The Thrills and Spills of TAing

June 26, 2019

If you’re a PhD student (or occasionally an MS student) at Viterbi, chances are you have been a teaching assistant at some point. Teaching assistants, or TAs for short, are the wheels that keep a course running, with the professor being the engine. So, what is it like to be a TA? Should you become one? Will it take up too much time? Will the students drive you crazy with their endless questions? Well, this is an article from a person who has been a TA for 5 semesters.

There are a couple of things you should ask the professor immediately when signing up to be a TA. Firstly, will it require you to attend the lectures? If your knowledge of the subject isn’t that good, you should attend at least a few lectures to get acquainted. The first professor who I TAed for asked me to come to the initial few lectures just to get a gist of his teaching style and content. My second professor had her entire lectures videotaped (i.e. DEN) and her policy was for me to watch all of them. The idea is that if students come up with a question specific to the lecture (not necessarily related to the course content), the TA should be able to answer. Trust me, this plays an important role. You don’t want to tell the students anything which conflicts with what the professor told them. This has happened to me before and it’s quite a mess to clarify.

Secondly, will you be required to teach discussion sessions? Depending on your personality and preferences, this can be something you look forward to or hate. I personally like teaching a class. It gives me a sense of prestige to have 50-odd people listening to me and taking notes based on what I tell them and write on the board. But this may not be true for everyone. Some people explain concepts better when students approach them privately about it instead of in front of a whole class. If you’re more in this mold, work it out with your fellow TAs (if there are any) so that they teach the majority of discussion sessions. Although personally speaking, I feel it is a good experience to go out there and teach a class. It can be very embarrassing if and when you mess up, like stuttering, forgetting your material, or getting stumped at a student question, but hey, setbacks make us stronger.

The other major aspect to TAing is conducting office hours. I generally try to hold these near the end of the day, like 5 to 6 pm for example. This is because office hours leave me tired, particularly if a lot of people come and I have to explain the same concept to multiple students with varying levels of comprehending ability. But this will hone your man-management skills since you’ll want to tailor the depth of explanation to the intelligence levels of different students. Having to explain a concept privately to a person is also a great test of your own lucidity. Do you find that you get too excited easily and have trouble communicating your thoughts to others? Well, TAing might help.

Office hours can get very busy at certain critical junctures in the semester, such as before exams. Make sure you know the course material really well, and PLEASE make sure that you know exactly what the syllabus is. The most common question I have gotten before exams is “Will this be on the test?” and it’s not nice to students if you keep replying “Uh, I’m not sure really, you should ask the professor.” But having said that, do not give out wrong information. It is much better to confess to the students that you don’t know something and direct them to the professor instead of trying to improvise and tell them something which may not be true.

Overall, I will say that TAing is something I have felt happy doing and it has gone a long way in shaping my career aspirations of becoming a professor. I might do a follow-up article about TAing, but that’s all for now. Good luck TAing!

Published on June 26th, 2019

Last updated on June 26th, 2019