The Sceptical Chymist | Materials Girl: End of a TA era

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[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

Teaching has been part of my graduate-student experience since the very beginning. For better or for worse, my department is happy to hire newcomers as teaching assistants (TAs) during their first terms as grad students. After 14 quarters encompassing a wide variety of undergraduate courses, I have now maxed out on the school of engineering’s allowance for TAing. This fall will be the first term where I have absolutely ZERO classes to take or teach. It feels surreal, and a bit sad. (Even sadder if my advisor runs out of funding to pay me, but that’s a whole different set of issues…) Since age 4, I have been ‘in school’ and always had classes of some sort. Twenty-two years later, the change is very noticeable. In particular, I find myself actually having proper time to focus on research, instead of having half my week appropriated to classroom-related work.

Here, TA duties generally consist of teaching a weekly discussion or laboratory session, grading, holding office hours, responding to barrages of emails near due dates, and more grading. The experience has been as rewarding and unique as the variety of students I’ve encountered. Teaching — if it is done properly — forces us to disseminate (and reiterate) information with particular clarity (and patience), while grading hones attention-to-detail and writing skills. I’ve enjoyed not only gaining valuable skills (and regaining forgotten information), but also interacting with students and seeing them flourish.

At the end of each class, students are requested to write anonymous evaluations of their instructors. In addition to a list of questions, the final section is left open to all comments. Although these ‘evals’ are meant to help us improve the course and our teaching, mine have largely consisted of jumbled and amusing comments such as: ‘Fair grading is the best! Give me a good grade please. Just kidding, but seriously can you read this?’ Some of my friends have received more technical or extensive reviews, particularly those in the chemistry department — perhaps engineering undergrads are just less wordy.

Originally I considered sharing my funniest evaluations, but they all take a backseat to this one: ‘Dis gurl da baws. It don’t take no TEM to see you fine gurl.’ (from a student in a class on nanoscience and nanotechnology which, among other things, covered characterization). Most of the reviews are humbling and positive. Additionally there’s the occasional amusing student who gripes about ‘harsh grading’ or finds my serious-TA mode ‘scary’ (I’ve since eased up on being extra serious while in front of a class). Instead of rambling further on the joys and pains of the experience, though, I shall simply summarize by quoting another evaluation:

‘Here’s a smiley face. :)’

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