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The Teaching Exchange: The TA Experience

This article was originally published in the Spring 2002 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Two Vanderbilt professors – Ken Frampton in Engineering and Jo-Anne Bachorowski in Psychology – reflect on their faculty experience in light of their experience as TAs.

CFT : How have the experiences that you had as a TA shaped your interaction with your TA’s now that you are a faculty member?

FRAMPTON : The one thing that I remember most about being a TA while I was an engineering graduate student is that I had many other responsibilities that often took priority over my TA duties. Primarily, these other responsibilities were my own classes and my research. The unfortunate truth of the situation was that being a poor TA would probably not adversely affect my career opportunities, but being a poor researcher would. As a faculty member overseeing TAs, I strive to keep this perspective in mind. On the one hand, Vanderbilt has a commitment to excellence in education. Delivering on this requires that our TAs spend an adequate amount of time on their TA responsibilities and that their performance meets the high standards set by Vanderbilt University. On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that these TAs are graduate students first and that they have many other responsibilities that are very important to their success. I strive to maintain a balance when dealing with TAs so that everyone involved is enriched by the educational interaction without sacrificing excellence in other areas.

BACHOROWSKI : Actually not all that much. I hope that I treat my TAs with respect, but the reason my graduate experiences do not shape my current interactions is that I had very little in the way of interactions with professors I served as a TA for in grad school. Instead, we met extensively for one meeting at the beginning of the semester, and then we were on our own. My duties as a TA typically involved leading review and discussion sections or running labs. My limited contact with the professors whom I served as TA had its advantages and disadvantages. It probably would’ve given me better structure and alleviated some anxiety to have more contact with the professors, but there were often multiple TAs for a course and we worked well together. The flip side is that the independence I had as a TA probably facilitated my being able to plan new courses, lectures, and whatnot when I started teaching. In fact, the course I had the most responsibility for and had to learn the most in order to teach– conducting a Physiological Psychology lab–was the best preparation I had for teaching. The professor who gave the lectures for that course was always available, but he set things up so that he annually had one advanced graduate student develop the laboratory component. The TA would lead 3 weekly lab sections and he’d lead 1 or 2 using the agenda and materials prepared by the TA. Conducting this laboratory was a huge challenge, but the experience also launched me as a teacher.