1870 Mag

Both Sides of the Syllabus: Advice from a Grad Student-Instructor who Gets It

PHOTO BY GRANT JONES

When I became a graduate student at OSU, I was asked to teach in return for free tuition. With that ka-ching ka-ching offer and the opportunity to get a degree in something I loved, I couldn’t say no. Being what is basically a spy on the inside, the truth is I have the best advice for how to navigate a class with a TA vs. a class with a regular Instructor. So listen up, undergrads, because class is in session.

First, let’s delineate the responsibilities each “position” has.

Students: Show up, do the work, pass the class, etc.

Teaching Assistant: For the most part, TAs do most–if not all–of the grading in big lecture classes. We may or may not be responsible for teaching small breakout sessions in class. We’re ultimately in charge of your grade.

Instructor: This is our class. We make the syllabus; we call the shots. Of course, you have to ultimately achieve the learning outcomes of the course, but how your students get there is up to you.

Now, let’s go over every student-to-instructor interaction that you could benefit from hearing perspectives on both sides.

CLASS CANCELLATIONS

As a Student: Honestly, these are my favorite. Opening my email and seeing that sweet, sweet message from a professor saying they’re canceling class feels like a gift.

As a TA: You’re shit out of luck. Even though you can sometimes miss the big lectures, canceling the labs or recitations you’re in charge of probably won’t happen. If there’s an emergency and you can’t teach your course, the professor in charge of the large lectures will sometimes step in. All-in-all, this is a rare instance.

As an Instructor: Shiiiiiet. If we’re being honest here (and I am, which is why I didn’t publish this under my name), I have canceled class for dumb as fuck reasons. Sometimes I’m legitimately dying, or my anxiety has me on the border of a panic attack/breakdown (we can definitely talk more about anxiety in another article). Other times, I can sense that my students are drowning under the weight of midterms. I may have also canceled classes ‘cause it was too cold or I had a paper due. I will neither confirm nor deny these last two. What I’m trying to say here is that instructors are not terrible people. And when your instructor happens to be a graduate student, trust me when I say that we get it. Sometimes we push through the pain because there’s work that needs to get done. Other times we feel the weight of the pressure and need a breather, too.

PARTICIPATION

As a Student: I hate participation grades with a passion. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk, man. My strategy for participation is basically making sure I have at least one or two smart things to say about the readings that week and looking like I’m interested in the lecture and taking notes, even if I’m doodling on my notebook or iPad. Another pro-tip is sitting in the front. If you sit in the front, you’ll automatically look like you pay attention. If you sit in the back and are hesitant about talking or don’t look to the teacher, you’ll probably get called on.

As a TA: Honestly…I don’t care. At some point I was in charge of over 70 students. The Instructor wanted me to take attendance every single class and assess whether or not each individual student paid attention. I ended up passing all of my students on participation because I only knew some of their names. I was also kind of angry that I was being asked to assess over 70 peoples’ attention in a class. Can anyone truly do that? Unless you were absent often enough that I noticed you weren’t in my class most of the time or went out of your way to not look at me or engage, you’re fine.

As an Instructor: I don’t know, man. Participation grades are something I struggle with. I don’t think you should be forced to participate in a class for a grade, but lecturing to a room full of people with empty looks on their faces hurts my soul and makes me feel like I’m wasting my time. Not to mention that If you don’t talk, I don’t know if you’re following anything I’m saying. Lately what I’ve been doing is allowing students to “participate” in any way they choose: group work, Carmen discussion boards, meeting with me in my office hours… Basically anything that shows me that you understand what the class is about and what you have to do in the course. But for the love of Pete, TALK AT LEAST ONCE.

SKIPPING CLASS/ATTENDANCE

As a Student: For me, it depends on the class. In graduate classes, the policy is don’t skip unless you’re dead or in the process of dying. In undergrad, a lot of classes didn’t have an attendance policy. I still tried to not skip too much. I mean, if I’m paying to be here, I’ll be here, y’know? There are days where I just cannot deal with life and have to stay in. Probably the dumbest reason I ever skipped class was to go to the Luke’s pop-up shops that Netflix set up to celebrate the Gilmore Girls revival. I didn’t even try to go to class. I woke up early and took a bus down High to the closest coffee-shop-turned-Luke’s and got a cup of coffee. It was great and I don’t regret it. That said, I didn’t skip the class again the rest of the semester.

As a TA: Unless the class has a strict attendance policy, I didn’t really care if my students didn’t show up to every class. This particular professor didn’t have a strict attendance policy but also asked us to take attendance every day. If there were serious cases for why students were not coming to class, I would take note of that and make sure they came to see me when they came back to class. That said, I wasn’t necessarily keeping tabs on everyone.

As an Instructor: I think that the smartest thing a student can do is read the attendance policy and take advantage of it. For example, if you can skip three times, skip around midterms. Take care of yourself, you know? I am pretty chill about attendance. If I notice you haven’t been coming for a while, but you haven’t told me if you have an emergency, I’ll usually reach out, but only if you’re past the max number of classes you can miss. Emergencies are more than reasonable to miss class. Your instructor will understand. However, if you’re constantly skipping class and don’t talk to your instructor, don’t come crying at the end of the class because you’re 2% away from an A-.

GRADING

As a Student: I’ve always been pretty anal retentive (ha ha, shut up) about grades. I still curse the ground the teacher who once gave me an A- walks upon. I guess there’s not much here to say that can help you other than to say, I get it. Grades are important. They either make or break your GPA.

As a TA: We are in charge of your grade. If you are having a hard time with the material or with writing an essay, or developing an idea, come see us. We are more than willing to help you out, it’s our job. Of course, you can also talk to the instructor of the course, but more often than not for assignment-related questions, we’re the person you want to see. Most importantly, if we know who you are, we will bat for you. I’ve gone head-to-head with a professor regarding a student who was having a very difficult time in class. I worked with that student and they managed to pass the class. We’re not here to fail you. We’re not here to waste your time. We got your back. It’s our job.

As an Instructor: Like I said before, I understand. I understand needing 2% to get the A. However, if you’re a student who has consistently done the bare minimum in class and never came in to talk to me for something other than being worried about your grades… I’ll stick to my initial ruling regarding your grade. This is where making a good first impression matters the most. If you feel the grade you received was undeserved, instead of angrily emailing me, sit down, and take a breath. Read the feedback you received carefully and ask about a potential way you can improve your work. Nine times out of ten, I will offer to meet with you and work with you to make sure you ace my class.

I don’t know how to end this piece other than by saying that I absolutely love what I do. I love my students and will bat for them in any and every sense of the word. If I can give you one piece of advice to take with you it’s this: every teacher you will ever have was once a student. Not everyone can be as cool as me, and that’s okay. Read the syllabus, pay attention, don’t be a sh*t person, and your instructor will help you succeed. It’s what we do.

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