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Graduate Assistant Challenges
By Katherine Eltringham, Graduate Assistant
The status of the graduate assistant is difficult. We operate in the double modality as both student and teacher; our identity seems linked to the side of the desk on which we find ourselves, and is therefore necessarily complex and confusing. This section deals with the peculiar and precarious status of the graduate assistant, but is also intended for professors and administrators (to remind them of the issues). Topics in this section include:
Professional Development for Graduate Assistants:
Setting Priorities and Balancing your Time.
As graduate students we are grooming ourselves as competitive applicants for a scarcity of positions. Our commitment to higher learning is twofold: we refine our scholarship with a view to publishing, but we also develop the effective communication necessary to share our knowledge and enthusiasm with the next generation of potential philosophers whose interest will propagate the field we desire to make our professional home. Our scholarship often takes priority because we view it as the climax of our own studies, and of course our magnum opus – the dissertation – is the ticket to our union card. From this side, the dissertation is the magical threshold between becoming and being the Ph.D. But if this degree is to be anything more than a trophy, we must not let our responsibilities as pedagogues get buried beneath the euphoria of accumulating publications. Here are some strategies that can help:
Find a teaching mentor: Even if your university assigns you a mentor, you may have a better rapport with another professor who knows your strengths and weaknesses, and whose style in the classroom you would like to emulate. Establish a professional mentorship with this model teacher and ask him/her what has worked for him/her. Ask your mentor to visit your classroom to evaluate your teaching. If possible, have your mentor visit twice in the semester, once towards the beginning, and again toward the end – this way they will be able to measure your progress and your ability to integrate constructive criticism. Save the mentor evaluative letters for your dossier – the institutions to which you apply for a position will value documentation of teaching excellence and pedagogical improvement.
Learn from your peers: Our colleagues who are in the same positions as we are may have tips and tricks, new and creative techniques, ideas for assignments and discussions, etc. If we visit the classrooms of more experienced graduate assistants with our attention tuned to classroom facility, we may pick up on effective methods that we can appropriate for our own use. If we invite our peers to visit our own classroom, they may have suggestions about our delivery, use of class time or something as simple as the set-up of our room. Another helpful tool for improving ourselves as teachers is to set up “roundtable” discussions or workshops (if these are not already provided by the university) to discuss classroom successes and failures. You can even ask an obliging faculty member to host the discussions because regular exchange of ideas enriches everyone. And you can document your participation (signed off by the faculty member) for fortifying your resume.
Learn from your undergraduate students. Ask your students what they like best about your class, and what they perceive your strengths are, but also where the course needs improvement. It is helpful to do a midterm evaluation to keep track of what the students are getting out of your course other than what you can determine from the midterm exam.
Each of the various groups we interact with -- undergraduate students, full faculty, university administrators, and other graduates students -- presents unique challenges; ironically you may also find yourself as a source of some of your challenges.
Undergraduate students are often confused about the status of their graduate assistant teachers. Many undergraduates do not understand the graduate curriculum that involves teaching as a part of the stipend deal. They tend to lump all teachers into the professor category (which may be flattering for us), but I have found that discussing my status as a graduate assistant can have great benefits. By educating them as to the possibilities of studying beyond their undergraduate curriculum, we may open to them a new horizon for their future goals that they had not previously considered. Many are not aware that there is funding available for graduate study, or how the whole system works in general, unless they have parents or older siblings who have pursued such a course. Our closeness to our students in age and experience can have advantages as well as disadvantages.
Advantages: Because we share the common ground of studenthood with our own students, we may offer and they may perceive a unique sympathy in us to the challenges that all students face. Because of our typical youth(-fulness) students may feel less intimidated by us and therefore more at ease to speak about controversial issues and contemporary applications of philosophy that interest them. They are also more likely to confide in us. In addition, we can use our knowledge of pop culture, technology and current events to incorporate examples of philosophical relevance in our discussions. We too (though we are philosophers) can be “cool”.
