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Diary of a History TA: Lies I Have Been Told about the First Week

Posted by Neal Adolph
15 January 2013 - 1:38pm

I’m not sure about you, but I have been told lies about being a teaching assistant. “Your professor is going to give you all the supports that you need.” “The students will come prepared if you tell them that they are expected to.” “It doesn’t take long to respond to e-mails.” And, as I had a successful first week in my seminars and am now preparing for my second week, I find myself running up against the first lie that I was ever told about seminars: the first week is the most important.

I don’t know why we buy this lie. We are an intelligent group of people. But I think it feeds into our fears - we are terrified, especially in our first semester, to get in front of undergraduates and be called out on that one thing that we don’t really know. If we can manage to get through the first week then it is smooth sailing, right? The students will automatically fall in line. They will know you. They will respect you. They will all hand in B-grade papers and your life will be great because they will be great because you had a great first week of tutorials.

I hate to tell you this. The first week is not the most important week in seminars. Certainly, you get to meet your students and hope that they like you immediately, and get to produce a sense of morale (hopefully jovial) that you can hope continues into the following weeks, and you get to outline classroom expectations and hope that students will follow them. I can’t deny that a great deal is built upon the foundations that you lay in the first week of tutorials. But nothing of consequence actually happens in the first week.

This is why the second week is of far greater importance than the first week.

In the second week you start teaching. Your students will have done some, or all, of the reading (my students have 130 pages to read for next week, so I have my doubts about the ‘all of it’ thing). They may have loved it, or hated it, or been confused by it so they hated it as a result, or completely misunderstood it, so they loved it. They will have no idea what to expect from you (because they know that the first week is less important than you think it is), and they won’t know how to answer the complex questions that you pose (because, really, nobody knows how to answer a good historical question). The first week, when the topic of discussion was themselves and they couldn’t be wrong, they chatted with each other and with you. Even with excitement (particularly if your ice-breaking activity broke their sense of normal just a bit). Now they can be wrong, or at least think that they can be wrong (even if you stressed in the first week that History is about interpretation and the use of evidence rather than the absolute rightness of one’s ideas), so their mouths are immobile with fear. And you, the TA, have to collect all of these horrifying classroom ingredients and construct a wedding cake. (Have fun!)

So, what do you do?

Well, that is up to you. But here are my general plans for week number two. They are simple, and not particularly profound, but I have had some degree of success with them for the past two years as a teaching assistant and in the years preceding that as a high school teacher.

First – Avoid talking. The least important person in the room is you. It is not your responsibility to show the students how freakishly brilliant you are; it is your students’ responsibility to remind you that you are far less brilliant than you imagine yourself to be. Don’t take this opportunity away from them. If you listen closely it will happen more often than you expect.

Second – Small groups. Avoid running a second seminar in a large group right off the bat.

The students are aware that they are always being assessed.They want to avoid this, and be as comfortable as they possibly can be. Small groups are a great way of building morale and comfort in the classroom. Moreover, small groups the students to discuss with each other rather than talk at you. This is a habit that is essential to develop (remember that you are the least important person in the room!).

Third – Questions. Producing good questions is important. History is a hard field, and finding the right balance between painfully basic questions and open-ended questions that cannot be answered is challenging. But, for the first two or three weeks you need to put the time into doing this – because your students will have no idea how to analyze the works on their own. I usually come with three questions that are shaped around the reading using the higher-thinking order states of Bloom’s Taxonomy (if you are not yet acquainted with this gem of educational theory, then check it out with the linked youtube video).

Fourth – Do something unexpected. It keeps your students on their toes. Bring a talking stick or have a historical debate between groups. Competition – that most wretched of human pleasures – is a great way to engage students. So is kinetic movement. Four corners or values based responses to reading can be a great way to foster discussion about documents. Don’t shy away from the tough stuff, just make sure that you are comfortable and calm enough to facilitate complicated moral historical discussions. (This will be particularly interesting for me this semester, as I will be teaching about 20th Century Sino-Japanese conflict with 80% of my students originating from Mainland China.)

Fifth – Bring the discussion back to you and away from the small groups. This is largely because you need to make sure you are involved in the class as it develops. Later in the semester you may decide to use small groups less. If you do, the transition to sharing ideas with the TA should be a movement towards something that is somewhat familiar (otherwise it may entirely stifle discussion).

Does this guarantee success? Absolutely not. It may actually fall flat entirely and you will be struggling to pick up the pieces for the entire semester. The point, though, is that the second week requires more preparation than deciding how to organize an ice breaker and determining your office hours does in the first. Indeed,if any week should concern you in a semester, it is the second. Suddenly the rubber is hitting the road and you have to be ready to go. Best of luck, and let me know how it goes.


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