Musings on being a T.A.

I just received my student evaluations from last quarter’s TAship. They were better than I expected, though there were a couple that weren’t so good (in other words, they were what I expected). Out of my three quarters TAing, I enjoyed the first and second a lot, but this last one left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m sure that’s partly because some of it was my fault. But I don’t think I really blame myself too much, because it wasn’t a good situation to start with. Here’s the rundown:

Why this class was bad to begin with
1. The class was at 8 am, which means students don’t want to come to lecture and don’t pay attention while they’re there
2. The professor (who I like, by the way) really dumbed everything down, and told us TAs quite openly that she was doing so
3. The lectures fed students obvious talking points for the exams, PLUS there were lecture notes posted online to accompany each lecture, listing all these talking points
4. The subject matter was totally out of my field
5. The subject matter was totally not even the professor’s field
6. Almost all the other TAs were specialists in the field
So, in sum, the class was dumbed-down and at a bad time of day, the professor didn’t always know what she was talking about and neither did I, and the other TAs mostly did. Bad setup, right?

Here’s how I dealt with it:

How I made a bad class worse
1. I did not do any side readings before section to try and get to know the subject matter better
2. In the spirit of the dumbing-down of the course, I didn’t attempt to challenge the students
3. Likewise, I graded really lightly
4. Likewise, I made almost all the sections super-short because if (2) and (3) are happening, there’s no point to holding a lengthy section.
In sum, this was a lowest-common-denominator class and I treated it as such. I didn’t prepare beyond just reading course materials, I didn’t push the students beyond what the professor was having them do, and I gave them high grades for minimal effort.

Why this was justified
1. It was not my responsibility to become an expert on the subject matter, so I should not have had to spend lots of time doing extra reading
2. If the professor didn’t want to challenge the students, I shouldn’t have had to either. Moreover, I couldn’t very well have done so without knowing more about the subject matter
3. I really don’t think that it would have been fair to grade harder when the class was so easy
4. Why should I have invented silly exercises to keep the students in section longer, when I really didn’t have anything else to say to them?
What this all boils down to is that I took a bad situation and did not try to improve it. I didn’t spend my own time to understand the material better, and I didn’t take it upon myself to challenge the students more. It was not my responsibility to do so, so I didn’t.

What still makes me so uneasy about this class is that part of me honestly does feel that my behavior was justified, while another part of me thinks it was inexcusable.

On both sides of the fence, I don’t feel bad about my easy grading. I always think student learning is more important than grades, and I know students never mind getting good grades. It was a super-easy course and I graded accordingly. In my defense, I didn’t find out until the quarter was nearly over that I was grading far easier than any of the other TAs. Of course, as we all know, academics are nitpicky about their fields of specialization, and so a lot of the other TAs graded really hard. It made sense to them that their students should be able to differentiate between all the different kings and popes and time periods, but it didn’t to me because I could barely keep them straight myself. So I really don’t think my grading was unjustifiable.

But while all students like to get good grades, the best students don’t like easy classes where they don’t learn anything. My most critical evaluations are the ones that point this out: that it was an easy course, but a waste of time. But again in my defense, the professor herself told us TAs in the first week: “I’ve designed this course so that a moron could pass.” So I wasn’t even breaking with the spirit of her teaching. But I still don’t feel comfortable about my experience, especially because I still don’t know if I could have (should have) done better. Should I have spent a lot of time doing extra reading? Should I have put a lot of energy into coming up with innovative lesson plans? Doing so would have made me feel better, at the time and in retrospect, but there’s no guarantee that it would have been better for the students, or at least enough better to justify the time spent doing it. I’m still not sure I condemn myself for what I did. Given the way I teach, how little I knew of the subject, and how the class was structured, I don’t think I did the very best I could have done, but I do think the job I did was adequate. But being adequate doesn’t afford me any satisfaction.

Then there’s the subject of the evaluations. Like I said, some students cared enough and were honest enough to state that they did not get anything out of section. They recognized that I didn’t know what I was doing and wasn’t trying too hard to transcend that. Some of them also recognized that the professor was also to blame. But this critical body was a minority. Most of my students, I now know for sure from the evaluations, were very, very happy with how I ran their sections. They were thrilled that they only had to spend twenty minutes in section per week, they loved that they could get good grades easily, and naturally they liked me because I’m nice and I do try to help. So that’s all well and good, right? We can’t please everyone all the time, so why not just let it go?

I know the reason I’m still frustrated by this is because I know that if I’d really tried, I could have done better. I still don’t know whether I should have, or whether anyone had the right to expect me to. I think the answer to both is no. But nevertheless, I, myself, know that I didn’t give it all I could have, and that makes me feel bad. And this is the big ethical dilemma. I don’t think I should have done more and I don’t think anyone should have expected it of me, but what does that all amount to? I’m the one left feeling bad, I and the few students who felt shortchanged, but am I sure I wouldn’t do it again if ever faced with a similar situation? Would those few students have done differently themselves? Probably not, but…

I don’t like this.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at The original post was restricted to my LiveJournal friends only.]