Training the Teaching Assistant

Creating a Teaching Community among Graduate Students

Mary Cunningham, Stephen Kercher, Meg Meneghel, and David Pace | Nov 1, 1997

The training of teaching assistants (TAs) has always been something of an anomaly in the modern research university. Since World War II the attention of faculty in such institutions has generally been focused on professional development at the national level. Both personal and institutional- rewards have been conceptualized in terms of cosmopolitan connections with members of the same subspecialty at other universities. And graduate students were socialized to perceive their careers almost entirely in terms of producing research that would gain the approval of this same national audience. In contrast, the role of the teaching assistant is predominantly local. It has often represented a compromise between the needs of local undergraduate populations and the desire of the professoriate to limit their teaching. Graduate students have generally viewed a TA position primarily as a means of financial support while completing their apprenticeship in research and only secondarily as a means of gaining teaching skills.

There is abundant evidence, however, that this institutional and conceptual framework is beginning to evolve under the effect of both internal and external pressures. Across a wide range of academic institutions one may find both a new emphasis on the role of teaching and a new concern with balancing cosmopolitan considerations with local responsibilities. These changes inevitably call into question existing ways of thinking about teaching assistants.

The history department of the Bloomington campus of Indiana University began to address these issues systematically during the 1992-93 school year. At that point 23 graduate students were serving as TAs, with all but two of them leading discussion sections linked to large introductory survey courses. Since the 1970s there had been an ill-defined training program for these students, but there was no clear consensus on what the nature of this program should be, and it varied greatly from year to year.

The impetus for a reconsideration of the TA program came simultaneously from three sources: the faculty, the graduate students, and the university administration. Among the faculty there was a growing sense of collective responsibility for what happened in the department. Aspects of departmental life that had previously been left almost entirely to the discretion of individual faculty became common concerns, and, not surprisingly, the laisser faire framework within which teaching responsibilities had long been conceptualized was among the first aspects of departmental culture to be challenged. In an environment where, for the first time in collective memory, faculty meetings were devoted to the discussion of practical pedagogical techniques and discussions of departmental teaching policies, it was natural to ask more pointed questions about what was happening in TA discussion sections. Many faculty expressed concern about the unevenness of the training program and complained that graduate students were being sent into the classroom with insufficient preparation. There was also a new concern with the responsibilities of the department in mentoring graduate students, and their apprenticeship was increasingly seen as a blend of teaching and research.

At the same time, graduate students called for more comprehensive preparation for their roles as teaching assistants and as future college professors. Moreover, some graduate students felt that their work in the department had not - received sufficient recognition and that certain basic needs, such as office space, had been ignored. Lacking a well-defined teaching community that included them, TAs felt isolated and had no network to turn to for help with classroom problems or lesson plans. In addition, both faculty and graduate students were becoming more aware that teacher training was playing a greater role in the hiring of history professors. In the face of a very difficult job market in which more and more job listings emphasized teaching experience and expertise, the definition of professional training was being transformed.

These changes within the culture of the history department were supported by a new focus on TA training in the broader university community. After a member of the university's board of trustees publicly questioned the use of TAs, the administration required a more thorough reporting and justification of departmental training programs. Racist remarks by a TA in another department led to new concerns about developing TA sensitivities to diversity issues, which also created more demands for both departmental and university-wide responsibility for teacher training.

These diverse forces set the stage for a systematic reconsideration of both the TA training program and the preparation of graduate students for future careers. However, without appropriate political support, these internal and external forces might not have resulted in significant reforms. Fortunately, two successive departmental chairs, Jeanne Peterson and James Madison, made TA training a priority, and there was a political will in the department as a whole to implement major changes.

The form that these changes would assume began to take shape at a meeting in April 1993, at which faculty, with student representatives present, made three basic decisions. First, TA training was given a higher priority and made a collective responsibility of the department. Second, it was decided that a new training program would be implemented the following fall and that the planning would be done collectively by the newly appointed TA coordinator, David Pace, and interested graduate students. Finally, "Teaching College History," a two-credit graduate course on pedagogy, would be revived and repeated on a regular basis. A call for volunteers was issued to the graduate students, and the reform of the program began.