Disadvantages: Our disadvantage in the classroom might arise when it comes to establishing authority as “experts” in our field. In this case our youth may count against us. In the less offensive cases, students may seek to become too friendly or familiar with us because they see us as hip, older sibling-like peers. We must be careful not to be flattered to the point of seduction – it is a serious temptation to be “cool” with the students given that we have often battled the stigma of nerdhood. In more offensive instances, hostile or “know-it-all” students will attempt to trample their graduate instructor because they are resentful at having to take the course, or resentful that someone not much older than they has the power over their grade and therefore success in an “unnecessary” or “irrelevant” class.
Do's and Don'ts when dealing with students:
Be careful to maintain purely professional relationships with the students. It is fine to meet a student for coffee or elsewhere on campus to discuss assignments or hold study groups, but it is highly suggestive of improper motives if we invite students to our apartment or to a bar, or to accept their invitations to do so.
Be firm in maintaining classroom order. Sometimes a young instructor will trigger a knee-jerk challenge in students who are docile for seasoned professors. If superior mental judo is not effective in deflecting and disarming his/her heckles and cat-calls, you need to seek support from your university network. If a student is speaking disrespectfully in any way, including constantly raising vacuous objections or questioning your requirements, first speak with the student after class. If necessary contact your mentor and/or department chairperson, the student’s dean or advisor, and/or the university Student Life office for advice. Do not let one disruptive student who questions your authority break the spell for the rest of the students.
Make your expectations of and relations with the students universal and clear. If you play favourites by hanging out with some students after class, but not others, you will be perceived as giving those students an advantage. Do not make exceptions on your classroom policies for anyone – if a student is consistently late with assignments, but you really like her/him, you must deduct the same number of points from his/her grade as you would for any other. If you remain consistent and hold to your requirements, everyone will respect your fairness all the more.
We often work closely with the faculty as TA’s, whether we observe and grade or lead discussion in subsections of the class. The faculty value and respect us (for the most part) as colleagues. We must remember that they too have gone through graduate school and have survived, which makes them a wonderful resource for guidance and inspiration. It is important to keep open communication when working with a faculty member – make sure you know what is expected of you, and be honest when expressing your own concerns or desires. If you are:
A grading and observing TA – you primary task is to watch, learn, take notes and evaluate the students. Even if you are assigned to work with a faculty member whose style you do not like, you can learn a whole lot by observing what not to do. It is good preparation for the day when you will be given your own classroom to prepare a lecture for each class as if you were going to teach the class. This is beneficial for several reasons: you can make adjustments to the lecture after you hear the professor’s lecture and save it for the future when you will have to teach it, you can supplement the professor’s lecture or participate in the discussion because you are well-prepared, you can answer student questions from a different yet well-informed perspective, you can discuss it with the professor afterward and get advice on how to improve it, or…you may be in a position to actually teach the class if the professor gets sick. Even if you are not expected to teach any of the classes, it may be a good experience to arrange a lecture or discussion that you lead for at least one class (or a portion of a long class) in the semester.
A discussion-leader – you are probably one of several TAs in a very large class where the professor lectures one day of the week and another day of the week you preside over discussion with a portion of the class. Stick closely to the directives of the professor with whom you work, because ultimately the class has to come together again and “be on the same page”.
Teaching independently – use the experience of the faculty to improve your work (see mentoring above).
The University itself loves graduate assistants in the same way that the aristocratic Greek philosophers loved their slaves. With our hard work and desire to prove ourselves pedagogically competent, the university wins on both ends: they have excellent, stimulating courses being offered by highly motivated, intelligent graduate students whom they do not have to pay the salary of a full faculty member. The university has honoured us by accepting us as students and engaging us as teachers-in-training, but it is sometimes the case (especially in larger institutions) that in its view we become numbers and statistics. When possible it is good to get to know some of your administrators – they too can be valuable resources when seeking grants or funds for conference travel, revising stipend funding, acquiring health insurance, or a venue for instituting a new programme. While the university may seem, at times, as bureaucratic as the DMV, you may be surprised to find sympathetic minds who remember their own time in graduate school. But also remember to get every university promise in writing and save it for your records.
