Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Materials Girl: TA: Totally Awesome

[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl, who would like to make it clear that the punning title has nothing to do with her!]

This academic year, I’ve been taking a seminar series on “Preparing Future Faculty” – an offering from the chemistry department that invites in all grads and postdocs who are interested in pursuing a teaching career. The subjects range from the psychology of learning, to making a proper CV, to the rigors of applying for a faculty position. (We need to finish at least two postdocs to be competitive?!)

Through many discussions, it’s been interesting to see the differences between Teaching Assistants (TAs) from other science and engineering departments. Specifically, I noticed that there are very different requirements for TAing. Rumor has it that the physics department is short on TAs; they coax sleep-deprived grad students into dealing with classes full of 300 clueless undergrads. Chemistry and most of the natural sciences require that all grads teach for a year, after which it is relatively voluntary (and everyone stays as far as possible from the pre-med-packed introductory chemistry courses). My own small department offers relatively few classes each term and even fewer TA appointments are available. Those of us with little/no pay vie for the positions in order to have a livable income, and/or we just want to teach. Others are ordered to TA when their PIs’ funds are running low – or said PIs think their students need more experience. I am inclined to question the latter reasoning, but that is discussion for another day.

Until now, I’ve been lucky enough to both secure a TA spot every term and to teach subjects that I like, with professors I like. However, this term I was assigned a course in which I have ZERO background! Due to various administrative, uh, obstinacies, I was unable to switch classes… Since then, I’ve been squeezing through the term by learning how to do homework problems early, maniacally searching the textbook, and Googling when emailed conceptual questions. I mercifully don’t have to teach formal discussion/recitation sections, since they were scheduled at 8am and no one wanted to go; we exchanged them for me having a billion office hours. It’s been an interesting experience. If nothing else, I try to keep my students happy by letting them camp out in my office to do homework, answering emails quickly, and grading by the next day. (Don’t tell YouKnowWho!) TA quality can make or break an average class – I try to tip the balance in favor of ‘make’.

The graduate student body in my department comes from a range of undergrad backgrounds, anywhere from organic chemistry to biomedical engineering to applied physics. (One of the pure-materials students should be TAing the mechanical properties class in my place! That being said, one of my friends in math once TAed a class in which both he AND the professor had no background, and they learned the material then! He says it wasn’t THAT bad.) In any case, we’re a wonderful, diverse hodgepodge of students who secretly may not always know what we’re doing. Don’t tell the undergrads!

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