Graduate students assigned to teaching assistantships vary widely in their preparedness for the classroom. Professors generally accept this and plan accordingly. I have adapted both workloads and duties to the talents of my assistants, and in most cases it has resulted in a positive experience for everyone involved.
Of course, this is not to say all of my teaching assistants have been equally helpful to me. Some I could trust to grade piles of essays with only a few basic guidelines; others needed a lot of help just to grade fill-in-the-blank responses. That’s okay though, because my job as the supervising professor was not simply to benefit from the teaching assistant; it was to help that person develop professionally. So that’s what I did.
It helped a great deal when students were upfront about any shortcomings they might have. For instance, one assistant of mine knew she would struggle to grade essays because she struggled with a writing disability herself. She told me this right away which enabled me to plan around it and let her complete other work useful to me and not so frustrating for her. She was a bright and capable person, so it did not prove to be a problem. In contrast, a different assistant of mine allowed several weeks to pass before I realized he was in over his head. To be fair, I think he expected to be able to handle everything being asked of him as a first year graduate student. It was a bigger challenge than he thought it would be, so in the end I had to release him from a number of duties so he could keep his own studies going. (Lest I leave the story unfinished, he eventually got himself on track, did well in his chosen program, and improved dramatically as a teaching assistant).
Fortunately, these are the worst kinds of experiences I have had working with graduate students. I have heard stories of far more problematic behavior. Some teaching assistants fail to show up when needed, which can create an array of difficulties. Some even pass their work on to others, which is more problematic than it might sound; it compromises the privacy of students in the class and, depending on the task ignored, the integrity of the content. For example, an assistant for one of my colleagues told someone else to pick up a pile of not-yet-taken exams from the campus print center.
I am grateful I never had to deal with things like that. In fact, I my strongest memory is of an exceptional teaching assistant. This young man proved to be an asset for me in several ways. First, I could rely on him to grade written work from students with only a few basic instructions – criteria to consider, points to award for each, and so forth. That enabled me to make writing a bigger component of the course without sacrificing other elements. Second, he regularly contributed to classroom discussions and engaged with the students. I am sure his teaching background helped him feel comfortable with this kind of interaction, but his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject matter made it even more effective. I believe the students appreciated his role as an intermediary between me and them; it made them feel more at ease and thus more willing to talk. Lastly, he was even willing and able to participate as an instructor and present new material to the students.
Teaching with assistants can be a rewarding experience for both professors and graduate students. It certainly has been for me, and I hope it the students who have worked with me have gained something, too.
Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.