From the Pen of a TA

I’m what you call a TA (Teaching Assistant), and in my case at least, I’m actually more teacher than assistant, but that’s a little beside the point. As I sit sipping my coffee and munching on some homemade caramel candy relaxing after finishing my finals before I go proctor one tomorrow, thought I’d just drop a little note to the undergrads out there. This is meant to be positive, so just pull up a chair and a cup of coffee, and let’s have a chat.

Letter Writing

Dear Undergrad,

There exists in the word of Academia a special sort of “inbetweens”. We’re not exactly like the Tributes in Hunger Games or the kids trying to make it into a faction in the Divergence series, yet there are some similarities. I mean, if we don’t get our names out there in print and succeed in some avenue of research, we’re pretty well “factionless” and “dead” academically (cannon not included). We’re called “graduate students”, and, you, dear Undergrad, most likely will, at some point, end up in a class with one of us at the board with our handy PowerPoints and chalkboard diagram drawing abilities or lack thereof (seriously, why do we still even have those in college?).  

Here’s a few things to keep in mind…

Despite what you might think, we are, in fact, human and not just robots repeating information that has been passed to us from on high…uh, well,…*cough* I mean, we are allowed some amount of creativity,..

In any case, a good many of us were in your shoes not that long ago, thus we understand often more than we let on what it’s like being in your shoes. This can be an advantage for you, especially if you need help understanding a concept or are running into difficulties. Obviously, this understanding will only go so far, so please don’t ask to leave my class 20 minutes early to get to an exam in another class just because I’m an “understanding TA”. Not impressed over here.

However, on that note, students don’t ask for help nearly as much in person as they should. I say “in person” because I get way too many emails with questions that could be answered better in person or by looking at the syllabus. Time in class is limited, so I can’t always explain something as thoroughly as I would like, but I can often help you understand better if you come see me in office hours. Besides, if you come to my office hours, I can pull out my scratch paper and colorful pens and write out examples or draw pictures or whatever I need to do to hopefully get the light bulb to come on! {Emphasis on colorful pens} The trouble is, my office door is usually open during my office and tutoring hours with students very rarely coming by for help. Take advantage of those office hours that any of your teachers offer. We’re one of your most valuable resources in college! I can also write better recommendation letters if I know you better as a student! Yes, we write those too. See, we’re not robots. Just do us a favor and don’t wait until the last minute to come see us…

TAs and students comic

Secondly, we’re teachers, students, and researchers all at the same time. So, we often feel stretched thin as we juggle our own work and also teach. In my case, I love teaching but I have to admit biting my tongue on a stressful day when a student asks when I’ll have tests, quizzes,Scrat writing assignments, etc graded when students have just turned something in the day before. Most likely, I spent a good portion of the night before getting caught up on my own homework and research and still have the stack sitting on my desk waiting to be graded. Don’t worry! I’ll get it back to you! Just first allow me to go eat my quota of cookies, find a good cup of coffee, maybe get a little sleep, and then I should be able to get your papers graded. 

Thirdly, most of us are still pretty young (probably the age of your older sibling), so we have a lot of enthusiasm and energy especially if we’re teaching something we love. So, please bear with us if we run down a rabbit trail because you just asked a question that related to a class discussion, article, and/or research that we’ve lately been delving into. I’ll usually stop when I look at the class after going through some long explanation on the board, and everyone is giving me the “Why did we even ask?” look. This is good too though because we love our field so much we want you to love it with us, so please do ask questions! 

We’re future professors (hopefully). You’re invaluable to us because we’re learning from you as we continue learning how to teach. Yes, we’ll be doing research in most of our future career, but we’ll also be spending quite a bit of time in front of a class and/or helping train others to teach. I feel so proud (in a good way) and happy every time I run into former students. I love to hear about your triumphs and where your studies are taking you (even if it’s not to France). Every grad student is different, and there’s quite a wide spectrum in approaches to teaching, but I’ll always remember the help a grad student teacher gave me as I struggled in a class. I passed that class with flying colors mainly because he was willing to help. 

As a former undergrad, I wish you all the best and hope that you find some time to relax over the break. If you ever continue into to grad school, you’ll be happy that you did take those breaks to relax, believe me.

Sincerely,

A Tired T.A. in Need of Sustenance (as usual)

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