TA’ing as a TC Anthro Student

Teaching is often a quintessential part of the graduate student experience. At TC, finding a teaching assistant position can be intimidating and challenging because we usually have to go ‘across the street’ to find opportunities in departments that sometimes seem opaque and mysterious. Nevertheless, every semester, TC students in the TC anthro program take on jobs as TAs and bring their unique perspectives and knowledge to undergraduate students at Barnard and CU. In this blog post, we bring you some students’ reflections on their past and current experiences as Teaching Assistants and a little bit of advice on how to find similar opportunities yourself.

What classes have you TA’ed for?

Practicing Internationality with Dr. Renee Hill at Barnard

TA: Culture, Mental Health, and Healing in East Asia with Dr. Nicholas Bartlett, Educational Foundation with Lecturer Drew Chambers (Spring 2023) and Dr. Rachel Throop (Fall 2022) at Barnard; CA: Globalization, Mobility, and Education and Ethnographic Methods with Dr. Amina Tawasil and Language, Culture, and Politics with Dr. Nicholas Limerick at TC

TA: Culture, Mental Health, and Healing in East Asia with Dr. Nicholas Bartlett at Barnard and Origins of Human Society with Dr. Camilla Sturm at Columbia; CA: Ethnographic Methods with Dr. Amina Tawasil at TC

Intro to African American Studies with Dr. Josef Sorett at Columbia, and Practicing Intersectionality with Dr. Renée Hill at Barnard

Intro to comparative ethnic studies at Columbia with Bahia Munem and Urban Elsewheres with Dr. Nick Smith at Barnard

How did you find your position(s)?

I was lucky enough to be sought out by the Head TA for Practicing Intersectionality, Alicia, a doctoral student here in Anth and Ed at TC, who knew I could support the course well as a TA because of my background in Women’s and Gender Studies.

I was asked by the professor each time; they had reached out to faculty in our program who in turn recommended me. Once, another student in our program reached out to me; she was looking for someone to replace her because she couldn’t do it anymore, but I wasn’t available.

I knew I wanted to TA in my second year, so I went on the Columbia course catalog and found an intro class I was interested in and reached out to the professor who was teaching it. She directed me to the grad student coordinator in the Anthro department at Columbia who told me that they had to prioritize their own students’ placements before they consider hiring external TAs, but that they would keep me in mind. About a week later, she emailed me again asking if I was still interested and offered me a position with the professor I had initially emailed. That’s how I ended up with the Origins TA job. As for EAAS, my friend knew I was looking for another teaching position and that my research lined up with the content of the class. She very generously mentioned my name when she met with Professor Bartlett and he took me on!

Word of mouth from other students and professors.

Cold emailing professors and departments.

What advice would you give to students looking for TA positions?

Network! And don’t be afraid to apply/interview — even if you don’t get the position, it’s amazing practice!

Let your advisor/faculty in your program know that you are looking for opportunities, let faculty that you’ve taken classes know that you are looking for opportunities, let your classmates know you are looking for opportunities…basically be shameless about asking around.

Be patient! Everyone’s favorite thing to do in academia is wait until the last minute. Many professors and administrations won’t even know a TA is needed until a week or two before classes start. You’ll find that a ton of opportunities start coming out of the woodwork right at the beginning of the semester. That’s a great time to start cold emailing people and asking if they have any spots they need filling.

There’s no one way to find a TA position, but the more you get to know your classmates and professors, the easier it is to connect with people outside of your immediate academic community. Also, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to former professors and let them know that you’re interested in TAing for them in the future (or ask if they know of any positions opening).

Cold email as many people as possible. If you are a domestic student without work authorisation issues and visas to deal with, reach out to schools like NYU and CUNY too.

What was/is the hardest thing about TAing?

Learning to use some of the administrative technologies, like Courseworks/Canvas from the instructor side of things.

For me, it’s keeping up with the additional reading load given that we have so much to read for ourselves. It certainly helps to TA within your own topic/interest because then either they are things you’ve likely already read, they work as supplemental readings for you, or at least you have enough base knowledge that the readings are easy to understand or don’t take as much time to process. I’ve also thought of some of these courses as a way to “double up” so that maybe I won’t get a chance to take the class as a student later, but this way I at least get exposure to the topic in a slightly more passive way. It helps when the instructor is seasoned and comfortable with the syllabus and assignments. When they’re making it up as they go along or if it’s the first time they’re teaching (even if they’ve inherited rather than constructing a syllabus from scratch) it can be a little harder to plan your workload and they may ask for additional support to get organized.

Aside from the workload, I think figuring out how to make a classroom a good discussion environment has been the most challenging for me and is something I’m still figuring out. Both times I’ve TA’ed, I’ve had some sections that were awesome and always ready to discuss the readings with really insightful comments and some that were very difficult to get engaged. Some of the things that impact this are completely outside my control (the physical space of the classroom, the time of day, etc.) but others aren’t, and it can be hard to pinpoint what I can do to make it better. Luckily our program has lots of really bright folks who have a lot of experience teaching, so there’s always someone willing to give advice!

