Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Making Bad Professors

I've written before about all the joys of being a TA. One of the things I never covered was how being a TA is very poor training towards taking over a classroom. This article from the Pope Center discusses the problems of taking graduate students and chucking them into a classroom with little to no formal training.

I can certainly speak to this from my own experiences. Since I've mainly taught chemistry, my experience has largely been teaching labs. UMSL gave me the opportunity to throw in discussion sessions as well. Typically, the lead-up to any of this at the start of the semester was anything from a day to a week of seminars about being a TA. Some of it plain common sense and some of it just policy. I found much of it to be unhelpful, but like I said, a lot of it is common sense.

I saw a lot of foreign grad students sent to lead classes or discussion groups who had very poor english. That should never happen. You are handicapping their students by giving them a second hurdle to overcome (aside from understanding the material).

If I had to give my own thoughts to improving the situation for science TAs, this is what I might say:
  • Public speaking classes
These should be optional but available. Not everyone is comfortable or competant at speaking in front of others. Tossing these people into a teaching position doesn't help anybody. If the person isn't meeting a certain level of english proficiency, don't let them get out of this, either.
  • Allow time to test the labs
This is a big one. Most lab TAs will have no idea how the lab is supposed to go until they see their first section go through it. This can lead to TAs not knowing how to answer certain questions or knowing that the results are poor until too late in the session.

The easy solution to this would be to bank time for the TAs to all do each experiment before teaching it. This way they know the equipment, they know the reagents, and they know what each stage of the experiment looks like.
  • Give the TAs real authority
This one is truly necessary for discussion sessions. I had a very talkative, very unruly group for my discussion sessions. The students showed up for the graded quiz, and didn't really care to participate in anything else we were to do there. In one lab, a student started swearing at me when she failed to follow the directions and had to repeat the experiment.

In every case, I really had no recourse. I'm not allowed to deduct points at any stage for behavioral problems. I was only allowed to report to the professor about the problem and let them handle it. It usually meant a warning to start, then an "official" warning in the form of a hearing with a disciplinary panel. Too much run around for a very slow pay off.

The point is, the power lies in the hands of either the students or the professor. The TAs are simply middle men with no ability to keep students in line short of having campus police haul a disruptive trouble maker out of class. That's not helpful to anyone.
  • Give them a chance to lecture
The thrust of the Pope Center article was that TAs in these settings aren't being given proper preparation to become a decent professor. This is a big problem for science TAs, who may not ever be in front of a classroom until they get their PhD and a teaching position. An easy remedy would be to allow the TA(s) to teach at least part of a lecture sometime during the semester. It gives them experience, and the professor could easily observe and give corrective guidance.

I realize that's not a feasible option for courses with 300 students and 20 TAs, but the option could at least be offered to those TAs. Nobody learns to drive by first pulling onto the interstate during rush hour or going into a downtown metropolis. Why should teaching be any different?

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