On being a TA

I went to my first discussion section of Mathematics for the Biological Sciences as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at 2:30 PM on August 16th, 2016. I don’t remember it much. Perhaps I took attendance for that one time, had students do introductions, maybe gave a cursory preview of some of the upcoming material, and then dismissed my students. It was fairly unmemorable. The same could not be said of that semester as a whole. This was the first time in my life that anyone had placed so many individuals (roughly 60 of them!) under my tutelage and actually expected me to teach them something of value. I also had my first ever opportunity to get my feet wet in the art of pedagogy. Most of all, I got to build relationships with my students, some of which have carried over to this day.

Getting pushed into the water

Most students at the University of Iowa are surprised when I tell them that I never had a TA as an undergrad – not one. All of my classes at St. Thomas were taught by professors, and all of them (with the exception of my classical Greek instructor, Mr. Beck) were to be addressed as “Doctor”. That is, they all had Ph.D.’s to their name. So the idea of a TA was something rather foreign to me. And yet, when I committed to Iowa for grad school, they expected me to be one. I didn’t know the purpose of a TA, much less what I was supposed to do as one. I emailed one of the professors at Iowa and asked what I could expect as a TA and what sorts of expectations would be placed upon me in my TA duties. He attempted to assuage my concerns by telling me that there would be a preparation workshop in advance of my duties. Then he added, “TAing the first time is a bit like
swimming the first time, you are pushed into the water”.

All in all, I wasn’t that nervous about being a TA. Math is obviously something I’m good at (otherwise I wouldn’t be studying it at the graduate level), and I don’t really mind being in front of people. (If anything, my egocentrism loves nothing more than to have the attention of an entire room of people for an extended period of time!) Furthermore, looking back, there was never any real grounds to be anxious about it. Being a TA at Iowa is usually pretty “chill”, and most professors are fairly hands-off when it comes to what you need to do day-to-day. The most responsibility you’ll ever have placed on you is to enter in final grades (which are already decided by that point anyways) or be expected to show up to administer your weekly quiz or proctor a midterm. And here’s where I let the cat out of the bag: our discussion sections don’t really need us. OK, some days they do (like when the students see the chain rule for the first time), but most days there’s usually one or two students who are smart enough that they’ve already got the material figured out already and could probably guide the other students through it.

Unique Challenges

Finding a balance

If anything, the challenges I faced as a TA in my first year were less-than-expected. Chief among those challenges was striking a balance between my TA duties and my own studies. Initially, I found myself giving unnecessary attention to my teaching methodology while being slothful in studying for my classes. On the other hand, there are some (I won’t name names) who sacrifice personal integrity and pedagogical excellence on the altar of either academic success or personal comfort. I certainly didn’t want to be one of those people, but it took me a while to realize that, while I am responsible for the learning of just under sixty undergraduate students, in terms of my “tenure” at the University of Iowa, graduate studies take precedence. In other words, formally, I am here to learn, not to teach. That said, as one of my dear friends counseled me, “God calls us to excellence in everything.” And so, that my own studies take precedence does not mean that I can be justified in shirking my TA duties. To do so would be sending a message to my students (most of whom probably don’t know that I’m a Christian) that Christians are disinterested, irresponsible, and don’t care about the needs of others.

Attendance and Attention

Now, I can control how much time I give to either studies or teaching, respectively, but how a class of 30-some students will behave on any given day – that is very much outside of my control. The first course I taught at Iowa was Math for the Biological Sciences, a precalculus course tailored specifically for students majoring in any of the biological sciences. Fortunately, the students in both my sections took it relatively easy on me that Fall semester. That’s probably because I wasn’t required to take attendance, and so the people who did show up to discussion that semester were the ones who wanted to be there.

