Most grad students will work as a Teaching Assistant (TA) to fund their education. You need the money, the university needs the staff, it’s a win-win situation. Of course, when it comes to actually marking TOWERS of essays/exams when you’ve got your own essays/exams/presentations to worry about, this win-win situation more often than not morphs into a hate-whine dealio, but thems the breaks. Aside from the sometimes gruelling hours of marking, I actually really enjoy TA-ing. I think this is partly because I spent almost a decade of summers working as a camp counsellor, and being a TA kind of lets me channel my inner “Phoenix” (my camp name, not a weird religious cult title)—just in an academic setting. Here’s some things that working at summer camps have taught me about TA-ing:
1. If you don’t know the answer, FAKE IT ‘TIL YOU MAKE IT.
I can’t count the number of times when I’d be leading a camp activity and some uppity kid who wanted to learn (pfft) would ask me a relevant question, and my brain could only give me this to work with:
Rather than be honest and tell the kid I wasn’t sure, I’d do the mature thing and lie through my teeth. Example: I once worked an entire summer as the Canoe Instructor. I did not know anything about canoeing. (I forget how I wound up with that position… I think I just really lobbied for the job that would let me splash children all day.) The first lesson I “taught” involved sending kids out onto the water and seeing what happened when I yelled at them to paddle on a certain side of the boat. (Don’t worry, a lifeguard was there, jeez.)
Moral of the story: I now know that if one of my students asks me a question that I can’t answer, it doesn’t mean that I’m the world’s worst TA. If I can, I’ll just throw the question back to the student (“That’s a great question, why do YOU think Blake was such a detail freak?”) or I’ll open it up to the rest of the room (“What do you guys think about Blake’s crazy attention to detail?”), and see if any of other my students can/want to work with it. If it’s some specific question that requires a specific answer (i.e. “What kind of material did Blake use to make his illuminations?”), then I’ll just say I’ll look it up after class and send them the answer later. (In my head, to preserve my own sense of pride after being outed as a “non-knower,” I will also probably be calling said student “nerd.”)
2. When the kids look bored, DISTRACT WITH LOUD NOISES!
I’ve discovered that when working with children ages 6-17, loud noises instantly makes whatever you’re doing better. Trying to teach kids how to build a fire? Yell it: “ME TEACH YOU FIRE! RAARRRRRRR!” Walking to your next activity? Yell it: “WOOOOOOO! WALKIIIIIIIIIIIIING!” Kids blinking at you silently when you try to get some group conversation going? Yell: “I LOVE TALKING! TROY! WHAT DO YOU LOVE?” Troy: “WHY ARE WE YELLING?” Me: “BECAUSE IT’S FUN AND FOSTERING A SENSE OF GROUP MEMBERSHIP!” Troy: “OK! AHAHAHAHA!”
Now, context really is key with the whole “LOUD NOISES” thing (yes, I got the idea ages ago from Anchorman). It’s fine to yell at a camp, namely because you’re outdoors most of the time and everyone who works there is a little bit crazy anyway. But yell inside a classroom, and you’re likely to terrify your students. So instead of just flat out yelling, I go for a slow volume increase, just like a turning up a dial; a crescendo, if you will:
“Yes, while Vonnegut’s story may be a bit confusing, how does the form of the text reflect the content of THE TEXT ITSELF?”
Not once have I had a problem with my students paying attention after using this technique. Sure, they might be talking just to prevent me from speaking again, but at least they’re talking, right? RIGHT?
3. If you’re pumped, your kids will be pumped too!
Enthusiasm really is contagious. It’s the second thing you learn about being a camp counsellor, right after “try not to lose your kids in the forest.” Never mind that you’re exhausted, you haven’t showered in 6 days, the clothes you’re wearing feel like cardboard and if you have to sing about “bananas uniting” one more time you’re actually going to LOSE IT—you’re there for the kids. It always amazed me how that simple fact brought camp counsellors back to their (certifiably insane) jobs summer after summer. It’s simple, really: if you’re happy and excited, your kids will be happy and excited, and that’s a great feeling.
As a TA, you’re going to be presented with a lot of material that you need to teach, and I will be shocked–SHOCKED–if you actually like it all. Par exemple, I am one of those people that have a hard time enjoying poetry. Sure, I can appreciate the form and content from an analytic point of view, but is it the sort of stuff I want to read in my spare time? Limericks about people from Nantucket aside, my answer is a resounding “no.” But does that mean I get to bond with my students via sarcasm and mockery when we’re studying different poets and their work? Again, no.
It doesn’t matter what my personal opinion is re: certain works. I’m not here to impose what I think on my students, I’m here to help my students think for themselves. TAs can do that by being enthusiastic and fair to each new work discussed with their students, even though some weeks are easier than others. At the end of the day, just like at camp, it’s not about you. It’s about your students.
…ok this just really feels appropriate right now:
Yeah I went there. And on that note, let me know what you think!