The [not-so-]secret benefit of the ‘stupid’ TA

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be a better TA and how to interact with both my professor and students better. With that being said, the professor I work for is fairly opinionated about what TAs should and should not know. Sometimes I find my recall isn’t perfect; I don’t remember every detail of the course. Sometimes the professor comes close to rolling their eyes at my recall, or lack thereof.

However, I think this is a benefit. I think this allows me to see ‘holes’ in student understanding and address them more effectively. For many topics, I can discuss the lack of student understanding with more familiarity than the professor, despite their multi-semester experience. Sometimes its helpful to simplify the professor’s plan to focus more challenging points. And sometimes its very helpful to point out easy pitfalls in both calculations and understanding. Generally, my professor doesn’t really mind my snafus, since they usually happen in their office when we are discussing student assignments prior to dissemination. They would be severely annoyed [rightly so!] if I was perpetuating incorrect information during recitation sections.

However, there are other professors that aren’t so generous. One of my colleagues is currently teaching for a professor who decided they were frustrated with their ‘stupid TAs.’ So the TAs were unexpectedly given the exam during the exam period, instead of their normal proctoring responsibilities.

Now I’m not saying I don’t think the TAs should be capable of taking an exam for the class they are teaching, but I do have a problem with the goal of this exercise, which was to catch a TA demonstrating less than brilliance. One of the TAs did do poorly on the exam, and that TA needs to work harder for mastery of the material. However, having a meeting in which the professor berates the TA for answering incorrectly is completely unproductive.

I think a better way to handle a lackluster TA would be to focus on the necessity of preparation. That has certainly helped me develop my teaching over the last few semesters. Facilitating correct preparation would increase the TAs ability to work as an advocate for both students and the professor. Even something so simple as giving notice that TAs would be expected to take the exam prior to students would be sufficient to increase general preparation. I realize (although I have no direct experience), some people care so little about teaching that no amount of professor intervention will cause a satisfactory outcome, but attempting to use humiliation to facilitate performance often fails. As my recall sometimes fails me, I often spend a significant time preparing my notes prior to teaching. The extra time is well spent, because I rarely mislead my students.

Anyways, I think its beneficial to have a TA who does not immediately recall every detail of the course, because it provides the teaching team with the opportunity to reexamine complex concepts and teach students more effectively. Sometimes I worry this idea is just a way my brain convinces me that I am not stupid. Either way, I am constantly striving to increase my knowledge base while maintaining my memories of which concepts were difficult and why I had trouble.

Writing quizzes for everyone

During my recitations, I am responsible for writing a weekly quiz. The instructor doesn’t offer a lot of feedback, and so I get the opportunity to try new methods and write my own quiz questions. As you can imagine, this means l write some good questions and l write some bad ones. I never hear much about the good questions, but boy do I hear about the bad ones. If I hear a lot of confusion over a question, I usually drop it the next semester or try to clarify the wording.

This week covers some of my favorite material, which means I have to hold back my creativity and remember to write level appropriate questions. I try to write a couple of softball questions, a mid level and a high level question, with the points weighted to easy questions. Well one of my softball questions gained considerably more attention than it deserved. I had a student waiting outside the room for me. He was unhappy with his grade.

As it turns out, his understanding of the concept was correct, but his answer was not precise enough to merit points on my rubric. And so its back to the drawing board. Maybe I should have given him points back, but it seems that he was thinking about it incorrectly and l don’t want to reward his complaints. I find it tricky to decide when I should focus on concept or details and what about precision? I don’t want to make students feel hopeless, but I want precise answers.

How do you teach students to answer precisely without crushing their morale in the process?

Teaching philosophy and technology

I currently TA for comprehensive biochemistry I at Big State University. It’s semester four for me. The course usually enrolls about 120 students, about 20 or so drop before the end of the semester. Generally, students attend lectures where they follow along with pre-printed power points. The professor I work for leaves strategic blanks so students will attend class. After lecture, the students will generally study their notes prior to recitation (which I teach) before the quiz is administered. Sometimes they come to recitation with questions, and sometimes our discussion generates a question. This pattern is very familiar at lots of universities.

Recently I have been working to develop my teaching skills through some on-campus workshops/seminars/etc. You might be asking yourself, why do I want to spend time developing my teaching skills when I don’t have a defined career goal? Its part of my overall strategy to increase marketability. I have traditionally considered it likely I would enter teaching, and so many things I do set me up for this goal as I explore options.

Anyway, recently I attended a seminar discussing teaching with technology. I thought there were some really interesting (somewhat) free programs that could potentially make lecture courses more engaging for more students. There were platforms that allowed student polling via text message or browser, that allowed remote management of slides via tablet or phone, and even chat sessions for students to interact with each other. I think these tools could have really interesting application.

And so I brainstormed a bit and tried some of the programs out. I set up some test situations and played with them at home. Then I brought in my mini-quizlet to the prof to pitch about integrating this at the end of the class today. I initially emailed after the seminar and got a mostly positive response. The prof suggested questions indicative of the grade level students were seeking. So three questions, A, B, C level. And today the prof doesn’t want to do anything with tech because it must take time from somewhere, and we couldn’t cut anything out. Prof even went as far as to describe the tech tools as likely distraction.

