Thursday, September 10, 2009

From the Desk of the T.A. - The enemies from within

If you're in the brotherhood of TAs (which isn't some elite fraternity that requires a blood oath, it mostly just requires that you be desperate enough to take a low-paying, high stress job, or even better yet, a no-paying high stress job), then you've probably done your fair share of complaining about your students. And why not? Students are inherently evil, and were put on this earth to make your life a living hell. Someone once suggested to me that students are actually there to learn and become productive members of society, but that seems impossible. First, it's just not possible, and second, the natural order of things is that students make life hell for TAs, and TAs sob quietly to themselves, professors see sobbing TAs and realize that they used to sob like that when given hard homeworks, and since they haven't seen any of their students crying, they should make the homework harder, which makes the students ask more questions, etc. You can almost hear Elton John.

Ah, but students aren't your only enemy as a TA. Fellow TAs can also make your life a delightful barrel of misery.

In large classes with many sections, there will be many TAs. And this gives you the opportunity to run into many different TA personality types. Here is a brief description of these people, so you can spot them ahead of time and act accordingly.

1) ÜberTA - I worked with an ÜberTA once. ÜberTAs think that the entire class will immediately implode if not for them. They often take on too much responsibility, and then maintain a pleasant air of disdain for all of the other TAs, who they feel aren't doing anything. Their way is also clearly best.
A brief anecdote about one of my favorite ÜberTAs: Every week our TA group would meet with our professor to discuss the upcoming week and how much time we spent the last week. As we weren't getting paid per hour, or at all for that matter, reviewing hours was just playing pretend: we would make up some number of hours that we worked that sounded reasonable, and the professor would say, 'That sounds reasonable'. A normal hourly tally was something like 10 hours. ÜberTA got frisky one week and thought she was really going to shock the world. So when it came to her turn she said, '37'. At first I started laughing, but then realized she was being serious (as serious as you can be when you just told someone you spent a full time work week grading homework #3). If you think you're an ÜberTA, take a break. Seriously. You are upsetting yourself and everyone around you. You can do your share, but don't go out of your way to do your share and everyone else's, and then get upset when everyone else isn't giving 400%

2) Slacker - Pretty much explains itself, and isn't nearly as hilarious as an ÜberTA. This guy won't do anything. But at least he makes no bones about it. There are no false promises from slacker, just pure apathy. Sometimes you think it's all an act, but then you check his facebook status and it says, 'So baked. Life is funny LOL,' and you know that he is a very genuine douchebag. I hate slacker, however, if you mix a slacker with an ÜberTA, you can get some pretty cool meltdowns/explosions.
I don't want to sound like the principal from Back to the Future, but if you're slacker, please play in traffic.

3) Flake - Flake is actually worse than slacker. Flake will frequently promise things, and then occasionally deliver, leading you to believe that he is a good TA. Then he will disappear. Usually this is right after he has agreed to do something important, like answer homework questions for the week. Questions will start piling up, you'll hear nothing from him, and you decide you have to step in and help out. 5 days later you'll see him again and he'll say something like, 'I had to go to an emergency barbecue at my parents' house. For 5 days. Did we have anything to do for class?' The odd part about flake is that while slacker seems to just not care, flake seems to honestly have no idea that he has done anything wrong. He just exists in his own world, occasionally stopping by to grade some homeworks, but only for a short visit.
If you think you might be a flake, that's not possible. A real flake would have started reading this article, then would have seen a bug of some sort on his window, decided he needed to figure out what kind of bug this was, and spent the next 7 hours looking through pictures of bugs on wikipedia before falling asleep. So congratulations, you're not a flake!

An important thing to remember when TA'ing is that you don't want to be one of these three people, each for different reasons. As strange as this sounds, you need to be a combination of all three. When you're in charge of something, take charge of it, but know when to back off and let other people do what they need to do. When you're not in charge of something, stay in the background until you're asked to step up. If you think you can make every aspect of the class better by running it yourself and doing it your way, here are two tips:

a) You're wrong

b) Shut up!

I know we learned this during the first day of teamwork lessons in kindergarten, but contributing to the effort is just as important as letting other people contribute.
Keep that in mind the next time you think you might be under/over contributing. And remember that with all the problems a TA has, a fellow TA shouldn't be one of them.