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Teaching assistants weigh in on experiences

Graduate student teachers balance research, learning, instructing

In his three years as a teaching assistant at the University, Kellen Myers has had some unusual experiences.

In one particular incident, a student came to his office hours, filed his nails with his colleague’s nail file, and then fell into a deep sleep while snoring open-mouthed, he said.

“I let him stay,” said Myers, a fifth-year Ph.D candidate in mathematics. “It was so bizarre, my only reaction was to ignore it.”

Myers spoke to a group of fellow teaching assistants yesterday at the Busch Campus Center on strategies for dealing with difficult, disruptive or learning-disabled students.

He said most students do not present a problem, but there will always be a few who pose challenges to inexperienced TAs.

He said one situation that often comes up is a student disrupting class because of an issue based on appearance, hygiene or dress. In those situations, it is difficult to deal with the problem without singling out the student in an embarrassing way.

“I once had a student change his shirt in class. … He had just come from the gym,” Myers said. “How do you deal with that?”

Students who directly challenge the TA’s authority pose difficult situations, he said. A student may feel like the TA is under-qualified, he said, since most TAs are graduate students who are barely older than the students they are instructing.

Myers said TAs are often viewed in a bad light, and many high-level private colleges and universities use their lack of TAs or small amount of TAs as a selling point.

Myers said his friend and fellow TA at an Ivy League institution, which he declined to name, had firsthand experience with that situation.

“After a lecture, a student came up to him and said ‘I would like to see your credentials,’” he said. “They feel like, ‘I pay so much money, where’s my A?’”

Swetha Jinka, a School of Arts and Science first-year student, said while her TAs have been knowledgeable, she would rather learn from a professor.

“[TAs] seem insecure sometimes, less confident,” she said.

Myers said TAs need to learn to deal with the unsure feelings that accompany the beginning of a new job and the fear of public speaking.

He said he recalled an incident in his first year when a student entered class late and interrupted the lecture to tell him that he could not stay in class.

“I had this moment of total anxiety,” Myers said.

There are as many potential solutions as there are potential problems in class, he said, but the best way to combat anything that may come up is to establish clear rules in the beginning of the semester in a syllabus.

In addition, TAs must avoid making too many rule exceptions, he said, which can be difficult to do for instructors who are barely older than their students.

“If you say no late homework, then accept late homework, you will be inundated with late homework,” he said.

The University employs 1,172 TAs, said E.J. Miranda, director of University Media Relations, in a statement.

Their contracts state that they must work an average of 15 hours per week, Myers said.

But TAs, who are all graduate students conducting research and sometimes taking classes along with their teaching requirements, often end up working much longer hours, especially around exam time.

Jesse Bayker, a third-year Ph. D. candidate and TA in the Department of History, said while it can be intense at times, the experience is positive.

Along with his work on a dissertation, Baker said a typical TA assignment would have him working with a professor in a 100-to-200-student lecture and leading a small 25-person discussion group once a week.

“[It is] definitely positive to work with professors, to collaborate with expert instructors,” he said.

Bayker said the worst experience he had was when a student who performed well in the first half of his course plagiarized most of his work.

“I had this one student … he plagiarized straight from Wikipedia and SparkNotes,” he said. “He ended up failing.”

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