So you’re about to become a Teaching Assistant…

Last week we had a great guest post about the TA union PSAC 901, so this week I thought I’d keep the theme going with some thoughts about things to consider from the perspective of working as a TA. This is the first year I’ve ever been a TA and I’m mighty glad for the opportunity. It’s a platitude to say that a job like this is full of challenges and rewards, but here are three specific issues I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • Preparing a teaching dossier – Last week was the third and final session in the Religion and Diversity Project graduate workshop series in which I’ve been participating. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about professionalization for academics. One of the topics we covered in some depth was how to prepare for a job application. For me, this is two years away, but you can never start early enough. If a department is planning on hiring an associate colleague, part of your application to that position is a teaching dossier. Almost all the other doctoral students at the workshop had the enviable problem of having to turn down teaching courses, sacrificing the financial boon for more time to spend on their own research projects. In my program, at least, TAships are typically only assigned as part of a student’s funding package. I’ve been fortunate to be externally funded during all my grad school years, but this year I applied for a position just like for any other advertised job posting. Now I have something other than occasionally leading seminars for classes (these can count, too!) to list under “Teaching Experience” on my CV. You could think about including student feedback in your teaching dossier as well if you receive end-of-semester evaluations. Although a TAship won’t be looked at in the same way as a TFship (Teaching Fellowship) where you are entirely responsible for running a course, TAing can give you a different perspective on how you might in the future organize a course if you’ve never done it before. Somehow, being on the student side and being on the teaching/TAing side can be so different. I remember a saying popular in my childhood (a product of the cynical mid 90s?) that everyone’s a critic – but what happens when it comes time to make a stab at the thing you’re used to criticizing? It can be tough! But it’s valuable professional development.
  • Negotiating boundaries/roles with the course professor – This point is just meant to bring new students’ attention to the fact that every TAship is different. Some are just marking jobs. Some involve facilitating discussion, clarifying course material, and even making decisions about how to evaluate students. This variation can pose different challenges for figuring out how much you’ll need to confer with your boss, the professor, and how much guidance and information it’s appropriate for you to offer the students, etc.
  • Managing emails – Class sizes are only getting bigger, and tutorials are meant to be opportunities for direct contact between new students and more experienced students and to develop a more personal learning environment. Even tutorial groups can be pretty large, though. I, for example, have two groups of about 25 students each. Email can serve as another method to make a more personal connection and offer one-on-one feedback. But when you put yourself out there as an email resource for students, the hours can add up. And you need to be careful about using your hours wisely so that you don’t exceed them. (Of course, there may be times when you exceed your hours in the course of executing solely the tasks that are required of you, and in this case, communication with your employer is crucial. The TA Union is always there for you, too). We all know by now that the interwebs have a way of sucking your time into the ether. This BBC article explains exactly how email feeds on your errant attention and offers some concrete suggestions for managing your electronic communication.
Posted in Finances, New Students
2 comments on “So you’re about to become a Teaching Assistant…
  1. Atif Atif says:

    Great post Sharday. One comment I’ll add is that if you can get a discussion board set up on Moodle, then students can post questions there that others can answer. It ensures the students get answers quickly, and you can always double check to make sure the answers are correct (plus, you can save those TA hours for office hours and in person sessions)

  2. Colette says:

    HI Sharday
    Thanks for this. IN relation to the Teaching Dossier, we will be holding a workshop in the winter term on this as part of the Expanding Horizons workshop series, so if people want some help in how to start, then look out for this next term

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