The Other Side of the Grade Book 

I was a T.A. and lived to tell about it

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Fall semester 2000: I had chosen to be a T.A., a teaching assistant. I thought it would be a great experience, not to mention look good on future academic rsums. But mostly, I was broke. And in graduate school, they let you do certain things in exchange for tuition, one of which is to be a T.A. -- i.e. working your ass off for a professor (and whoever else in the department you get pimped out to), and doing things they don't necessarily want to do because, in truth, it's not humanly possible to get those things done in a timely fashion -- unless of course there's help from of an unsuspecting student.

Anyway, by October, the classes I was assisting with were in the throes of midterms and there was much grading to be done. Pronto.

Grading is not as easy of a task as you might think. Though I attended all of the classes and had notes from the instructors on what they were looking for in each essay and exam, giving somebody a grade is still a daunting task. Unforeseen circumstances arise. Like, do you still give somebody a good grade if they covered all of the points but turned in a paper with the grammar and spelling of a fifth-grader? Or vice versa -- do you dole out the high points for a fabulously written paper, though it has little to do with the topic?

I gained a lot of insight that year into the undergraduate student population and into the world of the professor. And I gained a lot of empathy for both.

So now, having been to the other side and back, I offer up the lessons I gleaned from the ordeal. Think of them as a glimpse into the psyche of a grader or, 10 steps to pleasing your professor.

1) It takes a lot of time to think up questions that will trick students. Nobody has that kind of time. If you know the material there is no need for over-analysis, aka overwriting.

2) Speaking of ... There is a reason some instructors put page limits on things. Simply put, it keeps the workload down -- for the student and the one doing all of the reading, the professor (or me, the T.A.). A couple of paragraphs, even a page over is OK (at least it was by my standards), but much beyond that only made me cranky.

3) Professors usually have specific answers or points they are looking for. And they are generally pretty simple and basic. Which brings us to...

4) There is a huge difference between rambling to cover your ass because you've not read the material in six weeks, and rambling because you are trying to get across a valid idea.

If you don't know the answer, writing everything you do know about the topic is not always the way to go. You may very well have a few snippets of the correct answer in there somewhere, but by the time your prof gets to the ninth paragraph of bullshit, he or she is most likely unsympathetic to your cause. It is tiring wading through nothingness to find any trace of the correct answer.

And consider this: Yours is not the only paper/exam/quiz being read. More than likely, there are 60 other papers just like yours. If you are going to embellish about nothing, better hope that yours is toward the front of the pile, because by about paper 35, eyes are tired and blood sugar is dropping.

5) Spell check, spell check, spell check. I can't stress this enough. On most computers it's automatic. Words are underlined in a bright red squiggly line. If you have an older program where you actually have to take the extra four seconds to click on the spell check button, DO IT. Even if you are already fifteen minutes late for class because you just finished writing the paper. Be 20 minutes late and run the spell check. And for God's sake, staple the pages together.

6) Don't put your average two- to four-page paper in those plastic cover things. They're a pain, and they're staticy. Whoever grades your paper just has to take it out of there anyway. Just use the stapler.

7) Write in complete sentences. Beginning sentences with capital letters, ending them with punctuation (proper punctuation is a bonus) and putting a noun and a verb somewhere in between makes everyone happy. If writing complete sentences is not your forte, seek help at the writing center or your school's equivalent thereof.

8) Participate in class. You don't have to be the annoying student that knows everything or always asks questions. But every few weeks, speak. It will only benefit you in the end when the grader comes across your name and has fond memories of you appearing interested.

9) Take heed of those comments scrawled in the margins of your paper or blue book. It's not that easy to make constructive comments that are truly constructive. So when you get something back that says more than "Nice job," it's likely that whoever graded your work took some time to think about what you had to say.

And finally,

10) When there is a review before an exam, attend that class. When the instructor says something like, "If I were studying for this, I'd probably look at ... ," listen up. The instructor is telling you, in his or her own special way, what's on the exam.

Believe me, I know. I was a T.A.

-- Suzanne Becker

  • I was a T.A. and lived to tell about it


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