Tuesday September 20, 2005
I'm TAing a class this fall, and since I've never done that sort of thing before, I'm attending the required pre-quarter TA conference. Note: it's not an orientation, it's a conference—I heard two different people start to say "orientation" and then correct themselves—and we were told explicitly that attending it should be the first item in our teaching portfolios. Which isn't a CV-padding racket, apparently. I went to three sessions that covered teaching a social science section, motivating students, and dealing with difficult situations. Here are the high points:
- Students have different knowledges that you must respect. I had thought knowledge was a mass noun, so I was glad to have my consciousness raised.
- Your job when teaching a section is to provide the students with exactly what they want, as often as they ask for it, because they submit evaluations at the end of the quarter that most departments, inexplicably, pay attention to instead of immediately shredding. This may include review sessions (in case they didn't pay attention), review sheets (in case they didn't come to the review session), outlines to fill in during class (in case they don't know how to take notes), and practice problems and solutions (in case they find doing the homework too stressful).
- When in doubt, break up into small discussion groups. This relieves you of the burden of being familiar with the material, because the students will keep each other busy for a while. Assuming some of them have done some of the reading, a group of students will operate as a rudimentary hive-mind and come back with something that roughly approximates the truth. (This is known as the "Wikipedia Principle".)
- A student in a history class is failing after doing about half the reading, doing badly on a midterm after memorizing dates (which the midterm didn't emphasize), and not having any idea how to write a four-page paper. Should you (a) let the student know how screwed he or she is in a college-level course, or (b) apply extra coddling to try to fix the problem? You may be surprised to find that the answer isn't (a)!
- Always return graded exams and homeworks at the end of the section. That way, if the students think the questions were too hard or misgraded, they won't be able to confront you in class as a group—instead, they'll have to come see you during office hours. Divide and conquer!
- If students are disrupting a class by talking loudly at the back, you should scream, "Do you know how important I am?!?", and hope they don't.
- If a student complains they deserve a higher grade and becomes belligerent when you explain that a 2.8 isn't that bad, you're not entitled to call the campus police and have them thrown out. Apparently.
- If a student tells you they shouldn't have to take the class from you because you're not a Ph.D. and they're paying for a real education, you can't just TASER them in front of the class to make an example of them. (I wasn't clear on the reasoning behind this prohibition.)
I look forward to the rest of the conference and to the teaching experience. I think this quarter is going to be great, because all the students will consider me their friend and nobody will have to give anybody an F that they richly deserve. I hear you can be especially popular if you bring donuts on the day they fill out evaluations.
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I bet you'll be even more popular if you bring beer.
"If a student complains they deserve a higher grade and becomes belligerent when you explain that a 2.8 isn't that bad, you're not entitled to call the campus police and have them thrown out."
Is that 2.8 out of 4.0, 2.8 out of 10, or 2.8 out of 100? 'Cause if it's 2.8 out of 100 I'd totally round it up to 3; that's just how generous I am.