Being a TA at Penn

What TAs Do

Most TAs share a number of common responsibilities. These range from holding office hours and conferring with students, to grading, and leading discussions, running and assisting with labs, teaching their own courses, holding review sessions, and lecturing. You may also find yourself covering a class for a professor who must be absent, proctoring exams, or helping to construct quizzes and essay questions.

Given that you will probably be working with a large group of students, most of them new to the field and many new to the university, your job may be difficult at first. Even if you work with smaller groups of students, there will certainly be a degree of strangeness at the beginning. That strangeness may be heightened by the in-between position that many TAs hold: between student and professor, between generalist and specialist, between amateur and professional.

You are literally between students and professor; not long ago you sat where your undergraduate students are now, but you have not attained the status or the privileges of a faculty member. In addition, you may become a buffer between the undergraduate students and the professor. You are the one who is likely to be available for conferences during office hours, who will conduct discussions and review sections, who may be the main evaluator of student work. Thus, you will face expectations and demands from both your students and the supervising professor, and you will need to claim time for your own work. It is a delicate position and one that requires foresight and tact.

As someone between generalist and specialist, you will find yourself learning more about your chosen field at the same time that you explain its rudiments to beginners. That can be very rewarding, but also more difficult than many at first imagine. It is made even more challenging by the fact that you are studying and teaching at a prominent and consciously research-oriented university. You will be expected to undergo the process of professionalization at a research institution, possibly contributing through publications, while attending to the requirements of undergraduates at the same time.

Being a TA means guiding learners, deciding how to communicate with students, coping with busy faculty members, and considering your future role as a professional. It is hard to be a committed and exciting teacher week in and week out, and some rough spots are inevitable, but the benefits of a TA position are impossible to deny. You will gain confidence, the ability to think on your feet, and the power of articulate communication. You will also learn new things about your field. You will know the experience of helping students, of making decisions, and of coping with crises. Even if you do not make teaching your career, a TA position is rewarding and instructive. We have tailored this handbook to prepare you for its difficulties and alert you to its rewards.

Working with the Faculty

Once you receive your TA assignment, you should set up a meeting with the faculty member in charge of the course. TAs’ duties vary widely among departments and courses, so you can neither get an exact sense of your responsibilities nor begin preparing until you have met with the professor. At these meetings, professors are sometimes most concerned with straightening out details about course enrollments, assigning TAs to sections, and coping with problems at the bookstore. But TAs should make sure that their own concerns both as teachers and as workers are addressed as well.

An obvious but often overlooked first step is for the TA and professor to discuss the objectives of the course, the rationale behind the readings, and the relations among the lectures, readings, and recitations. Since these issues are often left unstated on course syllabi, TAs and professors must make a special point of discussing them. Without a sense of why a particular reading was assigned, the TA has little basis for deciding how to lead a discussion or lab on it, what exam questions it might suggest, or how to assess students’ understanding. It is, of course, possible to make these decisions without knowing what the professor’s intentions were in designing the course or where the course is heading from week to week, but it puts TAs in an uncomfortable position. Taking extra care in pre-semester preparation can ease the TA’s task of planning throughout the semester and contribute to more focused and more satisfying teaching.

Beyond this, students deserve to know the objectives behind the course, the readings, and the assignments. If a professor’s objective for a course is simply to acquaint students with the most basic concepts, questions, and terminology of a field, then the TA’s weekly plans for recitations should not demand that students use advanced methodologies or participate in debates that interest only professionals. If the professor and the TA send the students mixed signals about what they are expected to learn, the students are likely to have a difficult time focusing their studying. By giving the students as much information as you can about your goals for the course and your expectations of them, you give students a better shot at doing well and enable them to take more responsibility for their own learning.

Before the semester begins, we recommend that you:

  • Ask the professor about the characteristics of the students who tend to take the course: who they are and why they choose this course.
  • Discuss with the professor the major goals for the course and what she or he expects the students to learn.
  • Clearly establish what your responsibilities will be.
  • Find out whether the professor expects you to attend the lectures. It is a good idea to go to the lectures because it helps you keep in touch with what the professor is covering from session to session, and it may help you in responding to students’ questions.
  • Look over the assigned materials and ask how those materials fit into the goals for the course. If you are a section leader, you should make sure that there is material conducive to discussion from week to week and that this is consistent throughout the term.
  • Find out who is responsible for drafting the assignments and exams. Discuss what skills or concepts the assignments should teach and discuss how these fit into the overall course objectives.
  • Discuss the professor’s grading criteria and standards. Find out how much autonomy you have in determining grades. Establish policy on issues such as incompletes and paper extensions and who is responsible for granting these.
  • Clarify rules on whether students’ grades will be affected by class participation, attendance, or late work.
  • Ask the professor to articulate how her or his theoretical positions represent, diverge from, or coincide with those of other scholars in the field. This may help you to decide how to approach certain readings or how to place the professor’s perspective in context for the students.
  • Be persistent in finding out what you need to know; the professor may not always be prepared to answer your questions, but pushing her or him to become clear on these issues will help not only the TA but also the students and the professor.

Since most TAs at Penn do not design their own courses, they must work with a teaching agenda that someone else set up. This peculiar context for teaching can ease the way for beginning teachers, but it can also raise some difficult questions.