However, the following Spring semester, I was required to take attendance, and students received extra credit just for showing up. So, naturally, people came to discussion whether they wanted to or not – and you could tell who definitely did not want to be there because they were the ones who would either be on their phones or glued to their laptop screens the whole time. It frustrated me greatly when these students would receive poor grades on their quizzes, homeworks, and midterms but then make seemingly no effort to pay any attention in discussion. I want all my students to succeed, but it seemed as though few were willing to take the initiative to actually take the first step in succeeding (such as paying attention in discussion).

Student complaints

Being an extravert, one of my strengths is being able to guide and direct people who come to me with problems or conflict. (Read: Empathy is one of my strengths.) Learning how to handle student complaints was a different beast entirely. The most frequent complaint I received as a TA had nothing to do with me but with the advising professor who actually taught the course:

  • “He doesn’t teach us.”
  • “She went really fast through this and it didn’t make sense.”
  • “The way he grades makes no sense.”
  • “She’s assigning way too much homework!”
  • “How are we supposed to be able to know everything that’ll be covered on the exam?!”

What made these complaints difficult to hear is that I myself could do next to nothing to resolve the issue. I have not nor will ever go directly to a professor to voice secondhand a complaint that one of my students raised. Though the context is completely different, I find value in applying the “Matthew 18 principle” to professor-related complaints:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. [16] But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. [17] If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

In brief, if a student has a problem with what a professor is doing, they should go and talk to them about it directly instead of voicing it to a TA. But when I have told my students this, a look of dismay usually falls over their faces; most undergrads are too timid and averse to conflict to do such a thing, and so their complaints usually go unaddressed. In the end, I try to teach with extra passion and excellence, shoring up areas where my students may be weak – there’s just only so much I can do.

Cheating

The hardest experience I ever had as a TA was confronting a student about an instance of “academic dishonesty”, i.e., cheating. I had caught “Jimmy”, let’s call him, looking at another student’s paper during a quiz, writing on his own, looking at his neighbor’s paper, back to his own, etc. He handed in his quiz, and I spoke with him later in private about the issue. At first, he denied it, but after I explained my observations, he came clean. Fortunately, my advising professor decided it was unnecessary to pursue a formal reprimand through the University1, but he did receive a ‘0’ for that quiz and was issued a warning. Not surprisingly, things were awkward between myself and Jimmy the rest of that semester (and I kept a hawk-eye view on him during quizzes from then on), but I think I succeeded in showing him the proper care and attention he needed as my student; I didn’t write him off for his one offense (literally or figuratively).

Unique Joys

Being a TA involved some unique challenges. But it also provided the opportunity for some unique joys.

Comprehension

Being a TA forced me to learn undergraduate math (particularly calculus) at a much deeper and more intuitive level than I had ever known it. Sure, I was a B.A. in Mathematics, so I knew how to do calculus. Being forced to explain logarithmic functions forced me to think about how to manipulate them and what sorts of clever tricks I could use to get right answers. Being forced to explain what’s actually happening when you take the integral of a function forced me to understand the inherent differences between the Riemann integral (the one you learn if you take calculus of a single variable) and the Lebesgue integral (the one you learn if you take real analysis). In each case, I was forced (in a good way) to explain concepts in an intuitive way, which means that I had to understand it at an intuitive level.

You can even try this at home: Attempt to find five distinct yet equally valid ways to explain something to another person, and by the time you’re finished I can almost guarantee you that you’ve really understood what you set out to explain. It’s a good day of TAing if I can find two ways to explain the big concept(s). I’m lucky if I can get three. Most days I’m only blessed with one.

Affirmations

It appears that I was not the only one who was understanding the material; it appears the students understood it too. They have often told me as much. Multiple students of mine have remarked this semester, “This [discussion] is lecture for me. This is where I actually learn.” Of course, being affirmed in my work is big for me. But here’s some actual quotes from my students’ surveys:

I’m requesting him next semester for Calculus. Great help for Math class

Great job Alex! I know attendance wasn’t high but I enjoyed coming to class and you were a great teacher. You always clarified my questions and helped me better understand class content.

