Burke's "Voice for Theater"
students teaching each other
their original "sound-movements."
the term "teaching assistant" denotes an "assisting"
role, you may or may not find yourself assisting a faculty member. Still,
as a TA you are expected to perform certain functions, and you can expect
the supervising faculty member to carry out certain responsibilities
as well. Some of these are detailed below, and others are described in
you usually teach students in relatively small classes, you can influence
them immensely. According to statistics from the U.Va. Office of Institutional
Assessment and Studies, in fall 1998 graduate students taught a great
19% of the
31% of the seminars
33% of the lab courses
87% of the discussion sections
41% of classes overall
Of course, these statistics do not take into account the enormous impact
of graduate students as graders, the people who read and score thousands
of problem sets, essays, and lab reports. Moreover, as TAs, you often
teach essential introductory courses where students decide whether they
want to learn more about your discipline and where they learn the basic
information necessary for continued study. An undergraduate education
is the end of formal schooling for most American college students; thus
what and how you teach is basic to American society.
what type of teaching or grading you do, remember that you educate undergraduate
students by what you know, how you act, and how you encourage them to
think and learn. Those who might say, "TAs are only in charge of
lab courses (or do grading, tutoring, etc.); they don't really teach,"
define teaching too narrowly. Discussions, well taught, not only help
solidify students' knowledge but also teach critical thinking skills.
Labs teach in hands-on, real-world ways. Drill sections teach students
to use the material they're learning. Good comments on students' written
papers teach clarity of thought, help writers develop a sophisticated
style, and can make or break students' desire to improve. You instruct
students in whatever TA task you're assigned.
my first teaching because of what the teaching taught me about how to
learn, what to learn, about the complexity of the discipline, and indeed
about the possibilities of serious scholarship within the discipline.
T. Casteen, III, President, U.Va.
Making Connections in Your Department
you will find out about your specific TA duties from one or more designated
faculty members in your department, whether a supervisor of all TAs or
the faculty member you assist with a course. If you have questions about
procedures in your department and have no assigned faculty supervisor,
check with your departmental chair or graduate advisor. After you have
some experience with a course, you might like to have more say in how
it's organized. If so, ask; many faculty members appreciate the fresh
ideas you can bring and the give-and-take of collaboration. Here are the
ways various types of TA assignments are normally supervised (see also
- If you are
teaching one or more sections (often a discussion or lab) related to
a central course taught by a professor, that faculty member should supervise
and coordinate your efforts. Make certain that you meet regularly with
the faculty member and other course TAs; shared talk about teaching
is one of the best ways to widen your knowledge and your repertoire
- If you
are teaching your own section of a multi-section course (as in foreign
language courses and some lab courses), a faculty member should serve
as course supervisor, making sure that sections are comparable to each
other with respect to content, pace, and grading. Be sure you know these
course policies and follow them for the sake of fairness to the students
and your colleagues.
- If several
TAs are teaching a multi-section course, the faculty member may designate
a "head TA" who takes on basic administrative tasks. Performing
such extra duties gives you valuable administrative experience.
- If you
are teaching your own course, as you may when you advance in some departments,
consult with faculty members who have previously taught the course to
be sure that you have the correct focus and requirements. If possible,
observe an experienced instructor's version of the course either before
or during the semester you teach to pick up valuable techniques. You
may be responsible for ordering your own books, equipment, etc.; check
on this important detail well ahead of time (see "Preparing a Course").
- If you
are a grader, make sure you understand the course instructor's standards
and concerns. If possible, attend at least a few course meetings to
see how the course is taught and to know the student population a bit.
Although you need not know individuals to grade their papers, you do
need a sense of what you can generally expect from students at this
level. If the faculty member does not offer to grade initial papers
with you, request this training. By grading a few papers independently,
including comments and scores, and then comparing your reactions, you
learn what the instructor expects students to learn from the course
and how the instructor grades.
look at a teaching assistantship as an apprenticeship, we cannot ignore
its corollary, mentoring. Your teaching and grading are usually
linked with faculty-taught courses, and graduate faculty members in your
department no doubt consider themselves mentors to you as future scholars.
And you can equally benefit from their expertise as mentoring teachers.
Find out how your professor approaches class topics. Ask how a particularly
successful discussion was organized. Use regular meetings with the professor
to gain insights into how the course was prepared and into the philosophy
behind teaching your particular discipline. Of course, the faculty member
will not always consciously know why one class meeting was especially
fruitful and another less so. But, by analyzing and discussing the teaching
you see, you can rapidly progress as an instructor in your own right.
TAs develop approaches very different from mine; I encourage them to
do whatever their particular interests lead them to do as long as the
discussion is not peripheral to the understanding of the text and the