard to find the best questions or group activities to facilitate these sessions), and to offer them the opportunity to give guest lectures.

All of this does, unfortunately, take time. And I have now learned to leave space in my schedule for a variety of mentoring sessions: help with grading, strategizing about how to deal with exceptionally quiet or especially loud students in seminars, how to keep notes for oral participation grades, and preparation for or debriefing after guest lectures. But my TAs do a better job, learn more, and ultimately everyone is a lot less stressed. I’m also starting to suspect that by making time for mentorship, I have actually become more efficient. Now I that I am targeting my energies, I just feel more sane. I have also opened up a space in which I can learn from my TAs, who sometimes have very innovative solutions to difficult problems. Most importantly, I feel like we are functioning more cohesively as a team, and that each of us is developing important people skills, which will be necessary assets as more and more of us seek jobs outside the academy. I’m a big proponent of teaching my undergraduates transferrable skills, so it makes sense that my TAs and I pick up some new tricks along the way too – learning to lead, follow, and generally play well with others.

I’ve written this post from the perspective of course lecturers, who for better or worse, have been placed in a supervisorial position, but I would love to hear from TAs about how to improve this relationship. What is especially frustrating as you take up Teaching Assistantships, and how can we help?


3 thoughts on “Teaching Assistants: Not Employees, but Apprentices

  1. Perhaps it sounds nasty, but those who have nothing in common with a field should not TA for a class pertaining to that field. On the same line, those who lack pedagogical skills and are not interested in acquiring any, should also stay away from TA-ing.
    I am an older student (34) who has worked several years outside the academe, and always in the public sphere. I came to this country as an immigrant, 7 years ago, decided to abandon my legal career and start over and explore my hobby. Despite my previous degrees in law and an MA in Canadian Studies, I did not enroll in a graduate program, but went instead for the whole deal, bachelor, master and now PhD. Waste of time? Yes, perhaps, for one coming from a north-American background, but not so for a cultural Balkanic mix such as myself. This long introduction is not a self-marketing stratagem. My point is that what one did and/or still does outside the academe has an impact on his teaching skills. For some students, a TA-ship is their first job. And that is fine as long as one starts from the bottom; in this case the bottom would be marking. However, it becomes problematic when he or she is asked to hold conferences as part of the TA-ship. Imagine how it feels to speak publically for the first time in your life, to a bunch of students sometimes your own age. Even if you are a charismatic person, your experience is bound to get worst if you don’t have any background in that field, and no particular interest either. Classes such as History of Russia or the Balkans are a bit more passionate than the average introductory class in let’s say Canadian History. That is not to say that things cannot get out of hands there, too. They can, and the controversies in such a case have a tendency to involve the whole department simply because more people know something about American and Canadian history than they know about, Bulgaria’s past.
    On the other hand, the pedagogical training offered at McGill is sublime but almost totally absent. A one hour workshop on grading simply does not suffice for such a complex activity. Concordia University has a full term course devoted to teaching skills and it is available for free to all graduate students and teaching personnel. All the aspects of teaching from building a teaching C.V., to grading, presentations, crisis situations and mini-lectures are touched upon. I believe it would be a good idea for such a course, to be offered at McGill as well.
    My experience as a TA includes an introductory class in European History as well as the two parts of Russian History. The very first conference in European History at the neighboring university was dedicated to library use; the second one to formatting papers. I believe it is the responsibility of each department in any university to teach their students how to cite properly. When I stumbled upon research papers who included a bibliography full of web links, I was enraged and seriously considered that horrifying word, plagiarism. First, however, I decided to meet with the student, who candidly explained that he was in his first year, and had no idea what a citation guide is. Sadly, this was not an isolated case.
    I learn best from oral feedback. Written comments at the end of a paper are just the first step, but to really understand them and improve the quality of your work you need to discuss them further. I made myself available via e-mail for any questions about pretty much everything, lectures, additional material, papers, exams. Moreover, I encouraged my students to send me drafts. Needless to say, all this went well beyond the number of hours I was paid for. One student even send me three drafts, and I diligently provided feedback for each one of them; in the end, it felt like I knew his paper by heart. What I am trying to do here is construct an argument for meetings between students and TAs, and this is a separate issue from office hours, which are oftentimes useless, since no one ever comes. If, however, some time from the conference were set aside for feedback on papers, and attendance to this meeting were to count towards the participation grade, students would surely attend.
    Lastly, I can’t end this without mentioning that in an ideal world, museum visits, history tours, films or social gatherings where we all cook together some old recipes while sharing stories and raising questions about a particular topic in the course, would also be part of the deal.
    Students, at any level in their careers are apprentices. In fact, I look at teaching as an exchange of knowledge. This is because I was fortunate enough to have great profs who made a point in learning from their students almost as much as their students learned from them. In my last e-mail to my students in the winter term I endorsed the same principle.

    • Ruxandra,
      Thanks so much for your post! I agree that McGill lacks sufficient TA training right now (though it seems to be in a transition period with that), which is something one of my TAs raised with me last semester. I’ve taught at 3 different institutions now, and all of them have different ways of preparing their TAs. They also all have different policies regarding who can TA for what. And so as problematic as McGill may be for offering training, they are actually one of the better ones respecting one’s intellectual background. Elsewhere, I had a team where 3 out of 4 TAs for my Tudor/Stuart class were Canadianists. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that despite being put in charge of these people, I have no experience as a TA myself — my funding package meant that because TAships were allocated based on financial need, I was never awarded one.)

      I also think your insight about the different life-experience possessed by different TAs is key, and this is why I think we need to look at this as a mentorship process, which provides greater flexibility to adapt to a TAs needs. The problem is that adjuncts/sessionals like myself often have TAs, and we don’t get paid for hours logged with TAs in much the same way that you didn’t get paid for those extra hours you logged with your students. I strongly believe that the whole system needs to be rethought, and this then needs to be reflected in pay.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

  2. I fully agree, but here we’ve come full circle, to the overarching narrative of chronic underfunding in arts. However…leaning on my ethnic-cultural background again, I strongly believe that it is the endeavour that comes first. Attitudes such as, why are you putting yourself through this? you know you won’t get paid, make no sense for me. We need to do the best with the little we have; dedication and teaching work hand in hand. And sadly, except for the Scandinavian countries, I know of no place where the teaching profession is truly valued and compensated as such. The key here is restructuring, but the caveat is pay 🙂

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