Thursday, September 24, 2009

From the Desk of the TA: On the (Communication) Front Lines

My friend, T.A., contributes two posts a week to Ph.D. Dep. His series From the Desk of the T.A. runs every Wednesday and Weekend Wisdom runs every Friday.

This week, I'm gonna sound like your mom. And that's unfortunate, because I have a man's voice, and your mom probably didn't, so I probably won't be doing your mom any justice.
It's possible that while you were doing something crappy in your life, your mom tried to show you the bright side of things by explaining that this would be useful later in life or blah blah blah, something dumb. What do moms know?
As a TA, there are a crapton of things that you do that secretly teach you things. The problem is, sometimes you hate it so bad, or you're so busy only thinking about the crappy parts, that you fail to realize all the things you're learning. This is unfortunate. You're in a PhD program to learn things, so why stop with research?
I think the most important thing I've learned as a TA is how to communicate. And as broad as the phrase, 'how to communicate' is, that's how many things I've learned about it. So lemme just list some of the things I've learned, so you can make your mom proud:
1) Communication with non-native English speakers: Here's something you already know: the world is shrinking. It's incredibly easy to get in contact with people from just about any where. And surprisingly, they don't all speak English (who knew?). It's amazing to see all of the different countries and peoples that PhD Dep has reached on the facebook page. Spanish, Indian, US...ian (no good word for US people), British, Australian, French, German, Portugese, Polish, Italian and so on. Many. And for a lot of these people English isn't a native language. As a TA, I help a lot of students for whom English is not a native language. I am always amazed at how well the non-US students speak English. Really, I am in awe. I wish I could speak their native language with the same ability that they speak English. Alas, I cannot. So we have to use English to communicate. In fact, English is usually the language of compromise, especially in the academic world. I've learned to cut out my slang, some of my sentence fillers, and a lot of my bad English while speaking with non-native speakers. This has helped me speak English a lot better, and has helped me learn how to communicate my message without filling it up with so many useless words.
2) Communicating with native English speakers: Sometimes, my greatest communication hurdles come from those who do speak English as a native language. Just knowing the same language doesn't guarantee that the other person will understand you. It's important to communicate your point in a way that the person you're dealing with RIGHT NOW can understand you. What works for some students may not work for others. I've learned that some prefer a visual explanation, others prefer e-mail, and some prefer one-on-one discussion. It has really taught me that while conveying your message is important, the way in which you convey will be just as important. It can make the difference in so many situations.
3) Being diplomatic: I am still prone to flying off the handle a little bit. My gut reaction is usually an extreme one. In the vast majority of situations, that's not very helpful. Being a TA is one of these situations. Sure, sometimes you're super pissed that your professor is making life difficult, or that your students are making life difficult, or both. But punishing any of those parties is really not accomplishing much. I'm not saying you should stifle yourself if you're being trampled on, but I've learned some things about how to avoid a trampling. If my professor has an idea that I am certain will totally backfire, I'll propose an alternative (instead of just saying, 'no, we shouldn't do that'). If my students are crying for mutiny, I'll explain to them why that's a bad idea, and mention to the professor that maybe something should be adjusted.
It's hard to think of a more useful skill than communication. It is essential to just about everything we do. Being a communicator 101 is not a required course (at least not in my school), but if you pay attention while you're TA'ing, and you make adjustments based on your past experiences, you will become a great communicator. And that will be just as useful as any degree you might get.