This is sometimes a prickly issue depending on the organisation of the programme in which we find ourselves. There are three sorts of environments that tend to emerge based on graduate student relations – and usually, as well as unfortunately, they tend to be riveted on money:
Supportive – When a programme funds all of the students it accepts, this precludes antagonisms and rivalries for the stipend. In this environment we feel a solidarity and camaraderie with our colleagues (even if they are not our friends). This is the most productive environment because it often fosters the respect and trust that all of us have earned (and that has been recognised by our programme), which in turn allows for constructive cooperation like peer reviews of our scholarship, collective effort in petitioning and gaining extracurricular support from the university (such as affordable health insurance), exchange of information and experience (such as conference tips, grant sources, dossier assemblage, etc.) and carpooling.
Competitive – Competition arises when we perceive our success as defined over and against that of our colleagues. We may already have the “end”, i.e. job, in sight and view our chances of acquiring one as dependent upon distinguishing ourselves within our community. There is nothing wrong with a healthy competitive spirit, but it is best to direct this energy toward your own work – measure yourself by your own progress and allow your energy to distinguish you constructively. It is best not to discuss grades.
Back-stabbing – When a graduate programme partially funds incoming students and promises full funding to the top students after the first year, or when the programme funds some students but not others, a very hostile atmosphere can develop. Students who end up with funding may feel self-conscious, and that they have to justify being chosen, and those without are often resentful. Fewer universities operate in this mode because they have finally become aware of the negative impact of such tension. If you are in a situation like this, be careful not to fall into the pettiness that inevitably festers, and be supportive of funded and un-funded colleagues alike.
Setting Priorities and Balancing Your Workload
Balancing the workload of our own coursework with the preparations we must make for teaching or assisting a class is the key to surviving graduate school. Here are some tips for maintaining your balance successfully.
Manage your time effectively by blocking out certain hours for certain tasks. Overall productivity may be increased if you vary the demands you put on your attention span. For example, you may want to spend several hours reading Derrida, take a break, then switch gears by preparing your class or grading exams. If you are grading, this will make Derrida look all the more interesting when you resume your reading later.
Set deadlines and incentives for yourself. A wise professor at Villanova once said, “I’m not sure what it means to impose limitations on graduate students.” And it is likely that we are even less sure. It is hard enough for us to keep the deadlines that our professors set let alone set and keep them for ourselves, but it is a useful exercise of virtue. If we make our deadlines and incentives small and reasonable, we may keep ourselves on task more rigorously and end up feeling that we have accomplished a lot (and therefore deserve a reward). (But no cheating – you can’t have that cigarette five pages before the end of the chapter.)
Keep the deadlines others set for you. Although professors are often flexible to the point of being averse to setting firm demands, finish your tasks within a reasonable boundary-extension of the semester. The INCOMPLETE is our worst enemy because it encourages our bad habits of procrastination, and once you get behind, it is possibly impossible to catch up. Having lagging tasks from previous semesters contributes to our workload and therefore stress level.
Coordinate your study with your course preparation. This depends upon the requirements of your institution, but it often helps to teach texts that will be on your comprehensive exams. There is no way to learn a text better than teaching it to others. Many of the comprehensive texts are Intro texts too – and on much the same level too. Often what students require for solid comprehension in class is what your examiners will want to hear in your responses – i.e. the POINT.
Remember to take some time to relax. Go kayaking, hang out with friends, splurge on a movie – anything to keep you feeling human.
Karron G. Lewis, ed., The T.A. Experience: Preparing for Multiple Roles. Stillwater: New Forum Press, 1993.
Steven M. Cahn, "Teaching Graduate Students to Teach," Teaching Philosophy. 27.4 (2004):321-324.
Author: Katherine Eltringham
Update: April 8, 2008 and July 2019