Tuesday, February 23, 2016

TA Training and the Balance Between Budget and Best Practices

In some ways, I feel like the least-qualified person to comment on this unit about teaching assistants and the best ways to train them for their work as both students and instructors. I’ve never been a TA nor do I have much working knowledge about how the training program at Ball State operates. At the small, private university where I teach, this is a non-issue. We don’t have graduate programs in English, and, therefore, we don’t have graduate students that need training. However, I will say that I can strongly relate to the anxiety that Ward and Perry describe in their chapter about TAs and how they are likely to feel as they enter their first semester as instructors. When I first started as an adjunct, I didn’t have a strong background in rhetoric and composition, and though I was given a textbook and a department syllabus that outlined course objectives, I felt like I was groping in the dark to find relevant classroom activities, discussion topics, and assignments. In that first year, I think my main goal was to “fill up” the 50 minutes of class time each day, and though I always hoped that my lesson plans were relevant and helpful, I was painfully aware that I didn’t have the background knowledge in composition or pedagogy to be truly effective.

As I read through the articles for this week, it was clear that this background knowledge is something to be valued in teaching assistants and should be intentionally fostered within the writing programs where they teach. However, there is a difficult balance that WPAs have to maintain when confronted with constraints of time, money, and space. The reason that TAs even exist is because they serve a financial need for most institutions who couldn’t afford to hire only full-time faculty members to teach composition. And so they hire GTAs, who likely don’t have the background knowledge and practical experience to teach to their full potential. This tension between institutional constraints and effective teaching seems to be what fuels most of the discussions about TA training, and I found myself wondering through most of the readings if the widespread use of TAs (many of whom seem to be “thrown” into a teaching role) might in some ways be a disservice to the TAs themselves, first-year writing students, and the overall discipline.

For instance, Ward and Perry make note of the “multiple and interrelated dimensions of the TA experience” as well as the “multiple subject positions that TAs inhabit” (119). Clearly, TAs have to navigate a lot of new responsibilities that are both time-consuming and crucial to their success. Is it really possible for TAs to navigate this dual role immediately and effectively? Ward and Perry address this question directly: “A supportive director of graduate studies is a great help in being able to reassure students that ‘Yes, you are expected to do well in both areas’ and ‘yes, you can do it’” (121). However, I remain skeptical. Does a system where TAs immediately begin teaching (while they are being trained as TAs and taking their own graduate classes) set them up to “do well”?

Finally, Latterell brings up some concerns about TA training and practicums, primarily that this common procedure reinforces negative ideas “that teaching writing requires minimal expertise” and “is not valued, even by the rhetoric and composition field.” The fact that so many training programs focus on the “how to” of teaching writing gives the perception it’s an easy task that one can accomplish without much of the background knowledge I mentioned earlier.

Clearly, these are important challenges that WPAs must consider. Personally, I agree with the sentiments of most of the authors who advocate for a greater degree of TA training. I think to be truly effective, TAs should receive some sort of training before they actually begin teaching, which would give them at least some time to learn the theory behind practice and be more informed and intentional as they develop lesson plans. I wish I had been given some of these opportunities before I began teaching.

1 comment:

  1. CARA: "I found myself wondering through most of the readings if the widespread use of TAs (many of whom seem to be “thrown” into a teaching role) might in some ways be a disservice to the TAs themselves, first-year writing students, and the overall discipline"
    JOEL: I think this is an interesting claim. I think one area where there might be at least a perception of being a "disservice" is to the first year students. I know as an undergraduate student I always felt "cheated" when I had a grad student teacher, especially when they weren't very good. Inevitably, some will not be that good, especially if it is their first or second time doing it. Thats tough.

    The difference in experience for the students, I think, is comparable to being served by an experienced waiter or a newly hired one. The newly hired one will probably be really nice, maybe even talkative and more open, as s/he is new to the job and is trying to please the customers, even if it sometimes affects his/her own ability to do the job efficiently, causing various delays. Because of this, the customers enjoy their experience with the server, but their food comes out a little late, perhaps there is a mistake here or there, their drinks are not filled up as fast as the experienced waiter, who is more focused on bringing as many people as possible the best experience as possible.

    Just the like new waiter, the new teacher probably excels in certain departments. For example, I am good at being available to students, I am kind and open-minded, I spend a ton of time on their work and I really care about the class and how they're doing. But those things can affect the overall experience of the class--I am not as "on my game" in terms of being on track with the schedule, getting grades back quickly, having solid answers for questions that students repeatedly ask year in and year out, etc. In short, the students suffer from my lack of experience, but they get the benefit of someone who is new to the job, and shows genuine excitement, and genuinely cares. I am not "numb" to students or the job, as an older teacher might be. Or, how the more experienced waiter inevitably becomes jaded, caring less about the customers and more about their own situations--getting the money, or "putting on a front" that "works well."
    For the record I'm not saying all experienced professors are jaded. But they certainly may become less teacher-focused and more research focused (though I don't believe in that binary of either-or. They may become more interested or focused on a myriad of other things too, inside/outside academia.

    I know that I did a poor job of bouncing back and forth in this analogy of teacher-as-server, but I did work as a server for a long time, and I really do see similarities in terms of how one negotiates care for customers/students with getting things done efficiently, which inevitably results in a "better" experience, though one that is likely less genuine.