At the beginning of the summer of 1993, three graduate students with previous experience as TAs, Mary Cunningham, Stephen Kercher, and Meg Meneghel, volunteered to take part in the process of rethinking the pedagogical components of the history department's graduate program. (They were delighted to discover, after they had agreed to work for nothing, that funds had been obtained to remunerate them for their efforts.) They brought their own concerns to the process, but also made a conscious attempt to include the voices of their colleagues and solicited their feedback.

These graduate students and the new TA coordinator formed the nucleus of a new teaching community. A cooperative environment and a sense of community were essential to the success of the project; this nonhierarchical arrangement allowed group members to pool their experiences and brainstorm freely in a manner not possible in a top-down decisionmaking structure. This allowed the larger graduate student population's perspectives and interests to be incorporated in the program from its inception.

The project group began by creating a new history department TA training program, consisting of a full-day orientation session for new and continuing teaching assistants, biweekly meetings of the teaching assistants and the program coordinator, a Handbook for Teaching Assistants in History with a list of on-campus resources for teachers and a bibliography of pedagogical materials, and a new and improved "Teaching College History" course. The first orientation workshop was held in August 1993 before the start of the fall semester. History department chair Jim Madison's decision to serve the morning coffee personally and to give introductory remarks was an important confirmation of the department's new commitment to the development of teaching assistants. The teaching assistants were then divided into small groups to share their experiences, fears, and hopes about teaching. Later Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish of the Indiana University Teaching Resources Center presented a session on preparing for the first day of teaching and took the TAs on a tour of the center to acquaint them with the kinds of logistic support, practical advice, feedback, and materials on teaching offered by the institution.

Over a lunch provided by the history department, veteran TAs shared their experiences in particular courses with the students who would follow them in these positions. After lunch there was a brief presentation about the Indiana University undergraduate population, and then current and former TAs broke into small groups to consider the special problems involved in teaching such students. The incoming TAs gained practice by leading these discussions. The remainder of the workshop was devoted to a consideration of teaching diverse groups of students, with an emphasis on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and learning styles.

After the workshop, new and returning teaching assistants met with faculty members they would be working with during the upcoming semester. These meetings were structured around a two-page questionnaire sent to faculty several weeks before the training workshop. They were asked to be prepared to address specific issues concerning their assistants' duties, grading policies, course details, and other expectations for the class and the new TAs. The participation of faculty members contributed substantially to the morale of the teaching assistants and gave them a much clearer picture of what lay ahead.

Throughout the workshop there was an attempt to model basic pedagogical strategies for the TAs and to provide hands-on experience. Discussions were quite lively, and gave the TAs a direct experience of the pedagogical potential of dividing a class into subgroups and undertaking a structured activity. Role-playing exercises on dealing with diversity allowed the new instructors to practice leading a fair and inclusive discussion in the face of opposition from belligerent and dominating students, and it provided a concrete experience in the use of this teaching technique.

The basis for a teaching community had been created at the initial workshop, but it needed to be nurtured throughout the semester. Biweekly meetings created an opportunity in which the teaching assistants and the program director could work to find practical solutions to problems as they arose in the graduate students' discussion sections or to consider broader pedagogical issues. Teaching assistants could compare notes on how to teach a specific topic or how to respond to particular classroom dynamics. Special attention was devoted to developing the kinds of skills that are required in a history course.

