Recitations don't lead themselves — at the front of the classroom, teaching assistants must balance their responsibilities with their student obligations.
Ben Leitner, an Engineering freshman and CIS 110 mentor, saw the merit of peer instruction after working with a tutor for a particularly rough Latin class.
“I love student tutoring. In middle school I hated Latin. I struggled through it,” Leitner said. “My teacher made me get a student tutor. But I ended up really liking my tutor and Latin, so I decided to become a tutor.”
TAs at Penn are paid, but Leitner says the benefits of being a TA exceed monetary gain and personal enjoyment — his position gives him a deeper understanding of computer science. “I’ve learned a lot more this semester than I think I did in my entire high school program. It’s been really helpful,” he said.
Wharton senior Matthew DeGagne works as a TA for the course "Urban Real Estate Economics." He also believes his job has given him insight into how the classroom works at Penn. “I’ve enjoyed it from the perspective of seeing the time, the work and the effort professors put into their courses …sitting on the other side, you don’t see that as much, or you don’t know what goes in,” he said. “There’s a lot of time and thought put in throughout the semester.”
Furthermore, TAs say skills they obtain on the job can open up new professional opportunities.
“Having the skills to discuss technical problems and ideas on a little more of a manageable level for other people is a great way to get to know people who are kind of into technology but a little bit less on the technical side, like designers and developers,” Engineering sophomore and CIS 120 TA Luke Carlson said. “I know it’s going to be fun to get to know a variety of people … it’s definitely going to lead to a more interesting professional career.”
Despite these benefits, life as a TA isn't always ideal.
Although training and other resources are provided, working as a TA demands a steep learning curve. “You have to guide people through it, and there’s a big spectrum, I find, within the students,” Leitner said. “You have people who are very comfortable working on their own and want to do the work themselves, and then there are others that want you to tell them the answer and walk them through it — it’s very tough to gauge what different people expect and how to get them there.”
As a result of working with a wide range of students, some TAs find themselves the target of irritation. “It’s not direct, but there are times when a student’s in office hours, and they’re very frustrated about their program … they don’t know how to fix it, and sometimes they kind of direct their anger at the TA,” Carlson said. “That can be frustrating, because you’re there to help.”
Additionally, some TAs may find it difficult to separate their time on and off duty. They might find themselves in the difficult position of having to grade their friends’ homework, and others are bombarded with requests for help in and out of class.
“The hardest part about TAing is drawing a line — students have to realize you’re a student also, and you have stuff to do,” Leitner said. “Many times in office hours when you try to leave students are like, ‘Oh, can you help me with one more thing?’ I feel bad. I really want to help. It’s hard to draw that line.”
Many prospective TAs must undergo a competitive selection process. To be a CIS 110 or 120 TA, for example, applicants must excel in their coursework, complete a written statement and undergo a hands-on, practice-based interview.
However, students and faculty members alike say this type of competition is simply an indicator of how beneficial the teaching assistant position is.
“The application process is pretty competitive. We get many more applicants than we can hire,” CIS 120 professor Stephanie Weirich said. “Students really do get a lot out of TAing, and they recognize that … there is a lot of personal enrichment that comes from TAing.”
Wharton freshman Nadia Govotsos, who is currently undergoing the competitive interview process to become a TA for Management 100, also attested to the perks of the position.
“It’s great seeing someone grow from being a scared freshman arriving and saying, ‘Oh my god, I have no idea what I want to do with my time at Wharton’ to being an actual leader,” she said.
Although being a TA isn’t easy, most say they ultimately appreciate the experience and feel they’re gaining important skills and knowledge.
“You feel more confident with yourself, expressing yourself and presenting your ideas and thoughts clearly," Leitner said. "Student interaction brings another way of thinking about things or perspectives that you don’t normally get."
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