It wasn’t like I meant to do it. I was late for recitation, and I usually go in the back door when I’m late but today, TODAY for reasons still unknown to the universe I went for the front door, all while my TA just happened to be standing right there, going on about amide formation. And then I hit him with a door.
ME: OH! Oh. UH. SORRY. Sorry. I’m really sorry. Are you okay?
HIM: Yeah. Sorry about that.
ME: No no, I’m really sorry. Errrrkk. I’m going to.. uh, yeah. Sorry.
You actually can’t make this stuff up. It is against all the rules of absurdity (which I know because I wrote them). The only way it could’ve possibly been worse is if I’d maybe dropped through a trapdoor in the ceiling onto his head, terminating both his life and my dreams of graduating (as well as my reputation as being totally smooth at all times), or if my professor had instead been teaching the section (although he actually probably would’ve been cool with it, since the last time I saw him he was leaping around 54-100 like a gazelle in a WWF mask). Fortunately for me, he was already two minutes into his lecturing, so everyone in my recitation was well aware of the fact that I was a) late and b) now and forevermore a TA-assaulter.
(If by some equally beautiful coincidence you’re reading this now, Matt, I apologize again, and I would still like a reasonably good grade once the multiple contusions have healed.)
Matt is not actually my TA, but I attend his section anyway because a) I have a conflict with the section that I’m actually registered in and b) he presents material in clear, concise manner that supplements the lecture without being redundant (and I’m not just saying that because I nearly hospitalized him today). I ended up there because I’d attended a couple other sections and found his to be the most helpful, so I now attend his recitation twice a week. He is, by my standards, an excellent TA.
Teaching 5.112 this semester has tuned me even more to the subtleties of what makes a good TA, though I would by no means put myself on the same standards of my brilliant, Canadian, “zed-instead-of-z”-using TA of the same subject last year (especially because some of my students read this – hey, Alex!) Finding a good one is like many of the other life-changing decisions that await you come college life: trying to pick a school, a living group, a major – you need to give different ones a shot, and you need to find which one fits you. It’s a tricky matter that I have down to a concise science after a year of section-hopping, and is one of my most important and exhausting traditions come the start of a semester.
So you wanna know the secret? The unwritten, unspoken truth? As long as you don’t tell anyone, because the shock-value level of what you’re about to learn is on a par with the Tooth Fairy not being real, or your high school econ teacher going to the same gym you do: being brilliant in a subject does, by no means, translate to being a good TA. The same goes for professors.
I mean, sure. There’s a certain amount of knowledge on the subject they need to have in order to field your questions, and this by no means that the Nobel laureate/pioneer of programmed cell death isn’t about to give you the most mind-blowing lecture of your life. But a lot of what makes someone a really effective teacher is not the raw, untapped genius found so commonly amongst the common MIT student: the never-gone-to-lecture-and-what’s-a-TA-but-still-got-800,000%-on-the-last-exam guy who doesn’t realize that his socks with sandals are not even fashionably acceptable to his World of Warcraft friends – it’s the guy who’s been there. The seasoned war veteran who knows exactly how you got confused, because he was you not too long ago, and how to get you out of that rut where you’ve gone so terribly awry that you’ve gotten your Hoffmann rearrangements mixed up with your Hoffmann eliminations and have turned your primary amide into a primary amine, so badly that your problem set is auditioning for the Synthesis Gone Wild: Spring Term edition.
(The organic chemistry analogies are not going away, so don’t hold your breath.)
Thankfully, there’s a lot of that here too. We are all nerds, yes, but we nerd with style. A lot of us tend to think about things in ways that are twisted, unconventional, and often incorrect. It’s what we came here to do.
So I look for a couple things when I’m TA-hunting (not in a Elmer Fudd kind of way, no matter what my current record might suggest): firstly, someone who knows their stuff, but not in a way that when you ask how you figure out one aspect of the problem, they’ll respond, “You just do.” One TA I tried out this year walked into class and loudly proclaimed, “I don’t mind if you don’t come to my recitation. I never did when I took this class.” I didn’t return to his section. Actually, I dropped that class in favor of one I found more interesting, in which my TA is so popular that I once came ten minutes late for and had to sit on the floor. Which isn’t AT ALL to say that I dropped it because of that first guy, but a really good TA can totally change your opinion of a subject, just like your favorite high school calculus teacher was the driving force behind you learning to stop worrying and love the Lagrange error.
Secondly: someone who doesn’t spend too much time regurgitating what was discussed in lecture. The way the majority of MIT classes work, which I probably should’ve discussed earlier for new readers, is lecture/recitation format: one hour of lecture, taught by a professor, which can have anywhere from 30 students in a small, major-only class to 200+ students in a General Institute Requirement (GIR) class, and one hour of recitation, taught by grad students or occasionally undergrads, and is usually attended by 20-30 students each. You are free to add a section as your schedule and the size of that section permits, which is something that I enjoy greatly (as I make it not only a point to check out the different options, but also to write a blog entry advertising how sweet it is that I get to pick my instructor). And it’s important to find someone whose style benefits you the most, so you can get the most out of the class. The purpose of the recitation is to supplement lecture, not recite all the material in exactly the same way. Practice problems are always helpful too, especially in the context of particularly difficult problem sets that you have no idea how to start.
I also tend to prefer undergraduate TAs, because grad students can come from anywhere and have such a drastically different background from MIT students – not that they don’t have to really know their stuff to be an MIT grad student, but undergrads have actually taken the class in question and are well-versed in the format and intricacies of the material. At the same time, undergraduate TAs are also dealing with workloads of their own, UROPs, extracurricular activities, relationship problems, lack of sleep, indigestion from the leftover Chinese food they forgot to refrigerate but ate for lunch anyway, or any of a number of common problems undergrads suffer from. So there’s that as well.
In general, there are a number of other personal preferences I have towards TAs. I like people who give notes, people who are organized and have a clear structure to their hour of time, and people who aren’t apt to give away the answer in an obvious manner. They’re not hard to find if you don’t mind looking, and they can change your outlook on a course entirely. But other traits are important to other people; it’s just a matter of what matters to you and how you learn. Though that’s something you’ll have to pick up on yourself.
My strongest inclination, though, has always been towards people with a good sense of humor. That way, when you smash into them in the hallway and spill your soup all over their new white blouse, or accidentally ram into them with a door, you’ll know you can probably, maybe still pull off a B. Probably.
Maybe if you write them a blog entry.