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Working with Graduate Students: Guiding AIs from Students to Future Colleagues

As both students and teachers, graduate AIs face a number of unique challenges. For many, these are disparate roles that vie for time and priority, yet as future faculty they will need to effectively integrate their scholarship and teaching. Graduates land their first teaching roles as AIs based on having been successful students, yet they are expected to be experts on their subjects and teach with skill and authority. How do graduate students manage these multiple roles and make the transition from advanced learners to effective teachers and scholars? How can we facilitate that process for them?

Diverse institutional circumstances and personal approaches to teaching preclude a universal linear process of AI development and a single best model for AI training. Yet research among developing TAs has identified common social and intellectual practices across three different stages (Nyquist and Sprague 1998; Prieto 2001). Based on their nationwide study, Jody Nyquist and Jo Sprague (1998) summarized these themes in this table:

 
 
 Senior Learner
Colleague-in-Training
Junior Colleague

 

Concerns

 

Self/survival

How will students
like me?

Skills

How do I lecture,
lead discussions?

Outcomes

Are students getting it?

Disciplinary Discourse in Class

Presocialized

Give simplistic explanations

Socialized

Talk like insiders, use technical language

Postsocialized

Make complex ideas
clear and without
the use of jargon



Approach to Authority

 

Dependent

Rely on supervisor (course head)

Independent or Counterdependent
Stand on own ideas--defiant at times

Interdependent/collegial

Begin to relate to faculty
as partners in meeting instructional challenges



Approach
to
Students

 

Engaged/vulnerable Student as friend, victim or enemy

“Love” students,
expect admiration,
or are hurt, or
angry, and
personalize
interactions

Detached
Student as experimental subject


Disengage or
distance themselves from students—

Becoming analytical about learning
relationships

Engaged/professional
Student as client


Understand
student/instructor
relationships & the collaborative effort
required for student
learning to occur

Nyquist and Sprague argue that each stage is necessary for TAs even though they do not move through them in the same way.  Whatever combination of concerns and strategies to teaching you may identify among your AIs, we offer these suggestions for training your emerging junior colleagues: 

  • Consider where you would place your AIs across this range and reflect on what your most appropriate role should be, from supervisor to senior colleague.
     
  • Recall with your AIs some key ways you acquired skills in your field, especially the ideas and methods of analysis that have become implicit. How can you transform the learning of these processes into self-conscious activities for your students? Develop a rich and precise vocabulary to define the specific learning goals you have in the terms of your discipline.
     
  • Work with AIs to communicate your learning goals to your students by avoiding obscure jargon and making complex ideas intelligible. Discuss how you pitch your course material to students at multiple levels.
     
  • Share your grading criteria with your AIs and distinguish the qualities in work that you expect to see at different grade levels. In addition to making grading more consistent and efficient this way, AIs can discuss these criteria with students so that they are aware of your expectations.
     
  • Take time to discuss the goals and strategies you have for your lectures with your AIs and encourage them to attend.
     
  • Discuss alternative strategies for lectures, discussions and exams with AIs. This conversation can open up new pedagogical options for you and your AIs to consider, it can show that teaching is complex and collaborative work, and it can help AIs avoid trivializing and privatizing teaching strategies.
     
  • Assist AIs in responding to their challenges by asking questions that open up the next stage of development for them. If they are a “senior learner” who is personally irritated by a student who sleeps in class, for example, ask them about the possible reasons that may be leading their student to this. A junior colleague might first approach the student expressing concern and then suggest resources to help them deal with this issue.
     
  • Generate a sense of community. The recent reports on the Carnegie Foundation’s long term studies of graduate education show that a vibrant sense of community in one’s department can be crucial for graduate student success. Involving novice as well as experienced AIs and faculty in conversations on research and teaching in the discipline (e.g. brown bag lunches, seminars) is one way to foster this supportive community.
     
  • Help your AIs see themselves as scholars who pursue disciplinary questions in their roles as students and as teachers. How can they model processes of inquiry for their students?
     
  • Aside from discussing the important content and disciplinary methods to teach, frame your work with AIs as a shared inquiry into the processes of disciplinary learning among your students.

Resources:

Nyquist, Jody D. and Jo Sprague. “Thinking Developmentally About TAs.” The Professional Development of Graduate Students. Bolton MA: Anker, 1998.

Prieto, Loreto R. “The Supervision of Teaching Assistants: Theory, Evidence and Practice.” The Teaching Assistant Training Handbook. Stillwater, OK. 2001.