Preparing Teaching Assistants


Many graduate programs in philosophy provide funding for their students in exchange for their labor as teaching assistants (TAs). The job of a TA varies across institutions and courses, but typically involves grading assignments, running weekly discussion sections of a larger course, and providing guidance to students.

That’s a lot of responsibility, on top of one’s own coursework and  writing, for a student to handle. What kind of training do graduate students get to prepare themselves for it?

As students, they’ve seen their own professors and TAs work, but that prepares them for teaching about as well as watching movies prepares one for an acting career.

It would be helpful to learn both what individual professors do to prepare and guide their teaching assistants before and during a course and also what departments and other units at the university offer by way of official TA training.

UPDATE: Sarah Wieten reminds me of a study she co-authored which was covered in a post earlier this year. That study focused on the teacher training that graduate students get — not much. It did not cover what individual professors do to prepare and guide their own TAs, though, which is one of the things this current post asks about.

 

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Joe
Joe
5 years ago

I can tell you what our (top-20) department offers by way of TA training: sweet bugger-all. Instead, new TAs are sent to the university’s general TA-training seminars, which principally involve trying to discuss grading strategies with grad students in Fine Arts and Mathematics. As you can imagine, this is not helpful.

Sometimes I really do wonder how we keep all of this under wraps. Parents these days are hyper-vigiliant about their children’s educational experience these days, yet the fact that many of them are taking out mortgages to send their kids to be taught (and graded!) by people with literally zero educational training is never a scandal.Report

Mister Rogers
Mister Rogers
Reply to  Joe
5 years ago

Almost the same here. I’m in a PGR ranked program. Other than the first semester general orientation stuff for all first year TAs in the university, which was essentially worthless, the best training I get is from a weekly one hour “teaching philosophy” class and a weekly 20-minute meeting with the prof I TA for. These are both great, but a more behind the scenes look would be nice. Maybe if we sat in on a few of those closed-door super secret faculty meetings from time to time? I don’t know.Report

Melissa Jacquart
5 years ago

A trend in graduate teaching assistant training in Canada is the development of graduate student peer networks – such as “Lead TA” Programs – that enhance the teaching practices of TAs at a departmental level. I served as a Lead TA as a graduate student for my philosophy department (at Western Ontario). My responsibilities were to design and facilitate discipline-specific teacher development workshops for new and experienced TAs, develop resources to facilitate grading, promote curriculum innovation among the grad students, host discussion groups, and provide peer consultation to TAs throughout the year. If anyone is interested in learning more, there is info on Western’s Teaching Support Centre Lead TA Page: https://www.uwo.ca/tsc/graduate_student_programs/lead_ta_program.html, and my “Legacy Project” for the department: http://melissajacquart.com/teaching/resources-for-instructors/. There is also a paper in progress about the effectiveness of these programs, and how to implement them–if anyone is interested in that (or more info generally), e-mail me and I can ask about its status.Report

Shane Epting
5 years ago

Wait, so being “thrown to the wolves” isn’t the norm?Report

Frank
Frank
5 years ago

We have a day and a half of an experienced TA going over some basics. My sister had 2 years of 8 to 5, 5 days a week to become a 2nd grade teacher. Before we teach our first solo course we receive no training whatsoever.Report

Carter
Carter
5 years ago

FWIW, I think Georgia State is an excellent example of teaching prep done right. Students observe faculty led classes their first year and then teach their own courses in their second year while meeting weekly for discussion with their peers and a faculty mentor, attending pedagogy seminars, receiving feedback from peers, faculty and university staff on their lectures, etc. The real problem of course is not that good teaching prep is some mystery; PhD programs usually just don’t care about it.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
5 years ago

Like most others, my program offers no training whatsoever. Should any of us find ourselves puzzled by that fact, take a single moment to reflect and it’ll quickly come to your mind that this isn’t an administrative hiccup or omission. It’s a reflection of the fact that teaching and grading are perilously low priorities for universities, especially research institutions.

It’s a travesty, outright.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Grad Student
5 years ago

I agree. Right up until the last sentence. Then I’m less sure. It seems to me that there are two options:
(1) Universities are, ideally at least, supposed to be places that mostly serve to educate undergraduates, and you’re right, or
(2) The primary purpose of an ideal university is something other than the education of undergraduates. Of course, if this is so then perhaps we’re investing exactly as much into the training of TAs as we should.

Care to elaborate on why you think (1) is true as opposed to (2)? Genuine question here, not an attack. The point is that (2) would explain everything you said without the end result being travesty.

(Also note that there is a third option: quality of instruction doesn’t really matter, so training is just a waste of resources. I don’t know the research in the area, but this idea — while admittedly counterintuitive — isn’t obviously wrong in my estimation.)Report

J Kernion
J Kernion
5 years ago

At Berkeley, we have a small seminar for first-time TAs that meets in the first semester of teaching. In that seminar, we go over strategies for presenting material, leading discussions, grading, dealing with conflict etc. There’s not much top-down influence on how to do these things. Instead, the seminar gives TAs the opportunity to learn from one another and get advice from a faculty member.

I, myself, think a “best practices” handbook would be pretty useful, but I’m not sure how useful a more rigorous training program would be.

T.M. Scanlon wrote up a “How to Teach Philosophy Sections” guide a while back, and I think that’s the best resource I’ve come across. Here’s a Dropbox link: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/87211332/scanlon.pdfReport