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MIT student blogger Jess K. '10

Today I hit my TA with a door by Jess K. '10

I didn't MEAN to.

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.

21 responses to “Today I hit my TA with a door”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ahh I hope I get in to MIT…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Too bad I’ll be a freshman again.

  3. Krypton says:

    Almost collided with our Genetics prof today. :O

    As I walked past him to head out the door, it sure didn’t seem as if he was ready to leave anytime soon: still shuffling papers in his hand, getting his coat on. But then he whirls around, and I almost veer right into him as I walk past!

    I make a sincere effort to be extra courteous from then on, and I get to do it frequently – he follows me all the way from the Green lecture hall to Stata, where I stop for lunch and I assume he continues towards Whitehead. Yay for opening a count of 6 doors for him!

  4. Krypton says:

    P.S. Why didn’t you post this sooner, when we could actually still change recitation sections and not seem ungrateful? :D I’m okay with all my TAs, but I only got the “best deal” (academically) with my 18.022 one.

  5. Kevin X says:

    Haha that was a great blog post Jess, I definitely feel for you as I had a couple of odd encounters with teachers in high school as well. Only on the second day of school this year I literally tackled my physics teacher (accidentally of course) but luckily he’s really laid back and cool with this kind of stuff and it actually turned out in my favor. He immediately knew my name and who I was and every time I do great on a test he goes “Nice tackle”.

    I do have one question though, I understand that classes vary with professors and TA’s but will TA’s usually know your name and who you actually are? Or are you usually a nameless student unless you actually approach the professor/TA after class or in his/her office?

  6. Jess says:

    @Krypton- you don’t have to actually be registered in a TA’s section to attend it. You can go to whoever works for you, even if they’re not actually your TA, although you might want to let your real one know that you’re not just cutting class.

    @Kevin X- usually, your TAs will know who you are, since your sections tend to be pretty small and they grade all your psets – especially if you a) ask a lot of questions or b) hit them with a door. Try to avoid b as much as possible, though.

  7. Kind of a technical and annoying application question, but if someone could answer this for me, it’d be greatly appreciated!

    I submitted my application without my long essay because I wanted to mail it in due to formatting that would be important to my essay. When MIT processes the essay, where will it show up on My MIT application tracking page (if it will show up at all)? Should there be something under “comments” next to my Part 2 Component? Again, thanks to anyone who can help me!

  8. Hunter '11 says:

    I just want to add on to the fact that I almost fell down stairs with a yummy calzone just now. Yay!

    Also, being a freshman isn’t half bad. People here don’t do stupid stuff to you just because you’re a freshman. Though they will heavily suggest that you shower wink

  9. Keri says:

    I wish Eric could be my TA for everything.

  10. Paul says:

    I think you should print this entry out and hand it in with your next p-set.

  11. Borealis says:

    Oh, man… I had a quite rough start at my day as well: I managed to escape a male polar bear on my way to school. (no kidding!)

    Well, back to the essays… Now, I have an A in GPA and lots of advanced science subjects, if only I could get ’em SAT tests down.

  12. Hyun Jin says:

    Ahh.. the perils of MIT.
    Hope this kind of thing doesn’t happen often, might scare off people from applying.
    …or not.

  13. ahhHhh teach me 5.112 tonight. please.

    ahhHhh teach me 5.112 tonight. please.


  14. Karen says:

    Something akin to this totally happened to me yesterday, and now I feel like I must share. I went to see my Physics teacher to ask him a question during my off-lab period for Chem and somehow didn’t realize that the period had ended and I was 20 minutes late for Econ. I walked in late, which isn’t usually that big of an issue, but we were doing a lab, which meant that students were scattered about the classroom and the door was locked to prevent interruptions, so I had to knock pretty loudly before someone opened the door to let me in. Then, he announced to the class, “Karen’s late, catch her up!” and jettisoned me to a group.

    Then I had to paw through the stack of papers to find the sheet that we were doing, because no one had an extra one.

    No actual physical harm occurred, though, so I think you still have me one-upped.

  15. Isshak says:

    Wow, looks like the bond between your TA and you is strong !
    Er, by your post I understood that you can choose your TA ?? How do you do that ? And apart from helping you on your homework and the lesson, are the TAs flexible with their schedule, if you want to meet after the recitation hours, or if you have a specific problem or something ?
    Can TAs sue students who hurt them ? ^^’

  16. Jess says:

    @Isshak – find one you like, and then you can change it officially on the class website, usually. Sometimes you need to go to the department office to register for a different section. And generally, the TAs are very flexible about meeting up outside of recitation – they’ll schedule office hours that work for most of the people in their section, and a lot of times will offer to meet up outside of those times. It’s pretty easy to get some time with them.

    And oh man, I hope not.

  17. Isshak says:

    Wow, TAs really seem helpful !

    No worries, I’m sure you will find a MIT Alumni lawyer who will help you for free… ^^’

  18. Hunter '11 says:

    Hehe, I’m a royal klutz. I’ve literally run into teachers on several occasions. Ooops.

  19. Nihar says:

    Hi Jess!
    Omgg I totally understand how you wouldve felt landing yourself in that sticky situation, and Im stating from experience!
    I crash into my teachers so often that now I actually peer beyond the turns in the corridors before I rush through them.(usually for a late class^^). I wonder now whether the teachers themselves watch out for me….haha
    But thanks for telling me that, crahed-into or not, a good “TA-hunt” can help you a great deal at MIT. (Hmmm…Lets think of the qualities I would look for in a TA..)

  20. HARSH SINHA says:



  21. A'non Imus says:

    hehe my friend ran into our AP English teachers car last year…he got a C that semester and Im pretty sure that might have contributed, not all, but at least a little to it. Then he had to explain to his Stats teacher why he was 50 minutes tardy to class on the day of the midterm…he was not fun to talk to that day. He’s such a prude.