Monday, February 29, 2016

Finding Support

In "A Selection of Strategies for Training Teaching Assistants," Irene Ward and Merry Perry, observe, "Many professions place strenuous demands on personal time. Anxiety in any area--teaching, coursework, or scholarship--will affect the other areas due to the dynamic tensions among multiple demands. Our experience has taught us that TAs function better when they are challenged to deal with issues and given the ongoing support--practical information and positive reinforcement--they need" (121). From Ward and Perry's quote, two concepts stand out: (1) there is a lot that requires a TAs' time/attention, which can cause anxiety, and (2) TAs need assistance in coping, learning, and succeeding in their new positions. What Ward and Perry seek to demonstrate in these two concepts is the WP's attempt to balance the stressful environment that TAs find themselves in by providing a support network. For many TAs, I think the support network that the WP provides is an essential aspect to, not only their growth as an instructor, but their well-being as well.

To clarify: A professor said (I think it might have been Dr. Mix), that being a graduate student is lonely. I think we have all experienced this in different ways, but the major commonality seems to be that the people who we care about (typically our family members) don't appreciate/value/understand our work as graduate students. The more entrenched you become in the discipline, in the academy, the more distance there seems to be.

Because graduate students are less likely to get support from their family, it is that much more important that they receive the kind of positive reinforcement that Ward and Perry discuss from the WP. Although a goal of most WP is to create a support system for TAs, I think it would also be beneficial if graduate students, especially new ones, had people they could talk to about the cultural disconnect between their family life and academic life. This might make the transition a lot easier and less stressful.

I think it is common for graduates students to talk about their family situations in passing, and merely shrug it off as "the way it is." However, I know it is very stressful at first, and I think that as a community we should take more responsibility for helping our new graduate students transition.


  1. Abigail, your points about being a TA are on point. Ward and Perry's selection of sources illuminated the fact that TAs have many tasks to juggle to manage the dual roles of student and teacher simultaneously; this does require support, and many of the articles they annotated showed how models for this support vary across institutions. Although the articles they reviewed were not very recent, I could see commonalities between our TA training program at this institution and those at other schools. A main theme that was repeated is the importance of having some kind of mentorship for the TAs from either more advanced TAs or other faculty members. I do not think a TA training program can ever fully prepare a TA for everything they will encounter in the classroom; a great deal of issues can only be learned on the job. Dealing with the unexpected things that arise with teaching can be a challenge for any teacher, but it can especially be difficult for TAs when they are navigating the teacher role for the first time. However, the training that TAs receive definitely is important to their success as new teachers.

  2. One thing that strikes me as being particularly important to the experiences of TAs and the struggles they encounter is the fact that they inhabit the dual role of both student and teacher -- as Abigail points out. I hear TAs in the Ball State program often talk about this conflicting sense of identity, which makes it difficult to navigate certain situations in their own classrooms. I'm thinking of situations in which they might need to demonstrate their authority, confront students who are misbehaving, or show their expertise in the field. I think these are aspects of the job that demand a certain level of self-confidence, and I think it's difficult to have that confidence in the role of TA. As Abigaik says, the support that TAs receive from the writing program is critical. I think it's not only critical for their mental health and ability to keep up with multiple demands, but also for the development of their self-confidence.

  3. I think you illustrate well the tensions that exist for not only graduate students but also higher ed professionals, especially those in the humanities. Family relationships are definitely at stake when pursuing a graduate degree, especially a PhD. My family is mostly conservative, so our political, ideological, and social perspectives diverge into different lanes. As we talked about in class, we often don't engage in conversations with our families about issues that we disagree on. Too, I'm not very good about countering, specifically, my parents about issues. I think this related to the fact that I'm the oldest child and I've always sought to please, not disappoint, my parents. Somehow, I think making known the fact that I have extremely different beliefs and even lifestyle choices would be disappointing for them, and I'm not sure I can cope well with that disappointment. I also value maintaining the relationships I have with my family and other lifelong friends. of course, as you get older and become more educated, your beliefs and views about issues change, and maybe they change drastically from what you've been raised to think, from what everybody who saw you grow up believes you think. So, I'm always trying to navigate the boundary of saying what I believe and/or conceding to/staying silent about what others believe, in order to maintain the relationship. Or to keep intact the picture people have of me. Or to simply not rock the boat (for my sanity's sake). Some people would disagree that this is not a viable way to deal with relationships, and those same people can easily diverge from their parents or from the ideologies their parents hold without feeling separated, lonely, or disappointing. And for them, that’s okay. I’m less willing to do that, though. And that’s okay, too.
    In terms of relying on our peer support group, I totally agree with you. I hope that anyone who struggles with identity in terms of family/friend relationships would reach out to someone in our department. I, for one, have reached out to several people in my cohort and in cohorts before and after me to talk about tough issues that haunt us as grad students. I’m always free to talk with anybody who wants to. If you text me today, though, I forgot my phone in my car.