In the best cases, the TA/faculty relationship can be like an apprenticeship system; TAs learn from the wisdom and experience of a master teacher whom they respect. In less positive cases, TAs can feel frustrated by unclear teaching agendas, political perspectives they do not agree with, or approaches to their disciplines that they find outmoded. Conflicts may arise between TAs’ and professors’ ideas about what it is they want to teach. TAs’ desire for control over their own recitation sections may clash with their desire to offer undergraduates a coherent and organized course. On the one hand, it is hard to spend your time, invest your ego, and channel your teaching ambitions into teaching something in which you do not believe. On the other hand, undergraduates can find it confusing when the professor-TA differences in approach are not made explicit, or when the materials covered in the lectures, readings, and recitations are not clearly related.

Simply because you and the faculty member have differing views about the field or the material does not mean you need to hide your own opinions, nor does it necessarily mean this variety of perspectives will confuse the students. After all, debate is at the heart of academia. You and the faculty member may find that your debates demonstrate an important concept about your discipline. You may well decide that it is of great pedagogical use to have students hear both sides of an issue. If there is one rule of thumb here, it is for the faculty member and the TA to be open and aware of these differences, to highlight them when they serve to facilitate students’ learning, and simply to agree to disagree.

Sometimes professors encourage their TAs to contribute to making up the syllabus. This can lead to quite varied results. In one instance, the TAs eagerly accepted such an offer but ended up regretting it: the search for materials intruded into their winter break; they had a hard time judging what kinds of readings would work with undergraduates; and the disjuncture between what was happening in the lectures and what was happening in the discussions and readings became difficult to manage. In another case, a group of TAs proposed changes in the syllabus which allowed them to run discussions on topics they felt the students would find more compelling and that they themselves felt more invested in and more comfortable teaching. In some situations, a fixed syllabus can be very reassuring; it is one less thing for the TA to worry about, and it can be a relief to defer to the judgment of the professor. One graduate student recalled that his first TA assignment was in a subject he knew nothing about. Although he had considerable autonomy in running his section, he “stuck to the syllabus as if it were a lifeboat.”

Although each TA will resolve these issues in her or his own way, it is a good idea to make deliberate decisions about them. Try to keep in mind your own time constraints and try to imagine how well you can develop a discussion from the assigned materials. If you feel you would like to make changes and can realistically invest the time, by all means approach the professor. Discuss, advocate, listen, and then compromise, because it is essential for the success of the course, for the tenor of your teaching experience, and for the students’ learning that there be peace and support between faculty member and TA.

Teaching Assistants and Workload

TAs at Penn have a right to look out for themselves. Overly heavy teaching loads are unfair to TAs and unfair to their students. The professor in charge can limit the enrollment of the course; TAs should encourage professors to ensure that there is a reasonable match between course enrollments and the number of TAs assigned to the course. What is considered a reasonable teaching load for TAs varies from department to department; other graduate students can clue you in to whether or not you are being unfairly burdened. In general, though, TAing is expected to take about 20 hours per week.

Some professors know exactly what they will ask you to do. In other courses, the role of the TAs may not be clearly defined. It is to the TAs’ advantage to clarify before the beginning of the semester what will be expected of them. If the work load or the nature of the work seems unreasonable, it is easier to negotiate before the job starts than to try to change the pattern of expectations in the middle of the semester.

The TA’s position is a strange one. As a grader or recitation leader, you have considerable authority and many responsibilities. Often it is the TA who comes to know the students best. As the course progresses, the TA is often in the best position to see how effective it is. Yet TAs do not have the power to make changes unless the faculty member is willing. For all these reasons, take an active role in establishing a positive relationship with the faculty member in charge and assert your opinions about the course before it begins as well as along the way.

Writing letters of recommendation

Writing recommendations for students is a time-consuming and sometimes perplexing task, one that TAs who get to know their students well are often asked to perform. Career Services (located in the McNeil Building, Suite 20, 898-7531) maintains files of recommendations for students which can be quickly reproduced and sent to graduate schools or employers and has standard forms for instructors’ letters of recommendation. Career Services offers these suggestions to help you decide when, and how, to write letters of recommendation.

  • When a student asks you for a recommendation, you are under no obligation to write one. Since letters from professors are especially valuable for graduate and professional school applications, you should explore with the student which faculty member she/he knows best. Sometimes you may know the student better than the professor for whom you are TAing; you might explore the possibility that your letter could be sent over the professor’s signature.
  • Since most letters of recommendation are written enthusiastically, neutral ones are interpreted as negative. Naturally, you wish to be honest, but an honest negative evaluation can have consequences far beyond what you may intend. If you are uncomfortable writing positively, you should consider declining.
    International TAs, particularly from Asia or Europe, should know that references from those areas are usually far more understated than those written in the U.S. “Mr. Jones’ mastery of the material was entirely adequate” might be high praise in many countries, but in the U.S. it translates to “Mr. Jones is an average student.”
  • If you do write the recommendation, find out why the student has requested it, so that you can tailor your approach. Be as specific as possible, and use examples.
  • Omissions tend to be construed as negative. Make at least brief mention of your student’s academic skills, motivation and commitment, and interpersonal skills. If you say nothing of the student’s personality, readers may conclude that he or she is a brilliant student but has difficulty talking to others. Avoid explicitly negative statements, no matter how many disclaimers are attached.
  • Career Services will not show confidential recommendations to students. On occasion a counselor who notices a negative recommendation in a student’s file may call to ask whether the impression given was the one that was intended.

NOTE: Career Services also maintains files of recommendations for graduate students, which save you time and trouble when you apply for jobs, grants, and fellowships. The Career Services staff can help you to set up a recommendations file.)

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