30 August 2009

A new semester

Posted by Jessica Ball

For me, this means some welcome changes. As a result of earning an NSF Graduate Fellowship, I don’t have to TA this year, so I actually have more time to sit down and work on my own research (instead of spending a lot of time – including whole weekends at one point – just keeping up with grading). This also means that my committee has been encouraging me to take advantage of said funding and go for a PhD, but more on that later.

One interesting thing that happened to me last week was that I was asked to be a group leader in UB’s training conference for TAs. This is a two-day gathering in which TAs, new or otherwise, meet to learn about teaching techniques, how to handle a classroom, academic honesty/dishonesty, etc. For new TAs, it might be the only chance they get to acquire a little classroom training before they find themselves in charge of a classroom (something that I wrote about last year around this time). I still find this ridiculous; just because you’ve made it to graduate school doesn’t mean you’re qualified to teach, although there are certainly a lot of great TAs out there who manage just fine.

Another unsatisfying aspect about the conference is that it wasn’t geared toward science students. In fact, most of the bigger science departments at UB hold their own version of the conference, which I think would be much more useful. Fortunately, the geology department is moving toward that idea. I think a hybrid, where we invite some of the speakers from the regular conference to come and present, as well as having current geology TAs and professors work with incoming grads, would work well.

There were aspects of the conference that worked well, though. At the end of the final day, groups meet to hold micro-teaching sessions where each person gives a five-minute lesson on a topic of their choice. It doesn’t need to be in their discipline; I’ve seen people teach their groups about how to shave, how to brew beer, how to decipher binary, and the best way to catch and eradicate an invasive saltwater fish. The catch is that these presentations are taped, and everyone gets to watch themselves (and their groupmates), and critique each other. Because it’s hard to see yourself when you’re in front of a class, you get the benefit of evaluating your own performance, and you get constructive criticism from your peers. (Inevitably everyone cringes to see themselves on tape – even me – but they also usually say that the micro-teaching is the most helpful part of the conference.)

So in the end, there rae good and bad things about the TA conference. For new TAs, like I was last year, it’s a bit of a lifeline – maybe the only chance they’ll have to learn how to teach before they’re responsible for their own classroom. For returning TAs, it can be a reminder of things that they’ve forgotten in the grind of trying to get everything done, cover the whole lab book, grade all the papers. But as I mentioned, treating all the conference-goers as if they’re automatically going to be in the position of professors isn’t as helpful to TAs who are mainly going to be running labs or recitation sections, especially if their department doesn’t yet have their own training session.

I am curious about what other people have experienced, though. Is this a common thing at other schools? Did any of you get special training before you found yourself in front of a classroom, or did you wing it and hope for the best? What advice would you give to incoming TAs? (If I get enough responses, I’d like to do another post on tips for TAs – so please comment!)