Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.1

September 9, 2004


Teaching assistants get helpful tips for the term ahead

Frank Kuin

Nearly 200 new teaching assistants from all four faculties were told at a packed orientation session last week that they are role models to Concordia’s undergraduate students.

The TAs, many of them first-year graduate students who will help grade papers, supervise labs, or lead class conferences, attended a full-day training event to prepare them for the job and discuss their crucial position as an intermediary between professors and students.

“Students will look up to you,” said Elizabeth Sacca, Dean of Graduate Studies. “They may relate to you more strongly than to the professor.”

The new teaching assistants, gathered in the De Séve cinema, were given an introduction to their tasks, rights and responsibilities, ranging from how to accommodate special needs to what to do when they suspect plagiarism in a paper.

Addressing the TAs from the professor’s perspective, Georgios Vatistas, a professor in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, said: “You’re not really my assistant, but my colleague in training.”

Vatistas, who started as a TA at Concordia in 1978, observed that back then, there were no training sessions to prepare him for the task. “It was sink or swim,” he said. In more recent years, orientations for TAs have been held routinely at the university.

Still, last week’s gathering broke all previous attendance records, said event co-ordinator Marcy Slapcoff, instructional developer with Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS). Interest was so great that the room had to be changed three times to accommodate all registrants.

The rise in interest may be attributable to the growing student population as well as to wider encouragements towards TAs to attend the training, said Olivia Rovinescu, director of the CTLS, which organizes the sessions. every year..

The training program is to help ensure that “TAs are as prepared as they can be, not just being put out there,“ she said. Attendees of the session receive a certificate. As members of the teaching staff with a more recent experience of being undergraduate students themselves, teaching assistants can play a vital role in helping students, said Nina Howe, Associate Dean of Graduate Students.

“You’re kind of in a funny position as a TA,” she said. “You&rsquore a student, but it is also a job. It’s a switch in roles. That will be a challenge but can also be a rewarding experience.“

Undergraduates are sometimes afraid to approach a professor, Howe observed. “You can play a special role in the life of an undergraduate student and be very helpful to them.”

Yet at the same time, the teaching assistant is there to assist the professor, she said, and it is important for the TA to always act professionally.

It was this intermediate position that fuelled a panel discussion with professors and former TAs. Suggestions to prevent conflicts included making clear with the professor what’s expected of the TA, and to avoid taking sides in any disputes between a professor and a student.

“You want to be sympathetic, but not get in a bad position with the professor, ”advised panelist Chris Taillefer, a former TA in Electrical and Computer Engineering and now a part-time faculty member there. Neil Yapp, an MA student in Theological Studies who attended the training, has already faced up to the challenge when he debuted as a TA in the previous semester.

“Students always want to have a discussion, go for a coffee,” he said “I come across as a sociable person, and students can try to take advantage of that. But at the same time, I don’t want to be cold and distant.”