Sunday, April 30, 2023

From the Archives - What Is It With TAs?


This being a slow news day, here’s one from my archives, from when I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. Back then I wrote little essays that were essentially blog posts, but since there was no Internet I just printed and photocopied them (shrunk down to fit four pages on one sheet of paper) and mailed them around to family and friends, who probably threw them straight into the recycling, except perhaps my mom, who actually read them, and occasionally gave them to friends who probably threw them straight into the recycling. So I guess you could say I’m recycling this essay again.

What Is It With TAs? – March 6, 1989

Elementary school is pretty basic. Every year you get a new teacher, and he or she teaches you everything from spelling to math to the basics of human sexuality. It’s a pretty efficient system, because you get to know the teacher pretty well, so she knows when you’re screwing off vs. when you’ve transcended your intellectual roots. Of course, a ten-year-old’s educational roots go about a centimeter deep, which is the only reason this system works.

By the time junior high and high school roll around, things change. Presumably, the courses are much more complex, so teachers need to specialize. Still, all the lecturing, discussion, and grading for a course is done by the same person. That is, the person who was supposed to teach you something is the same one help accountable for making sure you learned it, or at least had the opportunity to learn it had you paid attention. Since each teacher handles two or three, maybe even more batches of students at a time, they’re presumably stretched thinner, so they aren’t as accessible as before. The student gets each teacher for like an hour a day and that’s it. This is fine, though, because very few high school students would ever bother seeking extra help anyway. It’s mostly the suck-ups, I think, who find the teacher after class.

College, of course, is completely different. The professor lectures to (or at) hundreds of students, completely ignorant of their individual identities. Sometimes, oversubscribed lectures are actually videotaped and played back later. No teaching professional could be expected to field visits from that many students, and the professor in particular is too busy doing research or publishing papers. Moreover, based on having managed to get such a coveted position as a tenured professor, this person is simply too important to be fraternizing with lowly undergraduates. To give these hapless kids some help, we have TA’s.

I will confess it took me a while to figure out what a TA actually is. The first dozen or so times I heard this abbreviation I thought my fellow students were talking about tits-&-ass. I was like, why are these people so obsessed with this? Then, based on context (e.g., “the TA was useless, as usual”), I thought it was an abbreviation for “total airhead.” But I kept hearing this personal pronoun, “my TA,” and I was like, huh? His airhead? Like, everyone gets an airhead? Like personal pan pizzas? Finally it dawned on me that TA stood for “teacher’s assistant,” like the student teachers we had at elementary school. But this wasn’t correct either—there are no teachers at a university, just professors, who are lecturers and researchers and don’t do any teaching per se. It turns out (and maybe you grasped this already, in which case congratulations), TA actually means Teaching Assistant.

A TA grades tests, checks homework, and holds weekly Discussion Sections to talk about the professor’s lectures. These are much smaller gatherings, typically like 15 or 20 kids, in a small classroom. It’s the same number of students each time, which at first seemed really strange to me, almost eerie, since lectures have wildly varying levels of truancy. (For example, 8:00 a.m. Monday lectures so lightly attended, it’s like a ghost town.) It turns out that for the Discussion Section, attendance is mandatory. (I realized this due to the number of students who sneak out early, right after the roll call.)

I would never skip a lecture or bail early on a Discussion Section, by the way. I pay my own tuition, and I calculated that each class costs me $3.64. You wouldn’t pay that kind of money for a matinee movie and then not go, would you?

In case you haven’t started college yet, or graduated so long ago you don’t remember TAs, or in case things were different back then, let me take you on a tour of a typical Discussion Section in this modern era.

To kick off each Section, the TA gives a really tough quiz. The quiz is actually of little value, because every sensible student knows that the TA will never bother to grade it; after all, why would he make extra work for himself? But the grade isn’t the point, since we’re here to learn, so students study pretty hard for these quizzes. Ha! Ha ha ha ha! I had you going there, didn’t I? Of course we don’t study, since without a grade we can’t summon the required motivation, so we fail pathetically on these quizzes. Actually, that’s not quite right: we fail apathetically.

