Where Does the TA Fit In?

by Stephen D. Winick

October was a month of bad press for graduate student teachers, both at Penn and around the country. The October 28th edition of The Daily Pennsylvanian highlighted a front-page article complaining of the poor training our graduate student teachers receive. The very next day, they ran an anonymous editorial on the same theme, alongside another editorial column in which Sarah Giulian, a former student of mine, lambasted most of the teaching she received at Penn. On a national level, U. magazine ran an article in its October issue entitled "The Trouble with TAs," which argues that TAs are poorly trained and ill-prepared to teach at most colleges.

What is distressing about these articles, particularly the ones here at Penn, is not that they argue for improving teaching; we all agree with that. It is that they seem very much at odds with what I have learned about the University as a graduate student. While I do think that Penn's teachers could use more training, I do not think the situation is as dire as the recent press has made it sound. Among my peers, I have come to know many good teachers, and a few really excellent ones. Indeed, most of the graduate students I know are serious about their commitment to teaching. Why, then, is there a feeling among undergraduates that TAs are inadequate?

Part of the answer lies in the difference between being a graduate student and being a teacher of undergraduates. In our capacity as students, we are supposed to learn, assimilate and process a lot of material into complex patterns, difficult and subtle arguments. We carry this instinct over to the courses we teach, spending a lot of time preparing the material, but not enough time thinking about teaching. Instead of planning interesting exercises or new ways to get a message across, we are often concerned with figuring out what the message is going to be. Our focus becomes information rather than communication.

Our challenge is to find a manageable message while also building a teaching agenda, deciding on teaching strategies and planning useful classroom time. These are issues our graduate student careers don't prepare us for. Although published sources that could help us with our teaching exist, doing this research from scratch takes more time than many of us can spare.

What we need is a guide who will discuss teaching ideas and strategies, recommend books and articles that contain essential teaching tips, and show us where to find a useful film, an interesting exercise, or an innovative classroom strategy. This guide should have knowledge of where to find teaching resources at Penn and enthusiasm for sharing this information with other teachers.

The Graduate Student Teaching Resource Network was established in January 1996 to fulfill exactly this role. A joint effort supported equally by graduate students (through the Graduate Student Associations Council) and administration (through the Vice Provost for Graduate Education), the Graduate Student Teaching Resource Network aims to address some of the concerns raised both by TAs and by the students they teach. We want to improve graduate student teaching, not so much by increasing the number of training workshops and exercises given to graduate students, but by supplementing training with year-round self-motivated learning through making the proper resources available and attractive.

Currently, the network has funding for one half-time employee and a small office. With such limited resources, our activities have to be largely "virtual." Luckily, Penn already has many fine resources for teacher development in place; our job is to coordinate and publicize them. We aim to provide "one-stop shopping" for graduate student teachers. Some of our ongoing projects include:

Some of our future plans include:

Penn's graduate students are dedicated, intelligent, articulate, and imaginative. All we need to be great teachers is some guidance and some effort. The Network is here to offer that guidance, to encourage that effort. If we succeed, the DP will soon be running articles praising the prowess of the Penn TA.

The Graduate Student Teaching Resource Network welcomes suggestions from students, faculty and staff. Please visit our WWW site at From there, you can find read our latest news and send us email with your suggestions.

Talk About Teaching is a monthly series presented by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society.

Mr. Winick is a doctoral candidate in Folklore and Folklife, director of the Graduate Student Teaching Resource Network, and a member of the executive board of the Graduate Student Associations Council.


Volume 43 Number 14
December 3, 1996

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