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Preparing TAs to Represent Their Discipline

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Interaction with a TA may constitute the total impression that an undergraduate has about what a particular discipline values, investigates, and contributes to human understanding. TAs are often the ambassadors of our disciplines, and we too often ignore this fact.


The posting below looks at the very important role TAs play in introducing undergraduates to the workings of their disciplines.  It is from Chapter 4 – Preparing Graduate Teaching Assistants for Special Challenges in Teaching, in the book, Working Efficiently with Graduate Assistants, by Jody D. Nyquist  and Donald H. Wulff . Published by Sage Publications, Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320, (800) 233-9936, Fax: (800) 417- 2466, Copyright © 1996 Sage Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Perpetually Silent Students

Tomorrow’s Research

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Preparing TAs to Represent Their Discipline

In institutions with graduate programs, it is the TA who most often introduces undergraduates to a discipline. Sometimes, the TA provides the student with his or her only experience with the discipline. Interaction with a TA may constitute the total impression that an undergraduate has about what a particular discipline values, investigates, and contributes to human understanding. TAs are often the ambassadors of our disciplines, and we too often ignore this fact. As Bondeson (1992) reminds us:

Simply put, we profess our discipline. We stand up and display an existential commitment to those disciplines, and, by our act of teaching them, we show that those disciplines are embodied in our own lives. Our commitment to our discipline is our way of saying to our students, as we profess, that it is worthy of their consideration and their time. … When we teach, we represent to our students the power and importance of our disciplines, the effects that they have had on our own lives, and the importance that they have for other human enterprises. At the moment we teach, we are the only connection between the rich tradition of our disciplines and the students before whom we stand. (p. 5)

Because your TAs are most often the “front line” or first instructors that undergraduates experience in your discipline, you must ask yourself whether the graduate students in your department, who daily interact with undergraduates, can do what Bondeson describes? Can they:

- Embody the discipline with their own lives?
- Place introductory courses within an entire curriculum, and within the discipline, so that they can help undergraduates understand that the course represents only one aspect of the study of XXXX?
- Explain the intellectual contribution of the discipline to the human enterprise?
- Identify the methodologies most useful in generating those intellectual contributions?
- Answer questions that undergraduates have about advanced study of the discipline, possible careers for which the discipline prepares a student, and other reasons for taking more courses in the discipline?

One possible way of approaching this challenge is to assist your graduate students directly to think about how they represent their discipline. Having your TAs fill out the form on the next page (Figure 4.1) and then leading a discussion among them can lead to rich responses and prepare them for this important task. The exercise works particularly well when graduate students are teaching sections of the same course.

Even if your TAs can place the contributions of a course within the discipline and the discipline within our larger knowledge of human understanding, can they then help undergraduates to share this understanding? Do they have a repertoire of methods and clear, simple language for doing so?

One way to ensure that they do is to allow them to practice on each other, rather than on their undergraduate students. Role-playing is a very positive and helpful way of building repertoire. The role-play on page 37 or a modification of it could be conducted with a group of TAs that shares the same responsibilities.

Representing Your Discipline

Discipline  __________________________________________

Course   __________________________________________

What are the basic building blocks of knowledge that you want undergraduates to master a result of participating in this lab session, quiz section, discussion section, office hour, writing of papers, field trip, studio, or course? (The question depends obviously upon the responsibilities of the TAs.)

How will your students be able to identify the relationships between those basic concepts that you have identified?

Once mastered, will your undergraduate students recognize how those basic concepts fit into the larger study of your discipline? What will they need to understand in order to do that?

What understanding will allow your students to recognize the contributions of your discipline to human understanding?

How can such concepts be learned most effectively by undergraduates? What approaches/methods will you use?

Figure 4.1. Form for Disciplinary Exercise


Goal:  To identify approaches you can use to represent the discipline to undergraduates.

1. Your challenge is to answer the questions, “What is X course about, how does it fit into the curriculum of discipline XXX, and how does discipline XXX fit with other disciplines? In addition, which methods are most typically used to study discipline XXX, which courses follow this particular one, and which possible careers follow from studying discipline XXX?”

2. Decide in your group how you will go about answering these questions for undergraduates. Develop a strategy upon which group members can agree.

3. Appoint a spokesperson who will role-play the group’s strategies. You have 15 minutes to complete this phase of the activity.

Figure 4.2. Role-Play: Representing Our Discipline

Role-Play Instructions for Supervisor

Divide the group into small groups of about four to five TAs. Pass out copies of the instructions for the exercise given in Figure 4.2. If you have a small number of TAs, they can work in pairs, or you can use the whole group to design a strategy. The TAs should have about 10 to 15 minutes to prepare, appoint a role player, and reconvene. At that time, you will instruct the large group to behave as undergraduate students, while each spokesperson in turn tries each group’s plan. Because the members of each group will act as coaches, the spokesperson does not need to feel pressured to “get it right.” If he or she becomes stuck, the group members can offer assistance. After each role-play, you can lead a discussion, asking such questions as:

- Did this approach help you to understand the course and its place within the discipline of XXX?
- Do you better understand the discipline of XXX and its contributions to the human enterprise?
- Was it clear to you what subsequent courses in the department would be appropriate for you to enroll in?

Even if they can competently answer questions about the discipline, do your TAs know when sharing such information is most appropriate? One guideline is that most undergraduates need to master elements of a particular course before they are apt to be interested in where that course fits into a curriculum and a field of study. We often observe TAs telling undergraduates on Day 1 all about the discipline and never talking with undergraduates about it again. Day 1 is when undergraduates are least likely to be able to assimilate such information. You can help your TAs by outlining with them an appropriate way to address such questions with undergraduates and the most effective time for providing such information.

Bondeson, William B., "Faculty Development and the New American Scholar" (1992). To Improve the Academy. 241.