What can the Undergrads teach you?

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @kipunsam.daily

Being a teacher’s assistant (TA) can be hard work. As a TA you’re a font of knowledge, the solution to their problems and the keeper of their GPA. You’re also figuring out things as you go, putting out fires as they happen (hopefully figuratively!) and generally trying to keep up the aura of authority. So whether you are lecturing in a seminar, running tutorials or supervising a lab, like me, it’s as much as learning experience as a teaching experience.

So what have my students taught me? Well, I think you learn different things depending on what kind of teaching you are doing. Fannie described her experience leading seminars and I can only speak to my experience as a TA for a lab course, but here are a few lessons I’ve learned. (more…)

Goodbye, students from my conferences!

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @kipunsam.daily

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @kipunsam.daily

For the second time in my life, I was a TA. For 10 weeks, I had to read the assign articles and books of a class and prepare questions in order for students to discuss in the conferences.

Last year I wanted to die because I didn’t even know what conferences were supposed to be (I never had that kind of activities at the University of Montreal), and I had to entertain twenty young students in English.

This year, I was more comfortable. Still stressed, but less. Ouf!

I met incredible students, opened to the world, expert-to-be in their own field, nice and funny. Some were really helpful, correcting my English pronunciation or translating for me. Some encouraged me by their smile. It was really, at least I hope, a multidirectional exchange of knowledge.

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Styles of teaching: a typology of teaching assistants based on the TV series “Scrubs”

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Characters from the show “Scrubs”.
Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrubs_%28TV_series%29

This week they start again: “conferences”, which, in the Arts Faculty lingo, refer to smaller classes that give undergraduates the opportunity to discuss course readings and assignments. These conferences are led by teaching assistants, usually graduate students from the relevant faculty, who guide discussions and answer questions.

Conferences can be pretty demanding, and how TAs cope with the vagaries of teaching life varies. Having been a TA for a while, I have come to realise (imagine?) that the various “types” of TAs around match the wide variety of characters that the relatively famous (and brilliant!) American medical comedy series “Scrubs” puts on display. The series’ characters are all odd in their own ways, much like us TAs, and all get to teach doctors more junior than them, a task they carry out in a variety of styles. So, want to know what kind of TA you are (or have in front of you)? Read on for an introduction to the staff of the hospital! (pardon: the university).

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How this Grad Life Blog is useful for Grad Life (but doesn’t solve all problems)

GRAPH 1Some weeks ago, Guillaume wrote a nice post about the challenges and puzzles that grading can bring up. Amongst his many good points, he noted that a grade is a fairly reductive, one-dimensional assessment of the many dimensions along which the quality of an assignment can vary. I absolutely agree, and it’s made me re-think how I grade a little.

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Does teaching matter?

I’ve written about teaching already this year, and I find myself writing about it again now, in the hopes of getting some opinions from other grad students.

I’ve been the teaching assistant for a lab the past few years. When the powers that be restructured the lab in a major way last year, I made some fairly significant contributions to its new format, in terms of the material being taught and how it was presented. I am tweaking things even more this term, based on feedback from last year’s students and on some new pedagogical approaches I’ve learned.

I think that the current labs are definitely better but not best, and would really benefit from a thoughtful and thorough revision and updating. So I got this idea that I would approach the chair of our department and offer my (paid) services to do the work, perhaps over the summer since my field component won’t be so heavy this year. Not knowing whether this was even remotely feasible, I went and spoke to my advisor and told him my idea.

I mostly expected him to say: “It’s not really appropriate for a student to take on that kind of role,” and I would have accepted that. If that didn’t happen, the alternative I’d imagined was something like, “Cool. This would be a great course development/teaching experience. Approach the chair and check it out, but make sure you’re still getting your research/publications done in a timely way,” which I would have perceived as both awesome and perfectly reasonable.

But what I heard, and what surprised me, was this: “No one reading your CV is going to care about something like that. It’s not a good use of your time. Write and publish papers. That’s really all that matters.***”

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Gradlife: Being a Teaching Assistant (TA) at McGill

Georges Choundohas helping two students

Being a TA forms an integrated part of my life as a grad student and has been one among my best and most cherished memories at Macdonald Campus. Though some considered doing the same course repeatedly over semesters boring, every semester felt like a completely new and enriching experience for me for a number of reasons:
1. New minds to shape with group of students exhibiting different pre-cognitive perceptions
2. It is stimulating to observe how new students familiarize themselves with laboratory settings and enhance their skills as the labs grow progressively more challenging.
3. Most of the times, this experience is rewarding with students saying or giving Thank You cards at the end stating how happy they’ve been to experience the Biochemistry Labs.

The twins


Interestingly, this semester, a new lab was designed and incorporated in the biochemistry lab manual – DNA Extraction. Simple in the process, part of the lab involved crushing strawberries and using kitchen chemicals such as liquid soap, water and sea salt as extraction buffer to coax DNA from its confinements.

Though sceptical at first that DNA can be extracted from strawberries with simple kitchen chemicals, at the end of the lab, the students were beaming as the thin, thread-like DNA aggregated in the ethanol layer. Excited comments resounded in the usually quiet lab:

“Oh My God, there’s DNA…?”

“I guess it’s the soap which has maybe weakened the phospholipid bilayer of the cell membrane…what could be the role of salt?”

“I can’t believe this is DNA…”

“It’s so gel-like …”

For me, it has been equally exciting to observe students standing at the realms of their own “discovery” with eyes glittering in awe, and brains actively trying to locate the how and why of biochemical processes.

As far as I can remember, while I walked down the lab answering questions, instructing good laboratory techniques and verifying results, boring has never been my sentiments. Though it is with great sadness I’m saying adieu to my cherished biochemistry labs and warm animal science department, these labs will always hold a special place in my heart as because of my TA experiences, I discovered my passion to shape young minds in science and I am looking forward to carry research in making science education more accessible for all students…

I hope being a TA has transformed your life too.

Neerusha Gokool Baurhoo

Grad Students of McGill, You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains

At the end of my third year as a doctoral student my funding ran out.  I have lived in a beautiful apartment in Villeray for 40 continuous months.  I didn’t want to lose my spacious digs.  Hardwood floors, an extra bedroom that I use as a ‘home office,’ newly renovated everything (including Ikea kitchen): this is the best place I’ve ever lived in.  It’s also the most rent I’ve ever had to pay by myself, but I’ve done it with the help of a few TA jobs on the side.  My funding package was modest, nothing special or elite, just some good hard headed budgeting and a lot of hard work and I was OK.

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