Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Former TA's Musings - 1

It was six years ago that I found myself in a small room on the 4th floor of a dark gray building on our university campus. With me, seated around the table, were a few other students, all of us undergoing the one hour mandatory TA prep class. Our instructor, a very old, librarian-type woman, with her hair in a bun (with a pin to boot) and sporting huge glasses, told us about cultural sensitivity, multimedia presentations and understanding marking schemes. Then came the issue of sexual harrassment.

"Yes, yes." I thought, bored. "See a pretty girl in your class. Remember you are the TA. Be good. Or get sued. Easy."

".. so in other words, this is how you can deal with if you are sexually harrassed," the instructor was saying.

Wait a minute, I thought. Someone is going to try and harrass me?

I actually said so. It was one of those times when my mouth has a mind of its own and goes motoring off before I can raise my hand and clamp it shut.

The instructor just peered at me, her glasses magnifying her eyes, and said "Well, sir, when you become an instructor you are in a position of power."

O-kay. I relegated that fact to the back of my mind. Although being an introvert, and raised in the middle east, by my second year of college I was the editor of the paper, president of the local chapter of Bangladesh Students Association, member of our intramural cricket team, and bonafide volunteer for the Co-op Students Association. I was sure I could handle, um, girls. However, it took ten minutes after my first class ended that I encountered the TPWs.

TPWs are Teacher's Pet Wannabes. They are usually of the feminine gender. They smile at the teacher at all times (even at 8 am morning classes), sit on the first row, and then follow the teacher to the office, where they engage in useless discussions of the mundane. One of them may throw a mandatory question of why I supercast an object in line 10 of the sample code, but that would be it for the hour. Their objective - the instructor should know their name (and their "friendly" nature) when grading the papers, and thus be lenient.

In university, the secret is that for most courses, the TAs grade the papers, not the professors. Thus in first week of classes, the TAs don't get the attention of TPWs; it's only after the first assignment that TPWs become aware of the TA. However, I was teaching Intro to Computer Science to a class of business students who were presumably smarter than the rest of the freshmen.

Ten minutes after my first class ended, I was sitting in the cafeteria along with a friend.

"There you are," Said the first of the TPWs. She was an extremely tall, svelte, Spanish girl [as an aside I don't know why the US has a problem with Latina immigration - just restrict the men and let the women come]. "I was wondering what your name meant. It's such an exotic name."

This, coming from a person whose name was Guiconda Anna Maria Lopez or something like that.

The next one was even more blunt.

"You teach really well." Said the Indian chick. "I was in the other tutorial and I could hardly follow the TA. Ebhen his accentt was baaaad."

"You should be the prof." This was after the second week, when I had announced assignments were due and I was going to mark them.

I taught two classes, each twice a week. Of the combined 60 or so students, only 9 were guys. 3 were a sign of Qiyamat (or in other words, I couldn't tell their gender). The rest - all girls. Ofcourse all the attention lasted only four weeks until I had returned two assignments, graded.

I actually got an email from the prof - "I was checking the marks from various tutorials and your marks are closest to what the average should be - which implies you are neither marking too harshly nor too leniently. Keep it up."

Ofcourse the TPWs didn't see it that way. However, I had a marking scheme and I followed it rigorously. "Cold fish," I imagine what one of them would call me behind my back.

Ultimately, what was most rewarding about my TAship for two years was not the money (though it was very, very good) but the fact that at the end of the term my professor called me up to the office.

She pointed at a bunch of papers.

"These are your class evaluations. This is how I decide which TA to hire. Look at yours."

They were anonymously filled, ofcourse, but I recognized some of the handwritings in the 'other comments' section.

Not one single bad comment. All of them were highly satisfied with my teaching. Most had ticked the 'excellent' box, some had even written 'should TA more courses'. Ultimately, the TPWs decided to hang on in my class, and recommend me, not because of my marks, but because of how I taught. And when I recall my TA days, as I now begin the process of applying for further studies and think of reapplying to be a TA again, the fact that I most enjoyed about TAing was the teaching, the challenge, and ultimately the fact that some of my former students still mantain contact with me.

Though, sadly, not Ms. Lopez.



Crimson Mouzi said...

hahaha! I can't write about my TA experience on my blog as I am NOT anonymous and I guess I have dropped enough hints about which school I go to! So, I will have to wait a few years before I can write something like you did! However I wanted to share my story to say that TPWs are NOT always females. Or maybe it's because I am a female TA and the TPWs have to be the males.
Example one: I was at the Faculty Club dinner, a very elite thing where you try to make connection for good stuff. Most kids recognized me as I had already run a session. This Indian guy comes and offers his hand and I was caught so off guard that I shook my hand.. now the problem begins... he doesn't let go off my hand.. "you are my TA! You do rocket science, you will save my life." i was like, I don't do rocket science. Don't worry too much about these things. What is your major? He goes, "I just graduated from Med school in India, very average kind of stuff... don't know much". I was like what the heck!!! And yeah LET GO MY HAND!!!! He was like email me, I have research stuff going on in Bangladesh... blah blah... and the same night I got an email from him. HAHA.. he stopped as soon as he realized he was not in my section anymore... muhahahah!

Second example: After having a long day I was having lunch at around 4pm. Man, I was sitting there and this guy comes, "you are my TA!" I was like heck I don't even recognize his face. He goes, "I am really worried about this class. I have lots of questions." I was like, well, there will be office hours and stuff. DO you have any specific question? "No I will read the stuff over the weekend and come back"
All right, I find this group a lot, "just to let you know, I will have questions."
And then there is always this "Pakistani guys" group. Oh Lord!

But, I really like TA-ing. I spend my days crunching numbers and proving theorems and feeling stupid. And TA-ing makes feel I am not the dumbest one in the world. It's a good feeling. all right, back to homework and preparing lesson!!

Em said...


"...3 were a sign of Qiamat..."

AHAHAHAHA!!! Classic.

'liya said...

Uh oH .. I have a lot of TPWs of the MALE kind .. the females compliment me on my hair, clothes, the list goes on. But the males..

I know where you're coming from. Wait till they get their first quiz back. I just finished marking them today, and well, they aren't the best.


Aisha said...

LOL. Hiarious post.

In defense of those whome you label TPW. I tell teachers when they've done well. As a former teacher I think its good that good teachers know. I hope they didn't take it as me sucking up. I really wasn't. I know that as a teacher it meant a lot to me if someone gave me sincere praise and I wanted to reciprocate.

I wonder how many guys are walking around laughing about the time the TPW tried to get a good grade.

In my defense, we do anonymous grading so no complimenting would yeild results.

Furthermore I mostly complimented female teachers for the very reason I hesitated wondering if male teachers may take it the wrong way.

mezba said...

MFH. You are a hijabi, right? And he still took your hand and didn't let go? Wow. Ya, I know what you mean about 'I hav a qn' guys. First year, that used to be me! Never could be bothered with following up though.

Em. hehe. When they say Toronto is as, um, 'colorful' as San Francisco, they ain't joking.

Liya: it's always until the marks, isn't it. If only they knew.

Aisha. Don't worry, TAs can usually tell who is fishing for a mark and who is giving a genuine compliment. They are usually interested in what is being taught, will not hesitate to correct the TA (in private) and keeps us on our toes. If the class is smart you enjoy teaching!

Crimson Mouzi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
sonia said...

oh sounds worrying! what a lot of pesky people.