Don’t Write This Down: My Adventures as a Teaching Assistant

It’s Thursday morning and I am tucked into the corner of a downtown coffee shop creating a lesson plan. I work as a T.A in the film department — I’m one of six who lead seminars for Film 110 — “Film, Culture and Communication.” One of the challenges of being a T.A for this course is that we only teach every other week — meaning we don’t necessarily have the same close-knit relationships with our students that we might have if we worked with them every single week.

For the last few weeks, the students have been learning about colonialism, and how colonialism plays out on-screen. We’ve seen a great line-up of films — everything from The Battle of Algiers, to Like Water for Chocolate, The Piano, and a 1959 melodrama by Douglas Sirk called Imitation of Life. It’s been a wholly enjoyable experience.

The teaching part has been interesting, to say the least. It’s a crazy thing to be a student one minute, and then to be thrust into the role of authority figure the next! Though I’ve been doing this for almost 6 months already, I still feel a little freaked out when the students write down the things I say. There’s still a part of me that wants to rush over to their notebooks and hastily jot down beside it that what’s they’ve just written down is merely the vocalization of a crazy graduate student, and not a ‘real’ knowledgeable person, and that they should double-check everything I say against facts uttered by people who ACTUALLY know stuff.

But then, I know that’s dumb. I think one of the biggest challenges for a new teaching assistant is in realizing that you do know stuff and that you have been authorized to teach that stuff to people who are just starting out in their academic careers.

Still – I have taught sessions where I swear the students at the back of the room have been snickering away at my complete and utter lack of expertise (of course, dear readers, it’s also important to remember that T.As aren’t professors and aren’t expected to know everything — our job is to help the students understand and discuss the things that they’ve been learning in class!). One even caught me contradicting myself when I was answering a student’s question. ahrg- embarrassing.

But at the end of the day, I think the key to being a good T.A is to be honest and open with your students (and I don’t think it hurts for them to see that even we make mistakes!). Being the authority figure in the room can come will all sorts of baggage and pressure to know EVERYTHING — but I’ve found that reminding myself that a) I’m not the professor and b) this is a learning experience ( just like everything else) makes it all easier to handle.

Today’s seminar is going to be on post-modernism (eek!), so I’d better get back to it. It’s definitely time for more coffee.




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2 responses to “Don’t Write This Down: My Adventures as a Teaching Assistant

  1. Karl Hardy

    This is excellent Mer, you’ve definitely captured the ‘brand-new-TA’ experience…

    Your such a good writer, no surprise that you’re a pro 🙂


  2. The former graduate head of my MA program opened her “welcome-to-Queen’s-graduate-school” speech by telling us that she woke up every day feeling like today was the day she was discovered to be a fraud, that she didn’t actually possess the kind of knowledge the university valued and that her whole career had been built on luck, not merit.

    We all go through moments of anxiety… and it certainly doesn’t help that students can search online to vet your comments as you’re sharing them! I agree with you completely: an honest relationship with students builds trust & respect and that’s probably the most valuable experience they’ll take with them.

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