On Teaching Assistant-ing

When I was a kid there were people who still claimed that television is one devil of an invention, the perfect tool for wasting your life away, an idiot box. Opponents argued that TV can be used for just entertainment, education, and information (three purposes a TV serves according to our grade 4 curriculum), and it’s up to us to determine its purpose. A decade later a similar argument is being made about Google, that it’s making people stupid. I have argued in favour of this argument connecting dots between vague psychological, philosophical and statistical references. And now I add to it personal experience of being a TA to first-year university students. They were probably born in 1996/1997 – a generation used to having information at their fingertips and notorious for sense of entitlement. I remember not being too enthusiastic at the thoughts of lab reports and assignments but we did have the humility to accept that as students it is our duty to work hard, to put in effort, to try on our own before succumbing to help. These kids make no qualms about it; there were some who shamelessly asked me what to do with ‘these numbers’, posed questions clearly spelled out in their lab manuals, sent emails at 2:30 am, 9.5 hours before the lab report was due blatantly asking (with puppy eyes I always imagined) what to do.

There was another decadent conclusion I had reached about academia during my undergrad years: universities are no place for the pursuit of knowledge, at least undergrad education is a machine to mass produce workers for industry – which was fortified as a TA. Lab reports, assignments, quizzes, midterms – students just want to know what they are expected to know so they can know it. Any other floating piece of knowledge is useless. Observation is overrated, just tell me the words I need to paraphrase and let me go!!! No budding scientists here, they just want to get through the term and not see their $$$ vapourize into thin air.

VISUALS MATTER! A lot! My marking sprees went something like this: “Look at this nicely formatted report and I can see this one miscalculation/incorrect assumption lead to the incorrect answer, it’s a minus one” or “This jumble of words and symbols and equations is an eyesore and giving me a headache. This s*** ain’t worth losing my health over, minus five!” I have been guilty of having that attitude, content matters, presentation doesn’t, and being on the other side of the fence I have learnt it’s not so simple. Good presentation doesn’t help incorrect content, and for numerical texts it is generally not imperative for perfect answers, but for that range between 0 – 100, an orderly report will definitely be on the receiving edge on that little subjective margin left by the rubric.

And last but not the least, quality over quantity holds good. This is the first time I have gone through a discrete role reversal from being an undergrad to a TA. I went through 23 years of schooling thinking more ink will get me more grades, and now I realize it doesn’t. Words like precise and concise finally make sense and ‘How many pages would this be?’ became the most dreaded question for me every session. Back in the day when I did not have a good grasp on any concept I would try to hide it in folds of vocabulary and sentence structure. And now that I have read about 100 reports I am surprised how easy it is to see through everything and guess at comprehension. Fluff barely fools, it just wastes time and paper.


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