This emerging TA community was a voluntary one, and some of the students chose not to attend all of the meetings. Those who participated, however, found strong networks of moral and practical support. When students felt comfortable enough to "confess" difficulties they faced in the classroom, they generally discovered that they were not alone and that problems which had seemed intractable could be solved through group brainstorming. One senior TA reported that she continued to attend the support meetings in her second year of teaching even though she found their utility for her was decreasing. As a beginning teacher, she had frequently found the meetings and the ad vice offered by other TAs to be a “lifesaver," and she felt an obligation to repay the debt. '

To facilitate the processes begun in these meetings and to give the TAs access to a wide range of pedagogical ideas, a Handbook for Teaching Assistants in History was created. In addition to useful information concerning teaching resources available on campus, this handbook provided a guide to pedagogical literature. The bibliography, which contained more than 100 books and articles on teaching issues of relevance to historians, was divided into such sections as "Leading Discussion," "Lecturing," "Assignments, Exams, and Grading," “Cognitive and Emotional Development," and "Student Culture." A pedagogical library containing most of these works was created within the department office and made available to graduate students and faculty.

For graduate students who wished to explore pedagogy in more depth and to improve their credentials for the job market, the department's dormant course, "Teaching College History” was revived and radically restructured. Although this course was independent of the TA program and covered some issues that were not directly relevant to the tasks of the teaching assistants, there was a synergistic relationship between the two. The preparation of the Handbook uncovered new materials for the course, and ideas explored in the course flowed into the TA community. Moreover, the Course increased graduate student awareness that teaching was a crucial part of their professional development, and this further motivated TAs to take their responsibilities seriously.

Ever since this project was launched, nearly five years ago, there has been a significant increase in the pedagogical sophistication of students in the Indiana University history department. Even students who were not TAs seemed to have absorbed new ways of thinking about teaching. Graduate students exhibited a greater ability to respond to teaching questions in job interviews, and many of them have stressed to their younger colleagues the crucial role the departmental programs had played in their successful searches for a faculty position. There is evidence that teaching assistants are bringing more enthusiasm to their discussion sections, and it has even become necessary for the program coordinators to remind the TAs to set limits on the amount of time they spend on their classes.

These changes have been reflected within faculty culture as well. The position of TA coordinator has been shared by two faculty members each year in order to maximize involvement with the program. Some faculty have reported that interactions with their teaching assistants prompted them to make changes in their courses and teaching styles. On an institutional level, the department has successfully competed for a major "Preparing Future Faculty Grant" from the Indiana University School of Research and Graduate Developll1ent. These funds will allow two faculty members to spend a summer studying materials on the pedagogy of history, graduate students to gain new forms of teaching experience, and the department as a whole to undertake important curricular changes designed to improve the preparation of graduate students for their future careers. This project builds upon the existing TA program and should greatly increase its effectiveness.

After four years the department's TA training is due for rethinking. Late last year a decline in attendance at the biweekly support sessions suggested to the TA coordinators that the program might not be working as effectively as before. When the students were interviewed, however, they expressed strong support for the program, but indicated that the increased sense of community, and the creation of a new graduate student lounge, meant that teaching problems were being discussed in other venues and that an informal mentoring process was replacing the scheduled sessions. The TAs suggested that these unstructured biweekly meetings be replaced by a series of more formal discussions on specific aspects of pedagogy, organized around the reading of a particular article or a section of a book. They also suggested that graders be included in the program and that all graders and teaching assistants be required to take the first half of "Teaching College History."

In all likelihood these institutional developments and the "pedagogical contagion" that has been evident in many graduate students and faculty would not have occurred had the "TA problem" been conceptualized more narrowly. The creation of a community of teachers, as opposed to a more limited training program, has encouraged hundreds of independent conversations about pedagogy and made teaching a vital part of graduate student lives. It has also encouraged faculty-student interactions around concrete problems arising in the classroom and helped lay the foundations for a department-wide teaching community. The results are being reflected in better teaching at the university itself and in more positive prospects for history graduate students in a bleak job market.

Interested readers may obtain details about this project from David Pace, History Department, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405 or through e-mail: dpace@indiana.edu.


Mary Cunningham, Stephen Kercher, and Meg Meneghel are graduate students in the department of history of Indiana University at Bloomington. David Pace is associate professor of European history in the department.


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