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Diary of a History TA: What Students Taught Me

Posted by Neal Adolph
24 February 2014 - 10:44am

I could tell you the name of the student that led me to buy a big, red,paper mache apple for class, but I won’t. There was one, in a different class, that made it clear that participation marks – those most wretched of all forms of evaluation – need to be clearly explained to students.I remember their names too. I could even name the student that led me to buy a notebook in which I document all the conversations I have in my office hours, but I won’t. I don’t believe in smearing people.However, I will tell you that these students were damned smart.I will also say that they caught me completely off guard, making them important students in my work as a Teaching Assistant.

The first story is the easiest to tell. I had a student who was well aware of his intelligence and thought he needed to flaunt it so that he could be successful in the course. I discovered it was a problem by the end of the second week of seminars.His classmates also knew it was a problem; their patience was tried more quickly than mine. So I went out and bought a big red apple and made a new rule about participation so that more students would have the opportunity to communicate. You could only speak while holding the big red apple. If you did not have the big red apple and you wanted to talk you had to put up your hand and it would come to you. You could not get the apple again until three others had spoken. My job was to moderate the conversation as it moved from person to person – to do this I did not need to big red apple. I spoke whenever I wanted.

The students helped me enforce the red apple rule. It was fascinating, like watching a real-life session of the Lord of the Flies council. The apple contained the wild desire for chaos with some arbitrary rules for assembly. But it seemed to work. By the fourth seminar there was less frustration directed at the over-talkative student by his classmates and more of them had participated than ever before. By the end of the semester I was able to forego the apple and conversation flowed well, with no single student dominating discussion.

The second story is a bit more muffled in my memory. It happened nearly three years ago in my first semester of working as a teaching assistant. The professor had set up a 20% discretionary evaluation based on participation and students were concerned about it. Many were first years, in their first semester, and they wanted to do well. They also realized very quickly that their Teaching Assistant had very high expectations of their performance in seminar.In the fifth or sixth week I had a student ask me in class how they would know whether they were succeeding on their participation grade, and what my method of evaluation was. To be honest, I had not yet established a formal system of evaluation, but, according to the expectations that I had suggested in the beginning of the semester they were not doing well.

Still, though, I had no established method of evaluating their participation and I was called out on it. I had no idea how to evaluate participation on a weekly basis, and the professor hadn’t given me any guidelines on what to expect or how to document the evaluation as was her responsibility. I was uncomfortable, but managed to divert the pressure. “Next week I will bring your pro-rated mark to this point in the semester and clearly outline the expectations and methods of evaluating your success.” And that’s what I did. Never again did I start the semester without asking the professor for methods of evaluating participation or showing students how they were evaluated. Over many semesters my method became scientific and precise. I don’t think the students liked it anymore, but at least they knew how they were getting evaluated.

The final story is based on a student that complained about me to my department head. It is a complicated story and I won’t go into its entirety, but it convinced me that I needed to make note of what was discussed when I met with students in my office hours. She handed in a paper that, by her measurement, she did poorly on. I could tell that it was a revised International Studies paper, but I chose not to call her out on plagiarising her own work. It was competently written, and there was an interesting argument with intriguing references to economic theorists about Japans’ industrial development in the early twentieth century, but it clearly was not a history paper. It clearly didn’t follow the kinds of approaches that I had encouraged in the course all semester long, didn’t reference primary documents, and didn’t even make use of secondary historical work very well. I gave it a B.

She claimed in a meeting afterwards that I had told her to take the approach she took when I gave her feedback on her paper outline weeks previously. I was surprised that I would make such a suggestion. Really? I had no way of saying that I hadn’t, and she had no way of saying that I had - evidence was in our memories and nowhere else, and I wasn’t particularly convinced. We agreed that I would look over the papers again, and I gave her a B+.She was not happy. I suspect this is when she wrote the letter to the department head, which I didn’t see until after submitting her final mark. It accused me and the professor I was working with of having unrealistic expectations (which, I argue, is entirely untrue, even if some of his expectations were pedagogically questionable) and providing students with inconsistent advice on how to succeed. Lesson learned: record, as best you can, what you discuss with students when they visit you in your office hours.

Here’s the TL;DR. Teaching is tough work. We work with dozens of students each semester. They are forced into seminar rooms where they know few of the other students and are expected to perform at a high standard just at the moment at which they are being forced to transition from late-teenage life to young adulthood. They are also expected to do well so that they can continue in their program, get into graduate school, or maybe - just maybe - get a job. This is a high pressure, difficult environment. And sometimes our students make life slightly more difficult and uncomfortable for us because they are trying to be resilient and are just not sure how to be any longer. We can take it personally, we can grumble to our colleagues (which I did), or we can realize that there are things we can do to protect ourselves as educators and give our students a greater degree of certainty in the classroom. In the end, we must be as resilient as them, because we are learning from the challenges they bring into our lives in the same way that they are learning from the challenges we bring into theirs.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Photo: Classroom of Laidley Spring School on the Matador Co-operative farm about 40 miles north of Swift Current, Sask. Teacher is R. L. Moen. Credit: Gar Lunney/National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque/Library and Archives Canada/PA-159647. Copyright: Expired