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From the Students’ View: Advice for TAs

This article was originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Three undergraduate students provided advice to TAs during a panel discussion at TA Orientation on August 18, 1998. They were:

  • CEDRIC GARNER, Senior, Peabody
  • UMANG DOSI, Junior, Engineering
  • JILL CLARK, Senior, A & S

CEDRIC: One thing that I always appreciate is knowing exactly what role the TA is going to have in the class.

UMANG: In Engineering, the TAs end up playing a larger role in your labs, and, when we have one of those wonderful problems that we have to do, we will come knocking on your door, don’t worry! We really appreciate the fact that you are there.

JILL: I think that an important thing that you can do is convey to your students that you really do care and that you’re asking hard questions, asking hard things of yourself, so that you can serve them best. If they know how much you care, then they will be a lot more receptive to you.

QUESTION FROM A TA: How is it [teaching] different for international TAs, and how do students perceive them?

JILL: You’ll be glad to know that one of my favorite TAs was an international TA! It was a physics class, and I am really not good in physics. He actually had a very thick accent, but one thing he did that made his teaching so much better than a lot of domestic TAs was that he wrote everything out for us on the board. Every time he said anything in class that wasn’t on our handout already he wrote down. He always had handouts so that everything we heard was also reinforced visually, and that can really help international TAs.

QUESTION FROM A TA: Is there a lot of pressure on you to succeed academically?

CEDRIC: While there is a lot of competition, it’s not cutthroat. People want to do really well, but they don’t want to do well at the expense of others. One more thing, sometimes students crash. They just have to fall apart . . . this has happened to me twice and I’ve learned! My main point is that sometimes students really are gonna crash; they’re just going to fall apart, and maybe that’s the most crucial point in the relationship between the student and the TA. That’s the time when you need to understand that this is a person who needs a little bit more help and a little slower pace.

QUESTION FROM A TA: I went to a school where there were no TAs. I would think that you would feel cheated of the opportunity to just go to a professor’s office with any problems. How do you feel about that?

JILL: I considered two schools seriously before choosing Vanderbilt. I actually called one of the deans and asked him what the main difference is between schools with graduate programs and those without. He told me that the difference lies in how a student uses the resources available at a research institution. So I would say that the best way is to consider yourself a resource and make yourself available to students so that they understand that you’re valuable in a different way, but valuable nonetheless.

CEDRIC: And it always helps to remind your students that you’re a student, as well. In a certain sense, you are all in the same boat. Sometimes we don’t think of our professors as people, so it’s always good, at some point, to remind your students that you’re a person and can identify with them. TF New teaching assistants attend the plenary session at the 1998 TA Orientation.