Earlier in the semester, I wrote a post about how TA’ing this semester burst a little bubble of hope I’d had for having the freedom to run a classroom how I wanted. Then, I started to find that I loved helping students with their writing— an arena that I did have some say in. And as we neared the end of the semester, I began to rave about how great my students are.
Given my evolving view of TA’ing, it’s time to revisit the matter. I think the issues I pointed to early on, like feeling relatively powerless and made to be the extension of the professor of record, are still valid. But in the weeks that have passed, no matter how tired I am when I walk into the room just before my Friday 9 AM discussion section, I always leave around noon feeling rejuvenated.
My students do that for me.
And there are specific things that make TA’ing/teaching super valuable for me. First, I love office hours. I love getting to spend time with students outside of the confines of the classroom. Office hours is my chance to really laser focus in on their strengths and passions, and guide them in that direction. I get to bond with them over things that we can’t/don’t talk about in class– like “The Ham Cam” or afrofuturism or the MCU.
Second, I genuinely love teaching writing. The ability to effective communicate to a struggling student what makes a tight paper is not innate; it is a learned skill, a muscle I have actively flexed over the course of the semester. I have even developed a little formula for a strong paper:
Ideas + Structure/Flow + Mechanics = “A” Strong Paper
I have learned to be able to identify which piece a student is stumbling over and give them pieces of actionable advice that will make their writing stronger. For strong ideas, I like to ask students what did they care most about during the semester. What are they passionate about that’s a theme across their other classes? Can you make them work in harmony? For writers that are already strong, I try to encourage them to stop writing papers that they think I or the instructor of record will like. If you have a good idea and it’s convincingly supported, that’s all I’m interested in. I would rather students write something they care about, that might lead to more inquiry down the road, than churn something out with the sole purpose of impressing me. That said, I do understand that in a lot of ways, that is the nature of the beast. Writing in undergrad tends to exist for the student and the professor and I’m not sure I like that. I’m not sure belaboring this audience of one is the best way to ensure strong pieces. (But I’m always up for new pedagogies!)
For strong structure and flow, I like to encourage them to think of each individual paragraph as its own mini essay. Have a topic sentence, support your claim, and make in clear how we’re jumping from point A into point B of the next paragraph. I also suggest reading the essay backwards, paragraph by paragraph. This ensure that each piece says what you want it to and then you might realize it belongs in a different space in the essay. Strong outlines are also critical to good essay writing, or at least some preparatory work. Finally, revise, revise, revise. If you have the time, try to get someone else to take a look at your work. This is where the Writing Center can be a crucial tool!
For mechanics, similar to structure, the best advice anyone ever gave me was from my French major advisor. I consistently earned A-‘s on my otherwise very good papers– because I honestly sucked at grammar. He suggested reading my essays backwards, sentence by sentence. It prevents you from worrying about the flow, and you have to slow down enough to make sure each individual sentence makes sense by itself, without the context of the sentence before. This method will also help you catch redundancies in your prose, which you can then replace with stronger, more effective words.
Finally, I love that I have created a classroom environment, despite all the constraints, that leave my students wanting more. I mentioned on Friday to my second class that we had one more session together after break and one person said, “Aw, that’s so sad.” I was sad, too, to be perfectly honest, but I masked it in jokes. As another person was leaving, they asked about future courses I would be teaching. In that moment, I realized that I had done what I set out to do. My students were encouraged; I had helped to foster their already present love of learning; and they now trusted me to take them further.
I almost cried.
This was far from easy. TA’ing actually took up a lot of of my time. Between office hours, prepping for class and discussion section, reading drafts, appointments, and grading, I easily filled 15-20 hours with work a week. I had very little time to work on my own writing, including a fairly urgent article draft, my prospectus and now my dissertation. I was/am always tired
But I wouldn’t take it back. Honestly, it was fun.
And I can’t wait to do it again– on my own this time.