Lab Life

My Experience as a T.A.: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Marisa Sanders

Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to graduate school! Over the next few years, you’ll communicate with people from all walks of life and engage in exciting research experiences that will challenge you to think in ways you didn’t believe were possible. You’ll attend lavish conferences world­wide, compose publications about your work, and, depending on your university’s requirements and funding situation, serve as a teaching assistant (T.A.).

Perhaps, as an undergraduate, you had the privilege of interacting with a T.A. In my former life as a wide-eyed, college-aged chemistry major, I perceived teaching assistants as an enigmatic species that exuded a mixture of both astute­ness and creepiness. Indeed, T.A.s were essentially “classroom babysitters”—individuals who would instruct class while the professors were locked away in their offices composing grant proposals and brainstorming big ideas. From listening to others’ anecdotes, I came to regard T.A.-instructed lectures as agonizing experiences, mostly due to disorganized and incomprehensible PowerPoint presentations and problem set questions that alluded to the most outlandish scenarios. (Why would I ever buy a mole of pickles?). I can also recall tales of T.A.s’ seemingly flirtatious (or hopelessly awkward?) attempts at communication that always left my friends feeling baffled and uncomfortable. I was so overwrought from T.A. horror stories when I started graduate school three years ago that I swore to do everything in my power to redefine the T.A. archetype that I had grown to so deeply despise. But being on the other side of the classroom—serving as the T.A.—is a different experience. Whether you’re a well-seasoned T.A. or a prospective graduate student about to embark on your first semester of T.A.-ing, I encourage you to read my following scenarios and tips on how to not only survive in the role, but also grow from the experience. 

Your students should be the ones explaining their solutions to your problems. Your function is to clarify concepts and answer questions.

SCENARIO 1:

You’re alone in an auditorium filled with 200 undergraduates. You just hosted a review session for the first general chemis­try exam, which is in two days. You went over the solutions to the difficult pretest, and now the students are anxious. They’re out of their seats, shouting, demanding answers. You’re over­whelmed and want to make a run for it.

“Do we have to memorize ALL the polyatomic ions?” “What equations will be provided and which ones should I put on my equation sheet?” “Will chapter X be covered?” I’m sure we’re all familiar with these questions. We may even be guilty of having asked them at one point in our lives. How­ever, we must forget our past, pull ourselves together, and act like the mature, adult T.A.s that our P.I.s believe we are.

I was twenty-three when I first taught general chemis­try—not much older than my students—and so I was able to empathize with them fairly well. I longed for comfort and reassurance before exams—I wanted to know exactly what would be covered and the standard by which I would be evaluated. One of the “unofficial” functions of teaching assis­tants is to help reduce student anxiety and provide moral sup­port. Perhaps you’re aware that the pretest is meant to be two or three times more challenging than the actual exam—tell your students! It is also up to the T.A. to identify important content and let the students know what they’ll be responsible for. I would go page-by-page through the book and my own information they should be familiar with, and what they should disregard. I would also provide study tips—anything from mne­monic devices to problem-solving approaches. We’re essentially coaches for our students—sometimes the encouragement we provide is just as important as the scientific information. 

SCENARIO 2:

Your students use your 50-minute recitation period to peruse Snapchat and Instagram. You’ve been struggling with these non-participative students all semester.

I learned early on that freshly baked cookies are a great incentive to elicit student participation. I would begin each class with a multipart question that would incorporate the entire week’s content. The students would compete against one another to solve the problem, and whoever obtained the correct answer first would receive a treat (only awarded after they wrote the solution on the board and explained their thought processes). This method allowed me to not only maximize student participation, but to also zero in on my students’ trouble spots and identify what needed attention.

Although nobody wants to bear the reputation of being the “mean T.A.,” it’s quite reasonable to call on your students. As opposed to having a passive class that fails the first test (which always acts as a wakeup call), you can save your students the anxiety of needing to catch up later on by encouraging them to engage in your class. It’s also okay to be explicit in the be­ginning and state that you don’t intend to perform the majority of the talking—that’s the professor’s job. Your students should be the ones explain­ing their solutions to your problems. Your function is to clarify concepts and answer questions. 

SCENARIO 3:

It’s 11:53 pm—the eve of the organic chemistry final—and your students are at your door with last-minute questions. Sure, you’re a bit of a pushover—you said you’d be available for help “whenever,” but you didn’t think they’d take you seriously.

I was a bit naïve when I embarked on my first semester as a T.A. I wanted my students to like me, and so I probably appeared overly friendly (I hope not creepy), and overex­tended myself in offering assistance. No, I did not give out my home address, but I was religious about replying to e-mail and would often meet with students on my own time to review course material. I later learned the importance of establishing T.A.–student boundaries.

T.A. –student boundaries can take on various forms. I’ve heard stories about teaching assistants who confessed to only checking their e-mail once a day—between 2:00 and 3:00 pm. Only during this hour would they respond to student inqui­ries. Other T.A.s claimed they maintained a strict sleeping regimen that required 13 hours of shut-eye a night, during which it was impossible for them to respond to e-mails. So as to prevent themselves from being “found,” I know T.A.s who identified with a lab group other than the one to which they actually belong. While these are extreme examples of T.A.– student boundaries, they do enable both parties to remain independent and, in some ways, they promote a sense of anonymity for the T.A. (Perhaps this is why I found T.A.s so enigmatic as an undergraduate?)

If you’re interested in advocating a more “candid” image for teaching assistants and establishing meaningful relation­ships with your students, then I would advise paying heed to the following (obvious) recommendations:

1. Do not go out partying with your students.

2. Do not date your students.

3 . Set a cut-off time for e-mail responses (e. g., 10:00 pm).

Stick to these and you shouldn’t get into trouble. 

SCENARIO 4:

Inorganic chemistry exam grades are in. Although the averag­es among all teaching assistants are comparable, your students did not perform well on a certain topic. You can’t help but feel guilty about it.

The great manifestation of graduate school guilt! I at first believed my students’ mastery of the course material was a reflec­tion of my teaching ability and that I was the one culpable for their performance. Did I not stress proton coupled electron transfer enough during the review session? Wait—didn’t we have a blizzard during the week of PCET and recitation was can­celled? I would sometimes dwell on this for days on end! However, as I gained more teaching experience, I realized I wasn’t the one to blame for topics my students (er…the entire class) couldn’t fully grasp. The key is to take it with a grain of salt.

One of the best methods to gauge your performance is through course evaluations. In my experience, these anony­mous assessments often provide sincere and constructive criticism. It turned out my original qualms over teaching—my paranoia about successfully conveying content and commu­nicating with my students—were all for naught. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of being a T.A. is discovering you’ve had an impact on your students. Whether it be inspiring them to study Chemistry or captivating them with exciting research anecdotes so that they decide to join your lab group, it’s these unique experiences that make being a T.A. worthwhile. ■