The first time I saw someone actually write down something I said in class, I nearly laughed out loud. "No no no," I wanted to say, watching a student dutifully record something I'd spit out unthinkingly from my post at the front of the room, "I'm just your T.A. I don't actually KNOW anything." Which, of course, wasn't entirely true. At the time, however, I just found it hard to believe that the class of first-year students gazing up at me were able to perceive me as being an authority on anything.
After all, I was only a new graduate student, muddling my way through my first few weeks back in university after a long break. I'd been given a job as a teaching assistant for a first-year film class---not a field completely outside of my experience, but not one in which I felt confident enough to claim solid expertise either. Twice a week I was expected to get up in front of a bunch of first-years and act like I knew stuff? Kinda crazy.
In other words, here's something you might not know about your T.A.: he or she might be just as freaked out about being up at the front of the class as you might feel, sunk down on your chair, avoiding eye contact. Though you professors have slogged through years of schooling to get where they are, your T.A.s are students just like you---the only difference is that they've got a few years on you. In other words, UNLIKE your professors who are being paid to profess, your T.A.s are still students who have a ton of their own work to do.
Anyone who has done the gig, knows that being a T.A. can be a huge, thankless burden of underpaid work. That's why it sometimes takes us a little longer than you'd like for us to get your papers back to you. That's why we resent answering whiny emails in the middle of the night and aren't necessarily available to you whenever you need us---that's what office hours are for.
But hands down, the worst thing about being a T.A. is having to face a classroom full of blank, bored faces. "Crack a joke," says Mike Doan, a PhD student at Dalhousie who has also worked as a teaching assistant at Mount Allison and Western, "anything to break the silence." After all, one of the best things about university is the chance to talk about ideas---and that's exactly what tutorials were designed for. If you don't talk you not only make your T.A.'s life tougher ---I've never felt like my outfits were being analyzed more thoroughly than when standing before a bunch of silent students---you also don't get the benefit of engaging in stimulating discussion with your peers, who may actually have some insight.
Samantha Copeland, also pursuing a PhD at Dalhousie (though she's been a T.A. at Queen's, Carleton and the University of King's College as well), wants students to have the guts to say what they're thinking in class. "I now realize how annoying it was," she says, thinking back on her own days as a quiet undergraduate. "I would always wait for someone else to talk."
Both Doan and Copeland acknowledge the delicate balance that's at play when you're a teaching assistant, straddling the void between undergraduate student and professor, friend and authority figure.
Though it's not our job to regurgitate a lecture for you because you were too hungover to come to class, we do have experience and skills that can help you navigate the world of academia more effectively---and we're usually happy to help if you make an effort to ask.
"We are students, and we're on your side," says Copeland. "But a lot of students tend to assume that they are in some kind of partnership with the T.A.," adds Doan, and that simply isn't the case---especially if we're the ones marking your assignments and exams.
Ultimately, making an effort to get to know your T.A. and treating him or her with respect and politeness are the best ways to ensure your tutorial sessions are pleasant and effective. Stopping in for a quick hello during your T.A.'s office hours is another way to build a relationship.
"Give us your face," says Copeland with a smile, "just so we know who you are." Then we can picture you when we're marking your papers. Trust me: It makes a difference.
Because at the end of the day, your T.A. is just a grad student with a job: leading your tutorial group. Sometimes we are running classes outside of our field of expertise. Sometimes we're shy. Sometimes we're even hungover (that's right: you can stop acting so shocked). But at the end of the day, we're there to put away a little cash and get some work experience while we complete our own degrees. And to help, when we can. So there.