A Joyful Experience

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

On Being a T.A.

Teaching assignments are of four types.

First, there is the grading job where the professor teaches the class and you grade their assignments and exam papers. This is very popular among the first-year  Ph.D. students since they are nervous about facing a class, and also among the final year Ph.D. students since they don't have time to teach a class. The good part about grading is you don't have to maintain a schedule. The bad part is, well, you have to read and evaluate the trash submitted by the students, and that, in my opinion, is no less a punishment than having to teach a class at 8:30 on Monday mornings.

Then there is the teaching assistant who supposedly assists the professor in a class apart from grading the assignments. This assistance can be anything ranging from  reciting part of the material in class to simply sitting and forwarding the slides when the professor says "Next!" I have done that last type of job. Trust me, it is not fun forwarding slides although it seems like very little work. I have  dozed off more than once waiting for the professor to finish a lengthy slide.

The third type is the work that I got as my first assignment in the US. A lab instructor is a TA who is supposed to set programming assignments for the students and then help them solve those problems. In my case this had to be done in a lab where each student was sitting in front of a computer with the screen turned away from me. About 90% of these students had Facebook or Youtube open in those computers and couldn't bother less about my teaching. The remaining 10% complained that I spoke too much and they couldn't focus on solving the problems. The class was Monday mornings at 8:30 and there were students who came to the class, pulled their hoods over their heads and officially went to sleep putting their heads down on their desks. I never liked this job since I had to teach at the same pace as the professor, and the professors don't always leave enough time for the lab instructors to cover the material before proceeding to a new topic. But this was better than both grading and forwarding slides as it gave me some feel of real teaching.

And real teaching is what I have been doing for some time now. True, I don't have a TA to grade the assignments and I don't even decide the syllabus or the book. But at least I can decide the pace and manner of teaching different chapters. I sometimes feel like losing my cool while grading the exams, and the students' feedback at the end of the semester is almost always discouraging, but there is always one student who goes on to draw a house as soon as I teach the class how to draw a rectangle. There is always one student who rises above the prevailing indifference to write me mails with comments (both positive and negative) about my teaching, and visits my office during office hours to learn more.

At the end of the day, only this one student is enough to make teaching worth all the trouble that it is.

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