Greetings, my friends!
I’m supposed to be researching Egbert Benson, Jr., Columbia College class of 1807, right now, but I’m at a tech rehearsal for Orchesis (the dance group), and alas—this kind of work requires a good deal more concentration than I have. So, what better way to spend my time than to write a blog post, right?
On the agenda tonight: the much-discussed Teacher’s Assistant (TA). TAs tend to be under-appreciated in the search for the perfect college, but today I stand before you as an avowed TA fan.
In all seriousness, though, I’ve had nothing but very positive experiences with my TAs. In a moment, I’ll give you a few examples of how awesome they can be, but first—the logistics. Barnard’s classes are all taught by professors who are experts in their fields and dedicated to teaching undergraduates. TAs are responsible for filling in all of the other spaces in the college’s academic structure: they lead the discussion sections and lab sections that accompany larger lectures, they hold extra office hours and help rooms, and they help grade assignments.
The thing is, though, that TAs are really cool. For one thing, with a few exceptions, they are upperclass Barnard students or Columbia graduate students in the field, so they really know what they are talking about. They are in the midst of independent research or preparing for oral exams and writing their dissertations, so they have lots of valuable ideas about how to be a student (how to find sources, how to read books efficiently) as well as strictly content-based ones. But perhaps most importantly, they are much closer than faculty to their undergraduate experiences, so they understand how we think sometimes better than profs do. We take a lot of classes on a very wide range of topics, we participate in lots of extracurricular activities, and we are young and (apparently) like to socialize on the weekends. Because TAs remember these things about being an undergrad, they are very practical and understanding: they are flexible about deadlines. They’ll actually discuss the concrete aspects of upcoming exams. And almost across the board they are passionate about their fields and about teaching.
So, now, here are two examples of awesome TAs I’ve had. I’m afraid they’re both from history classes, but I’ve also had really great Latin, physics, linguistics, and English TAs.
US Intellectual History. I had a TA for US Intellectual History my first semester here who absolutely changed the way I thought about history and the attitude with which I approached TA-led discussions. In leading discussions, he would just launch us on a topic and let us go. The conversation (or heated debate, depending on the day) would range over the multiple readings and lectures for the week and would draw upon past readings, with each student contributing thoughts, feelings, and passionate arguments as we felt moved to do. He never made us feel that we needed to please him or measure up to some arbitrary participation quota, so our weekly meetings felt more like an intellectual coffee break with brilliant friends than a required recitation session. I honestly can’t imagine what more he could have done.
History of the South. So this one is hot off the presses: I have such an incredible TA for my History of the South class. She’s tough in that she knows her stuff and she is not going to tolerate sloppy work or half-completed readings. But we’re not going to college to not do work, so I frankly appreciate her seriousness. And equally impressive (and equally wonderful) is her willingness to work with each student to make sure that the class feels valuable. For example, at the beginning of the semester we were given an assignment for a final paper. I wrote the proposal for mine on a topic that fell slightly outside of the boundaries established by the prompt: I wanted to look at Faulkner as part of the history of the American South, so it fell more within the realm of intellectual history than the professor wanted. But instead of completely rejecting my idea, my TA suggested that we meet to discuss alternatives. She asked me about my ideas for life after college (graduate school in history) and my areas of interest (US cultural and intellectual history). She then proceeded to talk to her grad student friends who were interested in those fields, since she is a labor historian rather than a cultural one, and come up with a completely different assignment for me. We’ve been meeting weekly to discuss my (very challenging) project, and she has been nothing but help and enthusiasm. She is eager to share tips and discuss what a doctoral program is like and talk about my other classes. Plus, I am now armed with an essay that I feel to be genuinely important and can use in preparing to apply to graduate school. Like with the TA discussed above, I couldn’t ask for more.
Since my experiences with TAs so far have mostly been in Columbia classes, I also recommend checking out a post from last year’s blog, written by an alumna who actually got the chance to be a Barnard TA as an undergrad!
I suppose that that’s about it. I have papers to write and Virgil to translate! But please don’t hesitate to email me about TAs, history, or anything else! (You know how I love talking about them :)
Chloe Hawkey ’16