TA Phone Home
They’re critical to your success, but just as frazzled as you. Coffee, attention and enthusiasm will put them in your camp.
By Alina Shaikh, University of Toronto
There are a couple approaches to getting through college.
You can power through your studies and ignore all life around you, party like some kind of Project X remake or balance both in an optimistic combo of writing cramps and hangovers.
Whichever path you choose TAs are going to be there and you’re going to need to make them acknowledge you.
Although similar to the “senpais” of Japan, TA’s are still a lot more approachable than your average college lecturer. The standoffishness of professors is understandable, because to them you’re just one of the many faces sitting in a 247-student lecture hall. As a result, you need to direct your efforts toward someone you can actually reach.
Still, even mentioning these little prof-subordinates has a negative connotation, as your high tuition and gross residence fees aren’t exactly screaming, “Yes, I am more than happy to be taught by kids supplementing their grad expenses.” Still, relying exclusively on the tutelage of professors just isn’t practical in the modern universities.
Expecting full-time faculty to teach you everything you need to know for a course is unrealistic, so I urge you to give these sad (and most likely broke) aides a chance.
Undergrad is already hard enough, so imagine how difficult grad school must be, especially because you’re teaching a bunch of kids who only have eyes for the prof.
As a result, TA’s will take all the unofficial help you can give them. By actively patronizing your collegiate fairy godmother, you can improve your grades, actually get what’s expected of students and experience a different perspective than the rest of your class.
So as your TA hands back your papers and inadvertently brushes your hand, hold back your mumbled “What are we?” and analyze the situation.
First, you’ll need to get to know your graduate-student-turned-mentor by dragging yourself to office hours in the morning. There you can bond over your bad marks and their constructive criticism.
Not only do you need to attend office hours, you need to bring up topics and initiate questions to earn their appreciation. I’ve been to enough awkwardly silent group TA sessions to know that conversation needs to be flowing, interspersed obviously with the occasional complaint about the coursework. If all is quiet, things are not well. Helping your struggling grad-teacher create an “active and engaging learning environment” will skyrocket their opinion of you.
I don’t mean to imply that rambling about the lecture everyone just heard is key to carving your way into your TA’s heart. No. I mean to say that filling in gaps in discussions, providing theories in class and asking things about your upcoming assignments will help everyone out in the long run.
Now, thanks to you, the kid drooling over his laptop in the back will now know the due dates.
Grabbing a coffee before the semester ends is another potential item on your Impress the TA Bucketlist, although these can be dicey. My friend received an email about meeting up for dinner after class, and was thoroughly unsure if the meal related to the course in any way. It didn’t.
In some universities TA-student relationships aren’t frowned upon, so if that’s your cup of tea then go for it. However for the more competitive schools, romantic relationships between students and TA’s are on par with prof-student relations, so the gray area depends a lot on your university.
Still, I’d still grab a coffee with anyone who’s willing. So unless you two were already in a position that warrants a DRT, one French Press isn’t an indication of anything meaningful.
And while a shared coffee, loquacious presence in discussion section and flawless attendance can all get you in the door, your adorably distressed grad-dads mostly care that you’re making an effort.
They want to see that you care, and you express that interest by maintaining your grades, meeting your deadlines and expressing your personality (don’t go on a “finding yourself” trip to Macau—I’m just talking about putting yourself out there).
Basically, for you to get acknowledged by your uni-equivalent of a senpai, you have to be your own senpai. Wear those sweater vests, eat that quinoa and get those grades up (if not, yell about grade deflation).
The intangibles are important, but academics come first when you’re trying to sell yourself for all those job recommendations (which is what all this is really about).