What Is a TA For?


As part of my graduate funding package, I was assigned a Teaching Assistantship. Although I was glad to have a job (even if that job did not pay particularly well or offer many hours), I was a little concerned. Having come from a small liberal arts college, I had never taken a class that had a TA before, and I didn’t really understand their role. My brother, who had chosen to go to one of the largest universities in North America, seemed to think that TAs existed only to conduct labs and grade mountains of quizzes in lieu of the professor. “Great,” I thought. “I get to be some doctor’s lackey.”

However, my experience as a TA has proven to be quite different from what people might assume. So, to help dispel some of the myth and the secrecy surrounding the position of TA, I give you “What is a TA for?”

Stuck in a course with over 100 people? Try contacting your TA for a little one-on-one attention! (Image Credit: http://www.globecampus.ca/in-the-news/globecampusreport/the-big-issue-large-undergraduate-classes/)

Who Are TAs? 

TAs are typically graduate students of the department your course is in. This means that a French student won’t be TAing your Astronomy lab, unless he or she has some experience that qualifies them to do so. TAs are also typically graduate-level students, which means they may have just gotten their own Bachelor’s degree or they may have already received a Master’s and are working on their PhD. At some smaller schools, TAs may simply be students who have already taken a class and excelled in it. The important thing to remember is that TAs are students, just like you are. This means that you should feel comfortable approaching your TA, whether he or she is 22 or 62. After all, you are both essentially students.

What Does a TA Do? 

The exact job description for a teaching assistant can vary from university to university, department to department, and even professor to professor. The primary function of most TAs is to assist the professor in grading, which means that he or she will most likely be responsible for assigning you at least some of your grades. Many professors give TAs detailed rubrics which helps grading to remain fair and in line with what the professor wants, while others prefer to have meetings where some standards are set up. However, there are the occasional professors who give the TA free reign over grading.

TAs may have more responsibilities than just grading. They may lead a tutorial, which ranges from monitoring a lab activity to providing an in-depth lesson in grammar and writing. Some TAs are expected to attend the course they TA for, but this is based on the professor’s preference. Some professors like having their TA present in the classroom so that they know exactly what’s going on, while others prefer to have TAs spend their time differently. This means that you’ll need to have a little patience with your TA if what he or she says contradicts what the professor says. Simply bring the contradiction to the TAs attention, and he or she will then be able to figure out the correct answer by meeting with the professor.

TAs also act as a buffer or an intermediary between students and their professor. TAs can take care of many questions and concerns students have without the professor, and for situations beyond their scope they can easily contact the professor on your behalf or point you in the right direction.

How Can I Make the Most of Having a TA?

Utilize your TA as much as possible! Rather than constantly approaching the professor for every issue you have, try going through the TA first. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever approach your professor directly, but the point of a TA is to assist the professor in cutting down his or her workload. I’ve even known some professors who direct students to the course TA when asked a question!

Even though you should take advantage of your TA, make sure to give him or her enough time to help you. E-mailing a TA at 3 a.m. on the morning a paper is due isn’t enough time to get feedback. TAs may be willing to look at outlines, rough drafts, or bibliographies, but they need enough time to set up a meeting and give you feedback. Remember that your TA is also a student, and so while his or her schedule does offer quite a bit of flexibility, TAs are not just TAs, ready to help you at the drop of a hat.

What Should I Do if I Have a Problem with My TA?

If you’re having issues with your TA, don’t immediately contact the professor. First, consider what the problem is. If your TA is not responding to any of your e-mails, and you’ve been sending them far in advance of deadlines, that’s a good reason to contact the professor regarding your issue with the TA. If your TA tells you she can’t meet twenty minutes before a paper is due, that isn’t a good reason to complain. Basically, make sure that your complaint is reasonable and cannot be perceived as your fault. The next step would then be to contact the TA. Explain your concern and wait for a response. Make your e-mail polite, concise, and direct, and don’t act as though you’re throwing blame at the TA. Be considerate and courteous.

If you feel that you have upheld your responsibilities as a student and that the TA has failed in his duties, and your interaction with the TA to resolve the matter has not succeeded, contact the course professor directly. Explain the issue clearly and concisely, and don’t make the e-mail personal. There’s a difference between not liking a TA and having an issue that the professor can help with.

Having a TA can be a rewarding experience if you take full advantage of what it can offer. If you aren’t sure what your TA’s role is in the course, ask him or her! Chances are, he or she will be glad to help. If you have any other questions about the role of TAs in university, please feel free to leave a question or a comment!

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Filed under Academic Advice, Learning Resources, My Experiences

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