Understand and Plan for Your Assistantship Role

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As a teaching assistant, you may be assigned to work for a wide variety of courses taught by professors who each have their own preferred style of running a course. Regardless of the subject area, courses tend to fall on a continuum between being highly structured and highly independent or dynamic. These qualities depend on the amount of autonomy you have, and the degree to which your interactions with students are dictated by the course:


Jump to Independent/Dynamic Course description
Jump to Highly Structured Course description

Except in rare cases where the course structure is dictated by the department, course structure is the prerogative of the professor and as an assistant, it will be your responsibility to recognize the structure of the course and to understand how you fit into that structure. The more you understand how your responsibilities fit in with the course structure, the better you can serve both the professor and the students.

To help you recognize different types of course structure, examples of the highly independent or dynamic and the highly structured courses are provided below. Most courses will probably fit somewhere between these two extremes so be sure to review both so you understand the range of qualities that you may encounter.

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Recognizing a Highly Independent/Dynamic Course

In a highly independent or dynamic course, you likely have a high degree of autonomy in how you execute your responsibilities and how you interact with students. This can be a very stressful experience for a first-time TA! If you feel lost or overwhelmed by the autonomy, don't be afraid to ask questions or to ask for suggestions from the professor about how you should carry out your duties. If you are a more experienced TA, use this opportunity to spread your wings and to think creatively about how to teach the material.

Below are some characteristics typical of a highly independent or dynamic course:

1. You may find yourself making decisions without the guidance of the professor. It is crucial that you understand the university policies regarding student conduct and faculty conduct since you may be making decisions on behalf of the professor!
2. You may be asked to contribute ideas regarding course design and implementation.
3. You may have to take extra care to communicate clearly with students and with the professor throughout the semester.

Example of a highly independent/dynamic course:

In the video shown above, Professor Gray is explaining the course to TA Michelle. Although the course is very dynamic and fluid, Michelle is taking notes on the goals of the design so that she can understand what role she will play. In this case, the goals of the design are to be able to react to the students, to deliver material based on student demand and current events.

Asking questions to clarify your responsibilities in an independent/unstructured scenario:

In this video, TA Michelle is asking Professor Gray to clarify what is expected of her regarding the discussion section that Michelle will be leading. It is important in a highly independent situation that you get as much information as you can about what is expected of you.

Contributing to the course in an independent/dynamic scenario:

Here, TA Michelle is asking about the course design. If you are given the latitude and have the desire, don't be afraid to ask the professor about making your own contribution to the course. Being a TA is not just about serving the professor or fulfilling your obligations to your department, it is about learning how to be a professor! If possible, take advantage of these situations to explore your own ideas about teaching and course design.

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Recognizing a Highly Structured Course

Compared to the highly independent/dynamic scenarios described above, the TA in a highly structured course will have less opportunity to contribute creatively to the course. Often, highly structured courses are streamlined, tried and true course designs that professors have spent years refining. Take advantage of your role in these situations to learn about managing course logistics and setting course policy. Most importantly, pay attention to how the course unfolds over the semester to see what works and what doesn't and ask yourself how you would change the course structure for future semesters — the professor may ask your opinion at the end of the semester!

Below are some characteristics typical of a highly structured course:

1. Meeting with the professor can be scary (intimidating).
2. You may not have to spend as much time preparing materials and policies, but you should still prepare!
3. You may find that the structure of the course is freeing, and allows you to develop skills such as developing rapport with students, lesson delivery, and working in teams.
4. You may want to show respect for the professor's time by organizing your questions and concerns ahead of time.

Here are some video-based examples that demonstrate the qualities of a highly structured course:

Example of a highly structured course:

In the above video, Professor Schwartz is explaining the structure of the course to TA Christina. Notice how the course is very well laid out, and if there are any issues in how the course is carried out, Professor Schwartz has instructed Christina to direct those issues to him. Compared to the dynamic course portrayed above, Christina has very little autonomy and will not be expected to make any decisions on behalf of the professor. Instead, Christina will be expected to know the details of the syllabus and the course policies very well!

Asking questions to clarify your responsibilities in a highly structured scenario:

In this video, TA Christina is trying to get as much detail as possible about the course structure. As a representative of the professor, Christina will be expected to know course structure and course policies at all times — any questions that she receives will have to be answered accordingly or referred back to the professor for clarification. It is important to realize that in this particular situation, although Professor Schwartz is requiring Christina to forward any difficult questions to him, he may not want to handle every difficult situation that comes up (in fact, he's expecting that there will be no problems because the course is so well planned). By getting as much detail as possible up front, Christina is equipping herself to handle as many difficult questions as she can, thereby avoiding overloading Professor Schwartz with problems later on.

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Summary of Assistantship Roles

1. Your role as a teaching assistant is often defined by the structure of the course to which you are assigned.
2. Courses usually lie somewhere between highly structured and highly independent/dynamic.
3. Try to recognize the amount of autonomy you have in terms of decision-making and delivery of material.
4. Prepare as much as you can to act as a proxy for the professor, representing the material and the course to the students.

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