Undergraduate Admission Blog

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March 16, 2017

What’s the Deal with TA’s?

Ah, spring time! The lilies are blooming, the robins are singing, and many students are using their spring breaks to visit colleges. At nearly every one of the college information sessions you attend, you are likely to hear that ubiquitous phrase spoken with pride, “No courses are taught by TA’s!”  This is a point commonly made by admissions representatives, so it made me wonder…what do TA’s actually do?? (And why are we supposed to dislike them?)

Enter Julian! Julian is a friend from college who happens to be a PhD candidate–and teaching assistant–in the English Department at USC.  After a little cajoling and promising to complete all the readings (which I definitely did not do), I was given permission to sit in on a discussion session with some students who are taking ENGL 174–Reading the Heart: Emotional Intelligence and the Humanities.  This class, which satisfies USC’s Humanistic Inquiry general education requirement, is taught by Professor Gustafson.  Because it’s a little difficult to have a hearty intellectual discussion with 76 students in the room, the department offers smaller discussion sessions led by TA’s (similarly, science courses have lab sections that are led by TA’s).  The TA’s also attend the lectures so that they know precisely what the students have already covered with the professor.

On the day I sat in on Julian’s session, the topic was anger as seen in Aeschylus’s Eumenides and Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go.  Throughout the hour, Julian posed questions to the students, and their responses tied ideas from the readings to everything from current political protests to the biochemistry of emotion.  Students referred back to previous readings, to their own self knowledge, and to lessons that covered in other courses such as psychology and philosophy.  These sessions not only give students the space to discuss material with their peers, it also produces opportunities for them to develop presentation skills.  This particular week, a student provided the historical context of classical Greek culture, diving into the impact of constant war on expressions and understanding of anger.  Her presentation ended with a question, which the class was able to use as another jumping off point.

In addition to guiding the discussion and unifying the readings into larger themes, Julian’s role as a TA is to acquire feedback on the course.  The students had recently turned in an assignment and, on the professor’s behalf, he solicited their opinions to see if it could be further improved for the next time the course is offered.  Outside of discussion sessions, TA’s are there to support students as they work on assignments, offering weekly office hours where students can clarify their understanding, work through new ideas, or receive feedback on their work before they turn it in.
Despite the fact that they are often dismissed in college info sessions, TA’s are kind of cool!  Future professors themselves, they are eager to help students learn and grow in a small group setting, and their blazer game is on point.  So when you hear that no courses are taught by TA’s, I encourage you to ask that follow up question: What do they do?