It’s the first day of class in September, and I’m sitting down in a lecture I’ve been in many times before. But this time I’m in for something very different. I’m not a student at this lecture, I’m there as a Teaching Assistant. This shouldn’t be a problem though should it? I did my undergrad here at this school, and I know what the expectations are and how the grading systems work. It’s also not my first experience on this side of the student-teacher relationship. I did my Bachelor of Education last year. Surely, a Teaching Assistantship will be easy compared to the rowdy and hormonal group of grade 10’s I was teaching last year. This will be an easy opportunity to practice my teaching skills, make some cash, and gain some good experience along the way.
Well, I may have been wrong. Over the past few months I’ve quickly discovered that being a Teaching Assistant presents an entirely unique set of challenges that I certainly didn’t anticipate on that first day of class in September. Before I go any further with this post, I do have to say that TAing is a unique experience. If this article had been written by a TA form another class, or even another TA in the class I am working in, it would probably look a lot different.
Communication is key. It’s been said countless times, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. The most important line of communication is the one between you and the Professor that you’re working for. It’s important to remember that being a TA is a job. Like in any other job, if there isn’t effective communication between the Prof and the TAs, then everything suffers. Unfortunately, Professors are busy people, so you often need to advocate for yourself. It’s as simple as taking five minutes at the end of each lecture to check in, or a quick email at the start of the week that asks if there is anything to be aware of coming up. Most importantly don’t be afraid to ask questions of your Prof until you’re clear on the expectations for yourself and for the students. Yes, it will seem annoying. Occasionally I’ve needed to ask the same questions several times, but when that pile of essays arrived, I was glad a knew how to grade question #2.
Marking is probably the most difficult part of the job itself. It doesn’t take very long to realize that a paper that is a B+ for one TA or Professor can easily be an A- to another. There’s really no way to get around this problem entirely, but there are ways to minimize it. First, tools such as rubrics, marking samples, grading schemes, etcetera, ad nauseam, are all extremely helpful in gaining an understanding of the standards and to achieve consistency. Don’t be afraid to the Prof for clarification here, and if you’re really having trouble, don’t be afraid to leave a paper or two for the Prof to mark themselves. Obviously I wouldn’t want to leave huge stack of unmarked papers or questions for your Prof, but in the end these grades are important to the students, and it’s important to get it right.
The best piece of advice I can offer from my experience is don’t be afraid to go with your gut. Often, when you read a paper for the first time, you will have an immediate sense of where it should fall in the grading. As you re-read and re-read the paper however, it becomes easier and easier to talk yourself into assigning a higher or lower grade. I don’t know how many times I flip flopped on grades for some papers. Much of the time, the instinct you had at the outset is the one to go with. This isn’t an invitation to arbitrarily assign grades without carefully reading a paper mind you, but take care not to get too caught up in the details and lose the big picture of the body of the student’s work.
Marking might be the hardest part of the job, but balancing your work as a TA with all of the other requirements of graduate course work (let alone a social or love life) is probably the biggest challenge. Work seems to always pile up, and stress naturally comes hand in hand. Everyone has their own individual tricks for managing their time and getting what needs to be done finished on time. One of the strategies that I’ve found to be effective, especially with marking, is spreading the work out. It’s a lot easier to face the prospect of marking four or five papers in a day than it is to sit down in front of a stack of thirty or forty and trying to power through them in one sitting. For me, this has the bonus of allowing me to get course work done on the same day, avoiding the stress of feeling like I lost a day and that I have fallen behind in my own. I’ve also found that using TA work as a break from other course work has been effective for me. Tired of that tedious Foucault reading? Mark an exam or two then get back to Foucault’s weirdness. Like I said though, everyone has different strategies for managing their time. If getting all of your marking done as a big one day project is what you need to do, then go for it. The important thing is to stay on top of it in a way the works for you.
Again, be open with your professor about you busy schedule. Tell your Professor when the busy times for you are. The deadlines are of course the deadlines and there’s nothing that either you or the Professor can do to avoid that. Having a Professor that is aware of the workload you are carrying can make all the difference. After all, this is a work environment, and it’s important for everyone to be on the same team. In a time of stress, like exams, it’s much better for the Professor to be someone working with you to get the job done than a boss mercilessly piling on the work.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, my experience TAing is a unique one. I have only been asked to tend the lectures, do the readings and assist with the marking, so I can’t speak to any of the challenges that would come from leading seminars or holding regular office hours. It’s a unique challenge for all of us. One thing I can say is that I was partially right walking into that lecture hall on the first day. Easy is something that this experience certainly is not. But it is a job, and if you are able to treat it in that way, it can become a great experience for you.