Sigh. For the record, this prof is 32. Not that it really matters, but for those of you following along at home who would imagine a greybeard. I did get some free rein to experiment in recitation, which is going to be my next experiment. I think I’ll start with some poll questions and see if I can use them to help out the students. I’ll keep you posted on whether or not the students like them or show any better understanding (I know, quantitative metrics), after Spring Break is over anyways.

The blog was on fire!

I started this blog abut a week or two ago. I really want it to be a place where I can explore my current thoughts on what I should be doing with my life, and how I plan to get there. I thought putting a twitter together would get some more discussion and help me find some more people to discuss my thoughts with, and boy has it ever. I was a little taken aback by how many people wanted to talk about their two-body problem. I went from 0 views to over 500 in a couple of days. I realize that isn’t viral by any stretch, but it sure felt like it.

What was really fun though (aside from the naive feelings of internet fame), was the other people who reached out and said they were having some similar thoughts. I realize the world is big and amazing, but I don’t have a lot of real life contacts constantly obsessing over the same problems. It was nice to read some other perspectives and suggestions from others who were or are in similar situations. It seems stereotypical to throw out the ‘its so nice to connect with people like me’ line, but it sure was fantastic.

I guess this post is just representative of my awe at the internet and social media. I’ll have more interesting things to talk about soon 🙂

The dreaded teaching philosophy statement

As part of my graduate education, I find myself with the task of drafting a “statement of teaching philosophy” for review by one of my mentors. I have some teaching experience, which should make this easy, right? I taught comprehensive biochemistry recitation sections for several semesters. I worked as a supplemental instructor and tutor for even more semesters. I’ve mentored a couple of students. I should have enough background to draft something outstanding right?

I have one sentence.

I don’t want to write about how I am frustrated by poor time management of students or that time a student was begging me on their knees to grade late work. I don’t want to talk about that student who gave me a poor review because they didn’t like how I took points if they were not precisely correct. But how do I communicate that I am more concerned with personal development than mastery of material without sounding uninterested in my material?

I can write about the student who finally understood how oxygen binding is effected by carbon dioxide, but will a long winded anecdote take away from my overall message? How do I communicate the joy I felt when a student started thinking outside  the box without sounding like a broken, stereotypical record?

I’ve read outlines of this document and lots of internet examples. I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding the essence of the document. But I still have just one sentence. The deadline is coming…

My version of the two-body problem

Luckily for me, this problem isn’t quite a problem just yet. Since my significant other and I are still both working on our PhDs. Unfortunately, this is very much on the horizon, as the boyfriend will be graduating this summer. And so I have been reading lots of articles about how other professionals deal with these challenges. And its pretty scary.

Growing up I was always told that I could do whatever I wanted to do. While I wouldn’t characterize my parents as extremely pro-equality they were almost secret feminists. My parents were clear that I shouldn’t let any boys get in the way of my attempts at world domination. And I didn’t even think of letting those pesky boys get in my way! Sure I dated guys and talked about dreams and forevers, but I never really seriously considered compromising my goals. Until this guy. Who is really perfect for me in every way.

Now I feel like I’m sitting on a balance where I need to decide me or family. And I hate that feeling. Its not fair that I should feel like I have to choose between 1) Following my career and climbing the ladder or 2)Focusing on my [someday] family. Now before you tell me to man up, I realize lots of people successfully manage this challenge. But they are often overworked and under appreciated (in some aspect of life) and struggling hard. I don’t see many stories that talk about a manageable amount of work life balance. And that makes me feel like I need to choose, because I don’t want to kill myself in the pursuit of science.

And so here we sit, with the significant other about to graduate and myself trying to decide where I want to be. He is very firm in his career goals. He wants to get back into industry and climb the ladder. Chief Scientific Officer is his goal. Shall I follow along like the good housewife (which I may or may not enjoy), search for an alternate career that will allow mobility to follow his job, or fiercely focus on my career and make the two body problem my success?

Time management for the supervisory role

Its not so easy when you have to manage someone else’s time effectively. I have spent the last several years learning how to manage myself. How many hours of sleep I need, what types of food help me think, and how long it takes me to complete certain tasks. Years I tell you. This knowledge did not come cheaply. Many mistakes and even a few missed obligations (of course prioritizing is a close cousin here), but I can now accomplish tasks in a timely manner without too much fuss.

Enter my new mentee, a junior undergrad. She seems bright, and seems to have lots of potential. However, she is lacking a bit of background for our lab. We have worked through a couple of protocols and she has generated some acceptable data, and so we have moved onto the next experiments.

My current challenge working with the student is planning out how long experiments will take. She has a limited schedule around her classes, and we cannot bite off more than she can chew since she only works every other day. This morning an experiment that should have taken 45-60 minutes (for a distracted graduate student) took her almost two hours. I don’t know how to handle this, except to keep optimistically planning experiments and try to minimize waste. Anyone have any strategies to help with this quandary?