After the quiz, the TA spends like ten minutes passing back checked off homework assignments. Nobody knows how it’s possible for this process to drag out for so long. This might be a fascinating thing for a scientist to try to study. The TA has a stack of homework papers, each with a student’s name at the top, and instead of calling out each name and having students come fetch their papers, the TA personally hand-delivers them, walking all the way over to each student’s desk. If the TA can’t put a face to a name, he will call out the name, the student will raise his or her hand, and then the TA will start the journey over there. By some crazy corollary to Murphy’s Law, the second student to be handed back his or her paper is as far away as possible from the first, and then the third student is clear across the room from the second, and if you plotted the course of the TA it would make a picture of a giant flower. I have pondered this matter at length because it’s the most interesting phase of the Discussion Section.

After handing back our homework the TA kicks off the Question and Answer session. This is an opportunity for the students to ask questions about the lecture, the material in general, the homework assignments, and—crucially—what’s going to be on the midterm, which is by far the most popular question, even though the answer is always the same: “Anything on the syllabus, anything mentioned in lecture, and anything in your homework.” Gee, thanks. We were looking for an inside track here but it’s clear whose side you’re on.

Most of the time, and particularly after we’ve taken a midterm but haven’t gotten it back yet, we students don’t ask very many questions. Okay, I can sense you wanting to back me up for a second and ask, “Wait, a midterm, or the midterm?” That’s a great question. The quarter lasts ten weeks here, so you’d think the midterm would be held at the end of the fifth week, and there would be exactly one of them. That’s what I myself had expected. But actually, there are usually two and sometimes even three midterms. So why aren’t they just called “tests” or “exams”? Beats me.

Often times the students are unprepared or asleep (or both), so nobody will ask any questions. The TA will wait patiently for about ten minutes before becoming irritated. This is a really long time. He or she will actually just look at the students, panning from face to face, waiting, despite no indication anyone will ever cave in. It’s like a game of chicken. At first I was tempted to fill the uncomfortable silence by asking a question, and sometimes I did, but generally the answer wasn’t very good, and eventually the uncomfortable silence became comfortable. Peaceful, even. Could the TA be trying to teach us something? Perhaps he’s into meditation or Zen or something, and is teaching us to have the same seemingly inexhaustible patience he does? It’s weird.

Eventually, perhaps to punish us for wasting his valuable time, the TA will verbally quiz us on stuff from the lectures or the reading, and—here’s the fun part—he’ll refuse to accept any answer given. Whatever we answer will be deemed incorrect. For example, my Critical Thinking TA asked the other day, “What is a sound argument?” Five or six students gave truly insufficient answers (e.g., “an argument that’s basically, like, pretty good?”). At this point, with complete conviction born of a) having attended the lecture, b) having done the reading, c) having done the homework, and d) this being a really easy question, I piped up and said, “A sound argument is logically valid and has true premises.” The TA shook his head and waited several more minutes for a better answer, which he never got. Sighing, he provided the correct answer: “It’s an argument which has true premises and is logically valid.” I told him that’s exactly what I’d said. He replied, “It’s not at all what you said.” I could have argued with him, but since I’d given my response so long ago, who would even remember it? Besides, the TA was obviously a total airhead so what would be the point?

Now, what I just described is not the only scenario. Occasionally, a student—usually a really nerdy one, like me—will have read the material and attempted the homework and will actually have a question. Perhaps this student is lost, or confused. Well, the student has come to the right place! Or so he thinks. In actuality, for the TA to simply answer the question would be far too easy. The TA turns it right around in some twisted Groupthink version of the Socratic Method.

Here’s an example. To again use the example of my Critical Thinking class, if a student asks something like, “What is the difference between cogent and sound arguments?” the TA will throw the question out to the class: “Anyone? Anyone?” After waiting for about five minutes for a response from another student, the TA will say, “Hasn’t anybody done the reading?” Then, he’ll let the question die, hoping the student has given up hope. If the student repeats the question, the TA will say, “Well, it’s in your textbook.” If the student still persists, then the TA will say, “You’ll have to come to my office hours.” This last resort is brutally effective, as no student in the history of higher education has ever gone to a TA’s office hours.

So, this was just one example of the day in the life of a TA-driven Discussion Section, but I assure you they’re all the same. Whether it’s due to spite based on being underpaid, bitterness based on being a grad student, mere incompetence based on being an amateur, or some combination of these or other factors, the TAs are all about the same: unhelpful and devoid of insight. This gives me an idea: with tuition rising, there has never been a better time to cut costs through robotics. Future generations may be lucky enough to be “taught” by robots! How cool would that be?

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