The position of graduate teaching assistant has long served a variety of purposes in higher education, from subsidizing the high cost of a graduate degree to providing essential teaching work. , from granting professors at research institutes more time for research and scholarship to providing graduate students with on-the-job training. Each goal is essential, but the last one often happens unintentionally or unstructured.
Many graduate students are reluctant teaching assistants, although teaching assistantships are the primary type of financial support offered by many graduate programs. When we surveyed funded graduate students during our orientations to determine whether they would prefer to be teaching assistants or research assistants (if given the choice), the overwhelming majority said research assistants.
New graduate students tend to view teaching, or the range of teaching work assigned to teaching assistants, as socially complex and emotionally taxing work – work they may feel ill-equipped in terms of knowledge and skills and who will subject them to the judgments of undergraduate students. . They are right, of course. Experienced instructors understand that teaching is all of that, requiring continuous reflection, reassessment, and reinvention.
So, during our university’s orientation for new teaching assistants, we offer a session called TA-ing Your Way to Academic and Career Success. This session is designed to help them make the connection between their teaching tasks and their roles as student-researchers, their own well-being and that of others, their TA experiences and their career paths. Most are surprised to learn that the coveted career of professors has become the alternative career path for a growing number of PhDs as the lines of professors in many disciplines dwindle.
As Leonard Cassuto and others have pointed out, a consequence of changes to the Ph.D. career landscape is that assistantship is no longer primarily an apprenticeship. While the teaching work for which teaching assistants are hired needs to be done, emphasizing or reconceptualizing assistantship as a source of transferable skills within and beyond academia will help students and graduate programs to meet today’s Ph.D. challenges. labor markets.
Make professional development explicit in teaching
What does the shift from assistantship to professional development require of teachers and teaching assistants? Above all, it requires attention and intentionality. Just as effective professional development can be integrated into the graduate program without diminishing program content, a broader range of professional development can also be integrated into assistantships.
Teaching assistants already acquire an impressive range of transferable skills when engaged in teaching work, although neither they nor their educational advisors realize the extent of it. There is very little discussion in academia about identifying and articulating these skills. Rather, the work we do is often masked under the rigid categories of teaching, research, and service. Such a reductive outlook can be a barrier for graduate students exploring and pursuing careers beyond tenure.
Not so long ago, the word “competence” has been avoided in higher education, especially in the humanities. But the move toward identifying transferable skills has been a vital professional development opportunity for graduate students to begin to decompress and articulate the range of skills they actually use every day in graduate school.
Karen Kelsky, in her book The teacher is inside, and other career consultants have listed many common transferable skills that graduate students develop from teaching, such as motivating individuals and groups, organizing purposeful meetings, effectively using retrograde design, sharing constructive feedback, and identifying and cultivating an individual’s strengths – the list goes on. Although these skills may seem obvious in a list, they are often hidden in practice.
Graduate student roles as lead instructors, recitation and lab leaders, and assessors help them develop much-needed professional skills. The heart of them is the ability to communicate effectively. Professional development initiatives for graduate students often point to public research presentations, such as the three-minute thesis, as a way to hone communication skills. But teaching is also an activity with process, results and impact that can and should be communicated publicly.
Teaching challenges us to make our content compelling through storytelling. It forces us to inspire curiosity. It rewards us for keeping our emotional intelligence strong. But the art of teaching is often hidden, as teaching is lumped into an isolated category within an academic portfolio. When graduate students are challenged to reflect on how their teaching practices hone their communication skills, the veil is lifted and they can see more clearly how teaching is a communicative art.
Communicating Complexity and Practicing Reflectivity
When teaching new learners in our disciplines, the depth and breadth of our disciplinary knowledge can be both a blessing and a curse. Developing the habit of imagining what it was like to be novice learners forces us to shift our mindsets and practices to teach from a place of empathy. The art here is also that of distilling complex information into a form that students with varying levels of knowledge and preparation can understand and apply. Communicating complexity to a diverse audience while guiding that audience toward the goal of understanding is the key to success in any career. This skill alone can help set teaching assistants apart in their professional job searches.
The perceptual ability to discern different degrees of understanding is also a valuable skill that teaching develops. Teaching the content, practices, and habits of mind of a discipline requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, particularly in self-awareness and perception. As instructors, we often read non-verbal expressions on our students’ faces. Many of us realized how much we relied on this non-verbal communication when we switched to Zoom and were often faced with a set of empty boxes instead of student faces. The high degree to which we use our ability to read students’ facial expressions and body language to assess understanding and engagement has been highlighted during the pandemic.
It is within these teaching experiences that graduate students can grow and hone their communication skills. To help stimulate this growth, TA counselors or supervisors can encourage critical reflection in teaching practice. Keeping a teaching journal, for example, gives students a space to determine where gaps in their instructional communications are and how they can adapt their teaching practices to address those gaps and improve student learning.
Providing graduate students with the opportunity to hone their communication skills through practice sessions in supportive environments is also essential. Micro-teaching exercises are a common way to achieve this. Teaching assistants may find these approximately 10-minute mini-lessons particularly useful if they involve an interdisciplinary audience, such as in college- or university-wide orientations. They receive feedback from a wide range of peers acting as undergraduates, as well as an experienced teacher in the room, and come away with a video recording to help them see and reflect on their practices of communication and body language. Faculty may consider hosting versions of micro-teaching sessions throughout the academic year for all teaching assistants to continue practicing the art of storytelling, distilling complex disciplinary concepts, and hone emotional intelligence to determine engagement and understanding.
Three years ago, in order to bring more campus-wide attention to the exciting and innovative teaching that teaching assistants do, our graduate school and our Center for the Improvement of Learning and teaching have teamed up to launch GradTeach Live!, a teaching-focused counterpart to the global success, research-driven, three-minute thesis competition. GradTeach live! challenges teaching assistants to concisely and engagingly describe a key component of their teaching philosophy and demonstrate or illustrate how they implement that component in their classrooms or labs. Professors, teaching assistants, and administrators are the intended audience, rather than the audience or newbie audience of 3MT, but the skills practiced are all nonetheless transferable across career paths.
The doctoral school is a melting pot where students overcome challenges and forge intellectual habits. While teaching assistants are on the front line and can often feel beleaguered and undervalued, they can and should have ongoing opportunities to develop the lasting skills they will bring with them into what will likely be a portfolio of diverse and demanding work ahead.