Reflection: Being a Teaching Assistant

By most accounts, life of a Teaching Assistant (TA) is quite simple. Go to the lab, do the assigned work and come back. If you are TA for a theory course then professor usually asks you to do work related with script checking, grading and other related clerk-work. There is a space for improvement but most of the professors do not want to overburden their TA’s. They generally leave them with these routine works. For a M.Tech. (especially first year) this is indeed needed. They have their own tightly packed first year curriculum. But final year M.Techs as well as Dual Degree (D.D.) sure can do more. But its up to the professor to be thoughtful as in how he can utilize them without making them feel like they are being consumed in something they do not want to be a part of. Well, there can be counter argument to this. One can simply say since you get money in exchanged of your services, you have to do what I ask you to do. But I am not a supporter that this kind of ‘money/market oriented arguments‘ should be used against young people. They mostly do what is required. However I am not denying that some of them take pride in shunning their responsibilities and corruption should be dealt with. This boring part, we leave to authorities.

Lab courses, where you interact with students are the places where you can really test your capabilities as a teacher as well as a learner. You can easily get the most remarkable assessment of your capabilities – no need to write A, B, C, D exams. Make sure you get at least one lab course while you are a TA else you may live forever in your own illusion of smartness.  Well, no one suppose to know everything so its better you don’t meet your students with an attitude of Mr. BeenThereDoneThat. The best you can do is to pretend that you have more experience than them so probably you’d be able to help them. And hey, I am also compensating what I have not done in my U.G..

I found out that only a few U.G.’s are hostile to M.Tech. or to Ph.D. in start. Neither they have any sort of superiority syndrome in the beginning. If over the time of they somehow acquire these feelings that P.G.s are ‘give-up‘, they must have their own experiences. And who can argue us out from our own experiences.  Though there can be a chauvinism among them but generally they are polite enough not to communicate it to you. It’s not to say that we don’t see thoughtful people in post graduation. There is much more to intelligence that cracking competitions. And there much more to scholarship than intelligence. And of course, there is much much more to thoughtfulness than just being looking serious.

My father did not pass high school (failed miserably in all subjects) but in his childhood he did make awesome things. People in village remember how he made a big tractor out of clay which used to have its own steering system. It was washed away by rains later. This was designed when there was no tractor in my village. Now back home, people asks what have I made. Your father was a real engineer. You are not. They do make a lot of sense to me.

A lot of P.G. have their own biases. That is natural for grown ups. But when you start treating them with your own sense of morality, it will of-course irritate them. Though morality is more of less very desirable thing in herself, but she has her own nasty habits. Her bearer thinks that he/she has solved the puzzle of what is good and evil. She always puts herself on the side on angels. Besides, she always demands the head of the wrongdoer. Bertrand Russell once wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.”. I have been told that in ancient Hindu culture there was no concept of hell.  You suppose to born again and again till you get their heaven, never to born again. Perhaps, they thought that life on earth is hell enough. I don’t think life is as bad as they used to worry about it. Anyway, some of it is expected from a person who spent all his life in jungles and mountains.

In lab, playing around with instruments, doing different things with things, sometime doing naughty things like cheating a bit is what most of the teenagers do. When I think about my own U.G. days, I really feel having no rights criticizing them. But cheating should be punished. Why one cheat (or import) if one is competent enough? Though there are certain conception of good and bad in our head, U.G.’s must be given benefit of doubts. It is not a good idea expecting a great deal of maturity from them. And it is worse expecting that they will only do things unless to make them to do. Though a level of intolerance should be there for academic misconduct and should be made harsher as they advance in their studies. Fortunately such cases are rare but guidelines must be laid out in reasonably good clarity.

Experiments, by their very nature, are not boring. You are rewarded instantly if you get them right. But they can make student frustrated should you stuck somewhere. Debugging is not an easy task. Its takes a hell a lot of dedication and experience and this is what U.G. generally lacks. So the emphasis should be on to acquaint them with fundamental ideas. If you think that experiment is complex for them then you can give them a simple experiment and ask them to understand all the steps. If they succeed in that than you ask them to proceed with the complex experiment with a pat on their back. Marks are probably the thing they are most interested in, so you can tell them that even if you are not able to finish this complex experiments, I am grading you for your performance in the simple experiment.

An emphasis on a particular topic can be stressed or relaxed depending on the interest of the students. Student of microelectronics may like to spend more time on I-V characteristics of a device than it’s applications. On the same lines, a student of communication make be more interested in amplifiers than how device functions etc. Well, at U.G. since most of thing are generic and everyone suppose to know whatever they are told to do in lab but I am of opinion that certain sections can be skimmed over while some can be stressed at the cost of others if they seems to be interested in them. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to get close to them without being unreasonably generous. I have certain experiences from past  that being friendly with them, some of them start believing that poor performance on their part will be tolerated. They must have reason to  believe so since our society has been like that where nepotism is deeply rooted and they can not be much different. There are ways to sort it out by acting professionally till you are their TA’s. But making mistakes are allowed if you have certain feedback in you to discover the error of judgment. I did over graded few of students while I was a M.Tech. initially.

One should not be thrifty when it comes to praise them when they work hard. Although praising someone for being smart has its own downside, but the criticism is the last thing an Indian kid need. We get it all the time. There are repercussion of these kind of praises which IITians generally receive – for being smart.  The safest is praising for their effort. Indians are generally very thrifty and mostly jealous in praising their fellow citizen. In criticism, they will be unsparing. My personal experience is if you are NOT able to praise someone, you really have low self esteem or very poor understanding about the stuff you are mentoring them.

Unfortunately, grades or marks have been used as ankush  by Indian teachers. It is really crass to note that the threat of bad marks is the most ubiquitous arrangement devised by our teachers (Though here at IITB, it is not the only arrangement, both carrot and stick are available). Although marks work fine in controlling students as well as making them work, but there should have been a better way. If you treat your students like morons they will become morons. I believe that this threat generally used by those who either wants to repress students asking doubts or the super moralists who somehow believes that the students are pure evil and will not work unless threatened. Well, in our society where people like the idea of punishing the most marginalized one. For example, committing suicide is crime in India. The guy is already so depressed, last thing he/she needed was  to be put in lockup. But that did not stop them to devise this law. What is the logic behind it, if you do it once, we’ll make sure you wont do it again? So this is NOT surprising and students who are at receiving must protect themselves from all of it  – no matter how much this irritates the authorities. But the solution to this problem, “How one should teach students?” have not been settled. If a student likes a subject then there is no problem teaching one. But the real challenge lies with students who somehow lost all of their interests.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

1 thought on “Reflection: Being a Teaching Assistant”

  1. ur writing skills are extremely good…….. but considering one fact u missing is that Indian study divided in 2 parts first Competition and second knowledge ……in order to crack Competition approach of studying become totally different …thats wht people in IITb doing they have to crack GRE or CAT which requires mugging English…. studying technical stuff it requires different approach no body is doing because u have to ask IIT prof for recommendation…after that ……………… if read English mug Barons for 3-4 months and score more than 1400 get r any top 20 university around the world(which have better research prospects)… …. who cares ratass ……doing project and other stuff is useless …try to score 7-8 pointer which are easy ……thats IItb UG is doing …… 2 years experience says studying at IITb is waste of time in comparison to US universities(atleast real research. is going on there ) … ……..many of my batka friends in IITb said these point when i ask why they donot go for research in IITb…. …………………………. IITb is just place for campus placements ………………………………….

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