July 15, 2020#college | #teaching

First Semester as a Teaching Assistant

Class started about three weeks ago, and I've already realized that I want to do this the entire time I'm in college. Teaching is the single greatest experience I've ever had, and being a TA this summer was the best decision I could've made.

My first real teaching experience is now, in the era of online learning. I was originally concerned that that would make it somehow less enjoyable, but this has not been the case at all. On the contrary, having a dual-monitor setup along with my Surface Book for demonstrations has been the cleanest way I can imagine teaching, and everyone else on staff seems to have taken a liking to it as well.

I expected this to be difficult, and it is. The challenge comes from the fact that you have to be at the top of your game if you're going to be teaching 33 students at a time, because most of these are incoming freshman, and they will have questions. A lot of them. For these last couple of weeks, I've easily spent more time preparing for my discussion sections than I've spent teaching them, which is to be expected in anyone's first time TA-ing. For a 90-minute section, there's about a hundred questions students can ask, and as we've temporarily suspended our Academic Intern program, this means that us TAs need to be ready to tackle as many of these questions as possible.

Do they all get asked? No. Do we know which ones will get asked? No. Do we have a way to drive the questions? Yes.

Those are some of the things I've learned by taking CS 375 this summer. CS 375 is a course that all first-time TAs are required to take here at Berkeley, and it introduces you to various teaching techniques that apply particularly in Computer Science contexts. We discuss things like academic integrity, exam administration, and how to best structure discussion sections so that students can get the most out of them. The best thing I've learned so far is how to drive discussion questions by deliberately leaving little holes in your explanations. This is not only so that you don't get asked as many out-of-the-blue questions, but also so that you can ease students into the practice of asking questions. These students tend to shy away from asking questions for fear of sounding dumb, but if you leave a subtle yet gaping hole in your argument and they pick it up, the fact that you were prepared for that question makes for a smooth answer, which confirms that the student asked a good question!

We also hold one-on-one office hours for supplemental help, which tend to be the more trying times as a teacher. The reason for this is that, unlike discussions, you don't know what the student will ask you. They could show up and ask about a problem on a practice exam that you've never seen before, or a problem on a project that has changed since you last took the class. While you could theoretically prepare for them, most of the time office hours end up being on the fly. I actually quite enjoy them for that reason, because they keep me on my toes. The discussions typically go exactly as I expect them to, and are largely predictable because of the aforementioned technique of driving the questions.

It also helps that we have a relatively small staff -- 20 TAs and 20 tutors. This makes for a fun group and we end up socializing a lot at our staff meetings, something that's a must-have in any group activity during this pandemic. Even though it's all over Zoom, it feels like a tight-knit teaching family, where everyone is around for the exact same reason: a love for passing knowledge.

It's still too early to tell for sure, but I think I'll be sticking to teaching for a while. I'm still waiting on application decisions for the fall, but I hope I can make myself seen enough to hold onto this, because it's certainly the most fun activity I've engaged in in the last few years. I'm not surprised though, considering I enjoyed tutoring in high school too, and this is just a larger-scale version of that.

We'll see where this goes!

PS. I didn't end up finished by world tour :( I got to 47 airports, and then classes started, and just as I had predicted, I did not manage to keep up with both teaching and flying. I think I'll pick this up where I left off someday, but it'll have to wait for a while.