At first it was a little tricky establishing a balance between keeping up with my own classes while also maintaining my TA teaching responsibilities, but after a while it got easier. I found that making a weekly schedule for myself was helpful for keeping track of everything going on, however chaotic things got. That was especially useful for me when things got busier during midterms and finals.

Setting boundaries with students and faculty. I was volunteering a lot of my personal time working with students before exams and submissions, as well as helping students catch up on missed papers if they were sick or away. I feel like I gave more time than asked for in my job description because I wanted to help. That is something I would change if I did it all over again.

What did you like about TAing?

I love being in a classroom with students who are learning about things that I’m passionate about! It’s so fun to listen to lecture and to then be able to assist in discussion about important topics like intersectionality!

I love teaching. Even hard topics. Even topics I don’t know much about. I love the face-time with students and the opportunity to push people, especially from other disciplines, to think anthropologically. I love being a part of someone’s journey and I love being able to offer ways of thinking or approaching a topic that they might not have had access to in other spaces.

On a personal level, I really enjoyed working with my co-TA and the professor for Origins. It was kind of a wild semester with a lot of logistical challenges and a really heavy workload, but the three of us somehow always managed to find the humor in the chaos. As for the actual teaching part of it, I really love having a front row seat to students’ academic development as they engage with the course material. It’s so cool to watch their thinking and opinions transform over the semester. Also, undergrads are hilarious.

I LOVE TA’ing! It’s very fulfilling. It’s given me a chance to not only take a step back from being a full-time grad student, but to also step back into a classroom with so many bright students. Day after day, students bring unique and important perspectives to the content material, which continues to challenge me in a way that is different from the very theoretically based courses I’ve taken. I also appreciate the fact that the classes I’ve TA’d for, both past and present, also tie into my research interests, so it’s great to be able to learn more about topics that I wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to learn about elsewhere.

Teaching discussion sections and 1:1 office hours with students. I think it was amazing. These courses had a group of students with diverse majors who brought a very unique perspectives to my discussions. I was super lucky both times to be on courses that had intersections with anthropology and how it can be applied to different spaces, countries and cultures.

What did you learn from TAing?

I learned that there’s always more learning to do! I TA’d a similar class in undergrad and I always learned more, even on my fourth semester of TAing the course. This is true for TAing now at Barnard — there is always a new perspective or a new understanding you can learn from your students!

I think coaching students in a type of academic advisor role, helping them think about their assignments as part of a larger academic endeavor has been helpful in terms of being able to claim that experience in my CV and future job prospects. I’ve always done coaching/advising with students, but now I can say I did it with college students and learned the nuances of working in this space.

I’ve learned that, in a lot of ways, it’s easier to guide students through discussions about topics I don’t know as much about. When we’re discussing something I already have opinions on, it’s easy to get caught up in a sort of mini-lecture, but that’s not really the point of a discussion section. I’ve had to teach myself to take step back from the material and allow space for a multitude of perspectives so that students can puzzle out their viewpoints themselves.

I learned a lot! But, above all, as aforementioned, it is truly a fulfilling experience. It does take some time commitment, but it is definitely worth it. And, know that not everything will run smoothly, but ultimately, that’s the crux of teaching, and also where the learning happens- for both educators and students.

I think my two big takeaways were that 1. I found my unique voice when it came to teaching undergraduate students. I learned how to position myself when I was teaching them core concepts while also giving them the space to form their own opinions and analyses of other events and concepts. 2. Students in both these classes were not just learning but learning as a group which I feel like was something very new for me coming from a different educational context in my country, India, where learning at this level can be more individual even at an undergrad level. Creating discussion activities and quizzes in a way that engaged learning as a group holistically was amazing and a learning experience for me as a Teaching assistant.

Anything else you’d like to share about your experience?

It is a lot a responsibility — don’t be afraid to reach out to the other TAs for the course, the professor you’re working with, or even other faculty and staff in the department you’re TAing in. Someone is always ready and willing to help you out!

Because the financial renumeration of TA jobs will never match the labor involved, I think it’s important to leverage the opportunities for other benefits. Beyond it being a line on your CV, how else can this experience be helpful: How can I connect this course to my broader interests? How can a relationship with this instructor benefit me in the future (mentorship, letters of rec, networking for other opportunities)? How can working with students’ projects help me think through my own work? etc.

The relationships you form with the professors you TA for and your co-TAs are important, even if they’re not directly in your field or area of study. Allies and supporters of every kind are so beneficial when working through a graduate degree and there’s a good chance that those connections will turn into future opportunities.

I just recommend that anybody who is on the fence about stepping into a classroom- whether graduate or otherwise- look into TA’ing. Also, if anybody would like further information about TAing regarding the process and/or responsibilities, please feel free to contact me:)

Thank you to Ava Gustafson, Elena Sauceda-Peeples, Alicia Banks, and Bhavya Shyam for their contribution to this post. If you would like to be in touch with TC anthro students for further information about their TA experience, please contact Emily Bailey at efb2137@tc.columbia.edu


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