Guest post by Glenn Rideout PhD and graduate teaching assistant Holly Renaud

This short chapter addresses the work of GAs and TAs from the perspective of both the professor and the student. Part 1 focuses primarily on the expectations of the professor, and Part 2 focuses primarily on the experiences of the student. These sections have been written by Professor Glenn Rideout, PhD and his Graduate Assistant Holly Renaud. The reader may note some overlap and identify some differences in the two interpretations of the role of GA. Since such potential differences may be the turning point on which the success or failure of GA-professor professional relationships hinge, open communication is important. It is strongly recommended that through such communication, expectations and responsibilities in both directions are clearly understood.

The Professor’s Expectation

I have employed graduate assistants for several years. I assign these students a variety of tasks associated with tracking student performance and maintaining records. I have a high expectation that GAs will take full responsibility for fulfilling the terms of their contract, as identified initially in the paperwork that is completed at the beginning of the employment period. This usually identifies the rate of pay, the number of hours and the tasks to be performed. This latter item is usually quite general and allows a fair amount of flexibility regarding the assignment of tasks associated with the professor’s particular needs.

reviewing in a lecture hallBeyond this general statement of responsibilities, during my first or second meeting with the GA, I usually initiate a frank discussion in which I am interested in hearing what the GA’s strengths are, and well as identifying particular points that are very important to me. High on this list is promptness. I have learned from experience that it is important to make it clear that I expect a 10 AM meeting to be at 10 AM. Also related to time, and having learned from experience, I expect the GA to keep a record of hours worked – it is the GA’s responsibility to tell me if I am in danger of exceeding the allotted time per week (usually 10 hours) or per semester if the work schedule is light in some weeks and heavier in others. I expect that the GA will accomplish the task within the time frame identified, and that if a problem arises that might prevent this, that I will know about this ahead of time. I expect that the GA will develop early on an understanding of how my courses work, how their work fits into the master plan of successful course delivery, and how their skills can best facilitate this.

I use regular ‘check-ins’ with my GA, to ensure that we are on track regarding hours used, that semester long tasks that I only see the results of at the end of a semester are on track, and that there are no ‘issues’ simmering just under the surface. I often ask: “So…how are we doing?” I expect and have received honest feedback in this regard. The intent is to provide the most positive work experience possible for the GA and to accomplish important tasks related to my own work load.

There are a number of ‘side’ benefits that a GA can reap from such employment. These are not always realized by the GA, since it is only when a professor senses an interest in and a commitment to the work at hand on the part of the GA that these things might materialize. For example, most professors are involved in research projects that may require assistance beyond the scope of the GAship. Often such research initiatives are funded, so professors can pay for additional work in areas not necessarily related to the GA responsibilities. GAs who avail of such opportunities often gain invaluable experience and grow in scholarship (and items for their CV) as a result of such unanticipated opportunities. Of course, professors are under no expectation or obligation to hire GAs as their Research Assistants (RA) but GAs can position themselves favourably by fulfilling their roles with excellence.

The Graduate Assistant’s Experience

Being a Graduate Assistant or Teaching Assistant can be an extremely rewarding experience. I never applied to be a Teaching Assistant during my undergraduate years and now that I am employed as a Graduate Assistant, I regret not doing this sooner. It has been a wonderful opportunity to network with other students and professors and to add some practical experience to a résumé.

During my short time in this role, I have learned quite a bit. My duties have ranged from collecting, interpreting, and assessing clicker data, to grading midterms and assignments, to creating a forum through CLEW for students to use to communicate with each other or to submit some of their assignments, to proctoring midterms, to answering students’ questions. And I have learned a lot through doing all of this, some with a fair amount of frustration as accompaniment but all with pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment.

Everyone’s experiences as a Graduate or Teaching Assistant will be different, depending on what your professor asks of you, the department in which you work, your previous experiences, and other variables. But I would like to take this opportunity to offer some general advice to anyone new to this role.

First, know your subject area. If your experiences have only been as a student, you will soon come to realize there is a vast difference between sitting at a desk taking notes and either standing at the front of the room to teach a class or preparing material behind the scenes. You do not need to be an expert in the subject, but you should know enough that you feel comfortable. If you’re running a lab session, familiarize yourself with the lab setting, the materials you will be using, and the rules or safety precautions of that area.

Expect to be challenged. Students may ask you questions and you may not have the answer. Your professor may ask you to perform a certain duty that you’ve never attempted. Don’t make up an answer on the spot or lie and pretend you’re an expert. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t have all the answers. Try responses like, “That’s a good question. I’m not sure of the answer but I will try to find out for you,” or “I don’t know the answer. Maybe you could find it and report back to us,” or “I’m sorry, but I’ve never used this program before. Could you please explain it to me?” Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions along the way.

Always make time for yourself. If you’re a contact person for the students, make sure you set office hours. Try not to check your email too obsessively. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you immerse yourself too fully in work. Try to remind yourself that you are only allowed to work so many hours each week. It’s also key to remember that your school work comes before your Graduate or Teaching Assistant duties. Your grades and your sanity matter and your regular coursework will keep you busy enough.

Improve your organizational skills. You’ll most likely, if you’re anything like me, need to work on your organization skills. You will probably need to arrange some sort of a schedule to know when your projects, assignments, papers, and exams are due as well as when your Graduate or Teaching Assistant duties must be completed.
Upgrade your job-related skills. The university provides seminars, lectures, and training opportunities in various software programs. I strongly recommend attending them when your schedule allows it. But if you cannot make it for whatever reason, look at the different organizations on campus that can help you, such as the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

It is vital that you be professional, consistent, and genuine. You carry a great responsibility to help provide your students the best education you can offer. Maintain confidentiality at all times. Be a role model for your students. Be friendly, but maintain a professional distance. Wait until the course in which you are assisting is completed before you go out for that coffee date with a student. Be fair with all students. If they happen to rub you the wrong way on a personal level, ignore it and push down those feelings. You are there in a professional capacity and need to behave as such. Becoming close friends or enemies with any students will lead to awkward situations and inconsistent treatment and grading. I also recommend doing as much “blind” grading as you can so that you don’t begin to label your students as “A” or “C+” any time you see their name on a piece of paper. This doesn’t mean you have to be rude or distant with your students. If they need help then you should be there to help them. If you genuinely want your students to learn and succeed, they will pick up on that enthusiasm. The opposite is also true.

You need to realize early on that you will make mistakes. No one is perfect. Accept these mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Feel free to laugh at yourself. Accept that the first time you teach a topic or use a new computer program, it might not go well at all. Ask your professor for help, apologize to the students if you confuse them and try again, and always remember there is a support system for you. Most importantly, have fun with it. You probably won’t like every single aspect or every single duty, but you have to do what you love and love what you’re doing.

Good luck!

Flickr image by redteam. Licensed under Creative Commons.