Alex Bates is an excellent teaching assistant! I struggled understanding the professor and Alex helped so much! He’s the reason I’m doing so well, thanks Alex

Alex is 10 times better than the actual teacher that is teaching this class. He did an outstanding job. He should be teaching the class himself

Very good at teaching the course. I very much appreciated that you explained things very simply and took them down to our level. I often feel like TAs don’t have a hard time seeing that we struggle with material because they have already mastered it, but this was not the case for you. Sometimes I felt like more difficult examples should have been gone over in class instead of conceptual or definitions, but those were also helpful. Communication was always exceptional. Overall great TA and will be a great teacher some day!

Great at explaining tough concepts and shows a lot of enthusiasm when teaching. Always available to help anyone who needs it.

Really cool TA. He definitely tries his best to help the class, and pours his heart and soul into informing you on upcoming events in the course. This definitely helps your grade because you never forget to do extra credit assignments or other homework. He makes sure you understand the concepts, but does not make it too hard that it complicates things. He also gives you different methods than the one given in class so that you can choose the easiest one for you. Definitely wouldn’t mind having other TAs like Alex Bates!

A Drama of Development

Being an extravert made being a TA hard in some ways. On the other hand, it made being a TA very sweet in other ways. For starters, since I taught Math for the Biological Sciences in the Fall (2016) and then Calculus for the Biological Sciences in the Spring (2017), I had some of the same students throughout the whole year. This allowed me to witness their development and growth as they did math- first from learning about linear functions and polynomials, all the way up to doing integral calculus. I got to witness young minds as they developed over the course of a year.

Friends!

And of course, there were friendships that developed over the course of the year. Some students would ask me about my personal life, and I would get to share who I am outside of doing math. I would occasionally bump into students outside of class, and we would both give a surprised (but usually welcome) “hi!” to each other. Some of my students added me on Facebook after the semester was done. This has all given me an added sense of connectedness and belonging at Iowa. People know me here. And being the extravert I am, I generally find it exciting and encouraging when I randomly see someone I know and have a good interaction with them.

But more than just plain connectedness to other human beings, actual, meaningful (albeit small) relationships developed between myself and other people. One of my (former) students rides the same bus as me, and we regularly chat and stay in touch. One student (who was not actually my student but someone I helped in the “Math Lab”) works at the local Hy-Vee deli counter, and I make a point to stop and chat with him when I buy groceries. And one of my students even sought and thoughtfully contemplated my advice on whether she should go on a summer mission trip overseas. It’s my hope and prayer that, over time these sorts of interactions would flourish into meaningful long-term friendships.

Conclusion

I hope that this gives you a better idea of what it’s been like to be a university TA. It’s relatively un-glamorous, but it has its rewards. At this point, someone might make some cheesy remark to the effect of, “I hope they learned as much from me as I did from them.” No, I’m paid to teach them math, so I hope that they learned some math. But along the way, I hope that I made some impact that went beyond the classroom.

 


  1. The University of Iowa takes academic dishonesty very seriously. Punishments, even for a first and minor offense can be severe. From the University’s Code of Academic Honesty webpage: “If found responsible for a first incident of academic misconduct, the student will be assigned to complete an online seminar requiring substantial time (around 18-20 hours) and a fee of $100. The seminar is not offered by UI and the cost of the seminar is not included in UI tuition. The seminar requires essay answers based on readings drawn from current events, literature, historical documents, and other sources designed to help the student better understand the effects of the misconduct. A student may not register for additional UI courses until the student completes the seminar; a “hold” is placed on the registration and is only removed once the student successfully passes this seminar. Each undergraduate college carefully tracks offenses on a shared tracking system, and these reports are shared across colleges. If a student transfers to another UI undergraduate college or is already a member of that college, the associate dean will be notified of the misconduct. The report is kept internally for five years or until the student graduates.” 
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