Memoirs of a Graduate Teaching Assistant

The relationship that a professor and a Teaching assistant share is similar to that of Batman and Robin, helping each other tackling challenging situations. A teaching assistant(TA) usually assists a teacher with grading and daily tasks associated with teaching a course. Teaching assistants can be or various types, such as Graduate Teaching Assistant(GTA), Undergraduate Teaching Assistant(UTA) and Teaching Assistants for students with learning disabilities. A teaching assistant plays many roles besides grading the students, they guide students, solve their issues related to the course and even motivate them to go on in many cases.

I have taken the role of a graduate teaching assistant and a lab instructor multiple times in the past few years of my graduate education and I have plethora of experiences to share. Being a TA is not at all an easy job, especially with the pressure of being fair to every student and doing justice to your responsibilities. One of the issues a TA faces is “How to react?” It is almost like walking on a tight rope, because you need to put your point forward in an effective manner without offending the students, and in the past I have had students behaving inappropriately. Tackling such students, I had to be polite and politically correct at all times while maintaining my stance for the issues.

There was another case where one of the students came to my office hours and tried to get the answer itself. I tried to guide him step by step, making sure that I do not give out the answer, which led frustration to build up from the student’s side. He was not wanting to learn, instead just wanted the answer, and this eventually led him to bang his laptop and leave. I feel its very important to stand by your decision because you need to be fair to other students. Adding to that, I would like to say that to maintain fairness, if you fix something for one student, you must fix it for the rest of the class.

Being a lab instructor is more difficult than being a TA because you need to perform the experiments and make sure all equipment is working right before the class, so that students do not face any issues during the class. One must also be aware of possible errors students can make, which often comes with experience, so that learning is uninterrupted. In my case, when I was an instructor for an electrical lab, initially I was overwhelmed with the responsibilities and was not ready with instant answers for the students. Gradually, when I learned with the students, I was able to help them out better and that is what reflected in my evaluations at the end of the class.  I was really happy that I was able to make progress and students appreciated it.

Sometimes, TAs also need to substitute for their professor’s class and it is not easy because TAs have big shoes to fill. TAs need to prepare for the class with presentations, lecture notes and exercise prompts to make sure the lecture goes smoothly. Once the preparation is done, the TAs need to overcome the fear of lecturing the students followed by preparing for questions students might raise and how to tackle a question that one doesn’t know the answer to. Overall, my experience with taking up substitute classes has been positive but I have had my share of roadblocks while lecturing students.

Lastly, I would like to talk about being a TA during the pandemic. In-person interaction made it easier for the TAs to handle office-hours and students’ concerns but the pandemic has affected the way student-TA interactions occur. Even though I have been a TA for a few MIT courses (mostly online courses) even before the pandemic, I feel that the number of emails you need to answer and conducting the office hours online is not as good as synchronous interaction with the students. I would like to encourage all TAs to maintain their calm and avoid burnout over excessive emails and Zoom fatigue especially with a large class.

Critical Pedagogy: An Ode to Paulo Freire

As you can see, most education systems around the world are based on the one-size fits-all philosophy and rob students of their creativity and ability to view and evaluate problems critically. It is all the more prevalent in oppressed communities who have limited access to quality education. According to K12 Academics, “Critical pedagogy is a teaching approach which attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate. In other words, it is a theory and practice of helping students achieve critical consciousness. ” Critical Pedagogy incorporates social elements into teaching and appeals to students to break free from oppressive teaching environments allowing them to harness their abilities to the fullest. Let’s look into how Critical Pedagogy was invented and Paulo Freire’s motivation behind it in the following video.

We can clearly see that Paulo in his childhood was the recipient of oppression due to poverty, detrimental to his learning. This served as a motivation for Paulo to breakthrough the norms of society and learn, and finally develop Critical Pedagogy, a form of teaching that takes into account the social status of the students to create experiences that are unique. He also compares the currents education system as the banking model where students are considered as passive empty receptacles to be filled by the wise all knowing teacher, also comparing the teacher-student relation to that of an oppressor and the oppressed respectively. Freire believes that teachers and students should have a similar status and learning must occur both ways.

I totally agree with this school of thought because if the teacher takes a higher role, students may not be able to connect to the teacher and learning may not occur. If the teacher caters to the needs of the students in a way that they can understand and relate to, learning will occur, also giving the teacher an opportunity to learn from the experience. Freire believes that education is fundamentally an act of love because the factors essential for education are solidarity, equal footing and mutual respect, that will eventually help students to be aware of socio-economic disparities, motivating them to alleviate the situation. Listen to the powerful TED talk by Nicole West-Burns on Building “Critical Consciousness for Educational Equity”, below.

She starts off by comparing ‘Equality’ and ‘Equity’, wherein she states that ‘Equality’ means giving everyone the same thing whereas ‘Equity’ means giving people what they need. The need for equity arises from the fact that there are people in the society that are privileged and others who are marginalized. This calls for rethinking experiences in education as well, to cater to the needs of the children especially the ones who are left out due to the norms of the society. I felt despair listening to her example about a lesson on static electricity and how some of the students felt left out because their hair was different from the others. This also made her realize the pain that her daughter felt when she was unable to learn because of a similar incident. This definitely demands critical analysis of our educational techniques to make sure students do not feel marginalized. The talk demonstrates the need to adopt Freire’s philosophy of Critical Pedagogy and advocates equity in the education system.

At the end, I would like to state that the issue of oppression and marginalization in education is real and needs a solid solution inspired by the ideology of Paulo Freire on Critical Pedagogy.


In The Future I Will ______________: The Future Of Universities

In the future, I will try to change how universities teach, to make students better prepared for the industry. The need to transform courses to meet the expectations of the industry is real and it is fueled all the more by the unrealistic expectations or standards set by the industry. The chicken and egg problem here is that, even for entry level positions, employers demand experience, but how does one gain experience without a job? The problem is that firms these days do not want to invest on training because experienced professionals are readily available, causing higher unemployment rates among fresh graduates. This is partly because of unrealistic industry standards and timelines, but universities do play a role in this as well.

Courses taught at universities are not particularly targeted towards skill development, because of lack of practical experience. If courses try to incorporate real-life industry based situations or case based learning in other words, things will start improving. Besides that, universities must promote industrial collaboration so that students get an insight into how things really work. This will also instill confidence among members of the industry with respect to hiring fresh graduates. This in turn will attract more investment in the universities for preparing students to be ready for the challenges ahead.

For example, in case of Computer Science or Computer Engineering, once students are done taking basic courses, there should be a course available, that wraps up the knowledge of all the courses to build a website for example, covering backend, frontend and database aspects of the discipline. This not only provides students with a hands-on experience, employing Project-Based Learning, but also sums up the usage of their previous knowledge.

The other side of the coin in this case is credential requirement inflation. Firms need to lower their requirements for entry level jobs so that fresh graduates stand a chance against experienced professionals. For firms to do this, universities will have to directly cater to their needs by tailoring courses according to industry standards. This does not mean that universities neglect the academic aspect, since not everyone is inclined towards industry and pedagogy is as important as the practical aspect.

At the end, I would like to conclude that universities and the industry should work hand-in-hand to nurture a system of education that benefits the community as a whole, promoting skill development and improving employability for fresh graduates.