Teaching Assistants and Other Issues
Terry L. Seip, November 2007
Despite the attention the profession has given to the importance of teaching over the last couple of decades, too often we still fall short when it comes to working in systematic ways to teach graduate students what can be taught about teaching and then mentoring them as they practice. Although group training for new teaching assistants (TAs) varies in quality, frequently it is heavily oriented toward Do's and Don'ts—with an emphasis on the latter. Some departments go beyond this to provide ongoing, in-progress TA training (which I favor), others integrate sessions on pedagogy into their professionalization programs, and still others rely on university teaching centers as outside providers of mandated training.
Whatever the source, the better the group training in teaching basics, the easier the faculty mentoring as TAs begin their first assignments. Here, of course, the best instructors are hands-on, fully recognizing their mentoring responsibilities and understanding that well-prepared TAs are crucial to class success. Through group and individual meetings, these faculty members socialize TAs into all facets of the course from the overarching rationale, objectives, and learner outcomes, to ways of evaluating exams and papers in flexible but consistent ways and effectively counseling a broad range of student types. This, they know, is not simply a matter of telling TAs to "do this" or to "do that," but rather one of mutual exchange and listening to TA input.
Perhaps most critical is the handling of discussion sections. Launching and sustaining a full-class discussion is perhaps the toughest task in teaching, and yet we throw novice teachers into sections of 20–25 students and tell them to facilitate interactive learning. Developing a repertoire of discussion strategies, tactics, and techniques and acquiring genuine on-your-feet, front-of-the-room, quick-thinking skills is essential. The day of the straight lecture continues in declension; students need to leave graduate training with skills in fostering interactivity in large and small classrooms. This sort of mentoring is grinding, time-consuming, piecemeal work for the TA as well as the faculty member. If, for example, the topic of a given week's discussion sections can best be handled by working in a developmental form, that is, stepping from simple to complex formulations of the issue, or devising a critical dialogue between past and present, or if one is wrestling with sensitive issues such as constructions of race or sexuality, the faculty member and TAs should together ponder ways of most effectively opening and unfolding the issue layer by layer. Even the most experienced senior faculty member might benefit from reading a little current pedagogy and thinking about methods before engaging TAs in a joint consideration of possible approaches. And, after the TA has conducted the session, there should be a critical postmortem: Did it work with most students? Did it seem more effective in one discussion section than another? What might you do differently next time? Why?
Some personal experience suggests that another good practice is to have a designated faculty member available to mentor TAs in a supplemental, third party way—to meet periodically with each new TA, quickly laying everything on the table—what's working, what's not working, relationships with their mentoring faculty, fellow TAs, and undergraduate students, and the like. That faculty member obviously must have an abiding interest in all types of teaching and be committed to working with TAs and graduate instructors on schedule and on demand. If the investment of time is significant enough, this might become a recognized service position in the department—freeing one from other committee work and obligations. And it can be a real boon to directors of graduate and undergraduate studies and chairs to know that they can refer most concerns relating to teaching assistants to this person. In a more limited way, some departments use experienced graduate student teachers as peer mentors to counsel new TAs individually, in pairings, or in groups. This practice, of course, must be carefully defined and monitored.
Finally, we should continue to mentor graduate students as they move beyond TA duties into teaching their own courses. Perhaps the ideal here is a regular graduate seminar on teaching history which ranges from conceptualizing the course and creating a syllabus to writing letters of recommendation for students who took the class. But short of this, there is much value for both parties if faculty mentors continue conversations with graduate or post-doctoral students as they design and teach their first courses.
A few broader considerations: First, graduate students must be proactive in the process. Some of the most productive mentoring relationships flow from student initiative, and we've all watched activist students make pretty good mentors out of faculty members not particularly interested or talented in the art. Students should seek out, visit, and observe other teachers, both faculty and fellow TAs. Second, faculty should assess the individual student's need for mentoring—some require a good deal, others want more than they actually need, and some who think they don't need it, do. Third, both parties must agree to time parameters on individual meetings. While some concerns will take longer, most matters can be handled effectively in 20–30 minutes or less. If the time limitations are understood upfront, then time on task will likely be better, and neither faculty member nor student has to worry about having to cut off the conversation. Melanie Gustafson's Becoming a Historian offers succinct advice on student-faculty conversations (all of which are in some sense mentoring): "See faculty members during office hours. Have your purpose clearly thought out and know how to end a conversation. You will be welcome for transactions of legitimate business and a certain amount of friendly conversation, but prolonged idle chitchat will put a strain on both of you. Do not overstay your welcome. Express your appreciation, then leave."1 Time and familiarity will probably soften this business-like approach, but it remains a good starting point.
Mentoring graduate teaching is not unlike many other responsibilities we take on in academe—there's a learning curve, but it still takes time; "teaching skill," as Kenneth Eble noted years ago, "is not so much taught as it is nurtured into existence."2 Time invested in mentoring teaching assistants will pay dividends in time saved for the rest of their days in the profession, they will enter their own classrooms with greater confidence, and in appreciation, when the time comes, they too will mentor.
—Terry Seip is associate professor of history at the University of Southern California.