Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thank You for Being a Horrible TA: Pointers from an Undergraduate Chemistry Major

By Marisa Sanders, New Graduate Student, Princeton University 
The people mentioned in this piece are an accumulation of various undergraduate students’ experiences collected by the author.

This piece was originally published in the July 2013 Graduate & Postdoctoral Chemist. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the American Chemical Society. Some names and events may have been changed to protect privacy.

Teaching Assistant. Few terms conjure up such a wide range of emotions as this one. While I’m sure we’ve each had our fair share of TA success stories, I’m here to share my TA horror stories—the hair-pulling, gut-wrenching, eye-rolling, frustrating moments we’ve experienced as undergraduates at the hands of sleep-deprived and overworked graduate students. My aim is to provide constructive criticism for current and future TAs (myself included). After all, no one deserves to endure class or laboratory (or both!) with a horrid teaching assistant.

Incomprehensible TA 
I never thought my English minor would come in handy in my chemistry courses—until I took chemical physics with “Incomprehensible TA.” Incomprehensible TA was a soft-spoken, heavily-accented physical chemistry Ph.D. student who perhaps thought that learning to communicate in English came second to bonding with his computer over his molecular dynamic calculations. I could hardly understand anything he said.

Imagine the following situation: You’re seated at the front of the class while Incomprehensible TA is attempting to instruct you on some sort of chemical phenomenon. He refuses to write anything on the blackboard, relying solely on word of mouth. Exasperated, you sink down in your chair, place your hands on your forehead, and wait for the class to end. That evening, you look up the terms on Wikipedia and piece your notes together.
THE ADVICE 
The blackboard is a wonderful medium for communication. It should be used effectively, as a guide. Even professors or TAs without a heavy accent should use the blackboard to help their lecture be more interpretable for their students.

Too Busy TA 
Organic chemistry with biochemistry Ph.D. candidate “Busy TA” was certainly an experience. The class took place after lunch in the tiniest lecture room available in the chemistry building. Couple that with post lunch-induced drowsiness and PowerPoint presentations that required all lights to be turned off. Add a stressed teaching assistant with poor time management skills, and the situation intensifies.

Busy TA had an NSF Fellowship due one month into her teaching gig, and she considered teaching organic chemistry as peripheral to her graduate school goals. This was apparent in her PowerPoint slides, which often contained incomplete reaction mechanisms and an abundance of typos. I still tremble at the thought of having to endure an entire lecture on cation-less acid catalyzed dehydration.

Busy TA’s careless attitude was obvious. She often arrived late to lecture, was ill-prepared, and ended classes early. Picture this: You’re seated at the front of the classroom taking notes on your laptop at the desk closest to Busy TA. Forty minutes into lecture, Busy TAs laptop dies; the PowerPoint presentation comes to a sudden stop, and the entire room turns pitch black. You hold your laptop charger up to Busy TA; and although she sees it, she ignores you and dismisses class early. Yay? Not quite. This is the fourth time this has happened. You’re convinced that your TA purposely brings her laptop to class with 10% battery life, just to bolt out early.
THE ADVICE 
While a course like organic chemistry may be difficult to instruct, providing accurate, proofread slides is the first step toward being a great TA.Time management skills are particularly helpful in this position. Setting aside a certain time of each day to grade exams and prep for lecture would increase one’s efficiency.

Creepy Male TA 
“Creepy TA” was a seventh-year analytical chemistry Ph.D. student and the TA for my general chemistry lab. In the beginning Creepy TA came across as Helpful TA. He was on time, gave clear introductions to the laboratory experiments, and seemed interested in our learning the material. It wasn’t until about the second week that I began to notice some unsettling behavior from Creepy TA. First, he liked to stare a lot at women in the lab. Second, he was very touchy and always pushed in a little too close with female students. Third, he made innuendos that he thought were cute but just made the rest of us want to vomit.

One week, I was performing titrations when my goggles began to fog. Creepy TA sauntered by and whispered, “You’re too hot for your goggles.”“Excuse me?” I asked, confused.“I’ve had my eye on you for a while. You’re quite the chemist.” “Hah,” I responded not knowing what to say and feeling embarrassed and sickened. Another time when I had him sign off on my lab notebook, instead of simply signing his initials, he provided his phone number and a note that read “text me sometime.” I couldn’t help but feel dirty. Maybe Creepy TA believed his chemistry prowess made him desirable and his advances would be welcome. Whatever the case, I had come to learn chemistry, not to be hit on.

When I shared this story with my friends, I learned they had their own stories of creepy TAs who had hit on them. While I felt slightly relieved that I was in good company, I was displeased at how horrible TAs get away with their unprofessional behavior. Although Creepy TA has graduated, his reputation still lives on today. Perhaps somewhere he has advanced to being Creepy Professor.
THE ADVICE 
Don’t hit on students. They’re not interested in you.

The Verdict 
Many of the classes taught at my institution by TAs have become a rite of passage for chemistry majors. We see each course as a “building” experience, something that allows us to develop into better, more resilient human beings. Would we have developed so much good character without such horrible TAs? We’ll never know. So we go ahead and say, “Thank you for being such a horrible TA.” At the very least, they’ve taught us how not to do it.

Marisa Sanders will be starting graduate school at Princeton University in the fall to obtain her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry. She is an associate member of the Younger Chemist Committee and looks forward to TA-ing at some point in her graduate career.

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