Preparation of TAs varies greatly

When students start picking classes for next semester, they can use online evaluations and shopping period to identify boring or inaccessible professors before they register. But as most Yalies know, there is almost no way to screen their teaching fellows, who can make or break a course as much as the professor.

The University does not have any centralized system for preparing graduate student teaching fellows to assist a professor or lead a class, and there is no official remedy for dealing with the problems that may arise throughout the semester if a teaching fellow is unprofessional or unprepared. Training for beginning teaching fellows — commonly referred to as TAs, although the title teaching assistant technically refers only to students from Yale’s professional schools — varies from department to department, and the duties expected of the fellows, which range from grading to leading sections, varies from class to class.

TA Timothy Morriss leads a discussion section on Early Modern Christian Thought. Students' course experiences often depend on the quality of their TA's.
Christopher Ripley
TA Timothy Morriss leads a discussion section on Early Modern Christian Thought. Students' course experiences often depend on the quality of their TA's.

Preparing to face the rabid dogs

Many graduate students choose to take advantage of the variety of preparatory options offered by Yale before they step into an undergraduate classroom. Most departments offer some form of introduction to teaching, focusing on the skills required for specific areas of study, while generalized preparation is available through the McDougal Graduate Teaching Center, a resource for teaching fellows that runs the popular “Teaching at Yale Day” orientation program before each semester. William Rando, director of the Teaching Center, said graduate students and their individual departments are responsible for ensuring that TAs are sufficiently trained and ready to confront a class. Some departments require TAs to undergo training, while others do not.

“That’s just kind of the culture,” Rando said. “Yale is the kind of place where it’s really up to the individual to take the initiative … I’m not a big fan of forcing people to get help. I am a big fan of giving people feedback and the resources they need to get help.”

Throughout the semester, the Teaching Center offers classes on topics ranging from dynamic speaking to gender in the classroom. It also holds “Fundamentals of Teaching” workshops targeted towards specific subject areas such as quantitative reasoning and the humanities. TAs who want individual guidance can have their sections videotaped and meet one-on-one with members of the Teaching Center staff.

The Teaching Center also publishes a guide called “Becoming Teachers,” which advises teaching fellows on everything from time management to what to wear to the first day of class. The guide includes sections with titles like “Keeping Students at Bay like the Rabid Dogs They Are,” and warnings against inventing new grades like Super A+++.

“These grades,” it reads, “while appropriate on eBay, will not be recognized by the Registrar.”

Undergraduates said teaching fellows sometimes seem unsure of what to do when confronted with a classroom of students, leading to discussion sections that are repetitions of what the professor said in lecture or, as Lucy Sorensen ’09 said, “like study hall.” She said that while TA preparation “doesn’t need to be something really elaborate,” there should be some way to ensure that new teaching fellows enter the classroom with a plan for how they are going to help students.

Laura Bohn GRD ’09, who led an introductory German class for the first time this semester, said she prepared by attending meetings and classes offered through the German department, the Center for Language Study and the Graduate Teaching Center. Bohn said she did not feel entirely ready for the experience of teaching at the beginning of the semester — but not because of a lack of resources.

“It’s so different than what you imagine it’s going to be that I think that more preparation would not necessarily have been beneficial,” she said. “You can never have too much preparation, but the best preparation is just doing it.”

Betting on enrollment

Professor David Cameron, director of undergraduate studies for political science, said the biggest problem he has encountered with Yale’s teaching fellow program is that administrators and professors are constantly “making bets” about the number of TAs they will need for a class, since students do not preregister for classes and enrollment is difficult to predict. Because the number of TAs assigned to a course sometimes needs to be adjusted several weeks into the semester, there is not always time to make sure they have had sufficient preparation, he said. But Cameron emphasized that for the sake of the undergraduates in a course, it falls to the professor to make sure that teaching fellows come prepared to do their job.

“The more you can do to help TAs at the outset, the better,” he said. “I think the problem is that it’s too late to do remedial work after a TA has been inflicted on a student … It’s better to make sure that person gets elementary training in what it means to be a TA.”

Sometimes high enrollment in a class offered by a department with relatively few graduate students means that teaching fellows must be brought in from other departments. Professors said that while sometimes these TAs need extra training, they can bring a fresh perspective to the course.

Many departments require graduate students to rank classes for which they would like to teach, since they do not always get their first choice. Because most graduate students are required to act as a teaching fellow as a part of their education, Yale gives priority in assigning appointments to those graduate students in their “teaching years,” which vary from department to department, said Associate Dean Judith Hackman, director of the Teaching Fellow Program.

When teachers are students

Once a TA has been assigned to a course, the professor of the class has the primary responsibility for dealing with any issues that arise. Many professors said they hold weekly meetings with their teaching fellows to make sure everything is on track, including grading, sections, homework assignments and any other issues that might have come up over the course of the week. If a student complains about a teaching fellow, professors said, they first discuss the situation with the fellow, and if the problem persists, seek help from a graduate student’s faculty advisor or officials in the Graduate School. Occasionally, teaching fellows will be removed from their position — if, for example, they regularly do not show up to class — but Hackman said that has not happened this fall.

Professor Jonathan Reuning-Scherer, whose “Introduction to Statistics” class has 10 TAs this semester, said undergraduate students sometimes complain about grading or have personality conflicts with their teaching fellows. The most common problem he has encountered is that graduate students — who, he emphasized, are still students themselves — can allow “personal crises” such as their own heavy workloads to interfere with their responsibilities to undergraduates.

“They definitely are learning,” Reuning-Scherer said. “They’re learning to become educators, and at the same time they’re performing an important function that needs to be done well … Part of learning is having a chance to screw up, but sometimes you can’t.”

At the end of the semester, Yale undergraduates can review their TAs in online evaluations. Teaching fellows said evaluations for a single course often run the gamut from harshly critical to glowingly enthusiastic, but that the most useful ones offered a balance of suggestions and praise.

Learning how to teach is ultimately an individual process that involves both making mistakes and fixing them. Matt Walker GRD ’08, a philosophy student, said he came from a small liberal arts college where there were no teaching assistants, so the concept was foreign to him when he started as a teaching fellow at Yale two years ago. While nothing could have fully prepared him to be a teaching fellow, he said, he has enjoyed the experience.

“It’s challenging,” Walker said. “In certain ways, it’s more challenging than I thought it would be. But at the same time, it’s more fun.”

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