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#4200-6270 University Blvd.
Vancouver, BC

Functional morphologist and evolutionary biologist


Grad Student Life: Being a TA

Vikram Baliga

This marks my first quarter as a TA. It's a interesting feeling -- after going through 4.5 years of undergrad, you get a bit of a "culture shock" when you find yourself on the other side of the classroom. You begin to realize it's your responsibility to ensure that the students in your section actually understand the material. You become personally invested in their successes and failures. It can be quite frustrating at times, especially when you feel as though you're speaking to empty seats. On occasion you even think, "What the hell am I doing up here?" For the most part, however, it's been quite rewarding. I seem to be connecting well with my students, and the strength of this link is reflected in their test scores.

I was a bit nervous before leading my first "discussion" section. I'd kept debating whether I'd wanted to be "the stern taskmaster" or more of a "buddy" figure. I can't even begin to count the number of ways I'd practiced introducing myself in my head. Of course, the way things actually panned out was nothing akin to how I'd planned. It's funny -- you spend so much of your time crafting your approach, but when push comes to shove, all of that falls by the wayside. When I walked up to the blackboard that first time, my mind went blank. I didn't have the presence of mind to tailor my words one way or another -- I just spoke in the manner in which I always do.

For me, this approach seems to work. It's all a matter of communicating effectively to your audience. The most effective way to do this is to be yourself. I've stopped caring about how funny or entertaining I come across -- some days I'm "on" and some days I'm not. The only thing that matters is my students' successes; I've become quite possessive of them.

Although it's only been a few weeks, I've come up with a few guidelines for myself when it comes to teaching:

  1. Be honest. Don't try to be an actor -- people can tell when you're not being genuine.
  2. Don't expect everyone to talk. Some people are naturally quiet and have other ways of expressing themselves. 
  3. Encourage students to work together in groups. Students sometimes have difficulty discussing ideas with people in "authoritative" positions. Working together with peers helps resolve these issues.
  4. If attendance is voluntary, appreciate the students who actually show up.
  5. Be prepared to repeat your explanations many, many, many times.
  6. Offer your help even when students don't explicitly ask for it. They may be too shy to approach you and/or may not even realize they're doing something incorrectly.