Tag Archives: Teaching

TA’ing: Revisited

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.

TA Observations and Great Students

The semester is drawing to a close so naturally it was time for my observation. If you’re unfamiliar, often the professors under whom their Teaching Assistants (TAs) work will observe them as they teach. This process simply helps TAs, who will potentially go on to become professors of their own classes, become a little more reflective about their pedagogy and refine their practices with input from folks who have been in the game longer.

I have not gotten my feedback yet but I do have a few thoughts on being observed. I think the process is extremely necessary and as someone who cares a lot about pedagogy, I’m always looking for ways to strengthen my teaching. I noticed though that having the instructor of record in our class(es) throws off the vibe. On the one hand, students who don’t speak as much are prompted to participate a little more so the conversations are a little bit more lively. But on the other, the sense of being surveilled changes the dynamics that I have developed with my students over the course of the semester.

In particular, I have one discussion section with whom I have developed a truly wonderful rapport over the course of the semester. We joke (we have several inside jokes at this point), we laugh, we have easy conversation, but we get the work done. And while I worried about them not being able to stay on track during my observation, they showed up and showed out in ways I could have never imagined. Truly, I do think that the relationship I’ve developed with them influenced how they showed up– they wanted to look good, but I think they wanted me to look good in front of my “boss,” too.

With that class, we fell into a different rhythm while I was being observed, but still a rhythm nonetheless. Fortunately, I can think on my feet and I was able to rock with them pretty quickly. I also think it really helped that we watched Imitation of Life (1959) that week, so they had some thoughts. I was fielding questions, leading the conversation around, bridging intellectual gaps, on the white board for some of it– truly flying, and then all of a sudden the 50 minutes were over.

There’s a part of my soul that is fed by teaching, and that class was soul food. At this point, the feedback will be appreciated, but I’m truly astounded and grateful for the ways that both of my classes showed up for me during my observation. I’m glad that I was observed in moments where I knew I was walking in my purpose.

My students mean the world to me. They’ve made this experience meaningful, especially considering I was so bitter coming into it. They’ve reminded me that it doesn’t really matter the circumstances– if I’m teaching, I am walking in my purpose. They’ve shown me that my perspective matters and I have something to offer in the classroom. And they take every opportunity to learn from me, in the classroom and otherwise. I love that I have folks show up to my office hours with a question, but then hang for the good vibes and conversation.

With students like the ones I have now, teaching will never get old.

Teaching Writing

The most gratifying part of being a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester has been the work I’ve been able to do with students on their writing. I didn’t even realize how important teaching writing was to me until I had to do it. But I love when students email me, knock on my door or catch me after class to ask to work on their papers. I love when I have a question about a sentence or a phrase, then they tell me what they were trying to say, and I’m able to reply, “Yes. You need to write exactly what you just said.” And I love handing back A papers to students who think they’re weak writers because someone told them once upon a time that they weren’t.

I had a chat with my students recently about writing. I encouraged them to shift the way they think about it, with the understanding that in some ways, they can’t. Taking approximately 15-18 credits requires likely dozens of papers a semester and it’s very difficult to give the proper amount of time and attention to each and every paper. You often don’t have the time to write drafts well in advance to get feedback from your professor or TA. You’re simply trying to crank those babies out to make sure you have something to turn in.

When that’s your reality, it’s difficult to think of papers as anything but a means to an end, a hoop you have to jump through. In all honesty, I can count on one hand the number of papers I actually remember writing in undergrad. Remember, as a French and Comparative Literature double major, and an International Relations minor, I probably wrote hundreds of papers. And yet.

Still, with all of that in mind, I still proposed a perspective shift. Instead of thinking of writing as another thing you have to do, think of it as an opportunity to share the thoughts and opinions you have about our films, backed up with evidence and careful analysis.

Yet another problem I’m up against as a TA is the way we present writing as an individualistic enterprise. Because folks have so many papers to write during the semester, it feels like you have to lock yourself up in a study room in the library until you have no more words. I reminded my students that that’s absolutely not how writing works professionally. Every writer that we read in class, every book that you get in the bookstore…all published writers have editors. They have friends and family and mentors that read their words with a red pen of love at the ready. They workshop their words. That’s why the “Acknowledgements” section of books exist. Writing is a communal process, but we present it as something you do alone. So I try to make it as clear as possible that I am willing and able to work with them on their words, because they shouldn’t have to be in this alone.

I try to be as sincere as possible when I tell them I look forward to reading their words. Yes, it is my job to read and comment, but I’m curious as to what they think and how they think, especially if they’re quieter in class and discussion. Papers are a chance for you to flex a little, but it gives you the time and space to think through your response if you’re not as willing to jump in to a conversation with only a half formed thought. I try not to think of their papers as more work for me, but a chance to get to know my students a little better. I think of my comments as engagement with their thoughts.

I perhaps do all of these because I want them to love writing as much as I do. I know my efforts won’t matter to many of them, no perspective shift will occur. And that’s fine. But as long as I’m clear that for at least this semester, they have someone who cares deeply about writing and their words, I will have done my job.

So many articles exist on best writing practices and how the greatest writers write, but so much of that is crap. No, you don’t have to write every day to be an effective writer. You should practice as regularly as you can, but every body is different, every life is different, every circumstance is different. As much as I would love to write fiction all day every day, I mostly write during the summer and winter break when I have extended periods of time to devote to that manuscript. Do I write every day? Mostly every day, yes. But I consider many different things to be a part of the writing process. Tweeting is writing, blogging is writing, journaling is writing, reading is writing, note taking is writing, outlining is writing, drafting is writing, revising and editing is writing. I do at least one or more of those things every single day, but not because I’m practicing every day writing. Writing is part of my self-care, my self-expression, how I feel whole.

What I didn’t know also makes me feel whole is helping someone else craft clear and substantive prose, helping someone find their voice and run with it, and encouraging them at every step of the process. I love being a sounding board, an editor, a cheerleader– all important parts of writing. I love it all. Teaching writing is difficult, as is writing, but I still manage to find joy in it every day.