Graduate School Meditations

Classical Mythology: TA Reflections

An exciting and last minute switch at the start of the Spring 2018 quarter landed me in new territory in many ways.  I joined seven other Teaching Assistants (TAs) as a graduate facilitator for two sections of a 400 person mega-lecture on Classical Mythology.  We covered texts by Apollodorus, Ovid, Hesiod, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Plato.  I became really interested in the mythology of Pegasus, his genealogy, images of the magical creature, and contemporary uses and retelling of his story, especially Disney’s revision of his birth in Hercules and story of the pegasoi in Fantasia.  I had so many questions that I would pursue as part of the class, as I do not work much in this period.  Does Pegasus qualify as a monster?  If not, what is he?  What about his brother?  What’s up with that guy?  Any way, it’s easy to get distracted in your own interests in a course, but, of course, as a TA you need to stay focused on helping inexperienced learners think about the content as well as the discipline in general.

Teaching Assistant Thoughts

1.  Learn from the other TAs, and foster a space to learn from each other.

Being part of such a large course where there are several facilitators leading was useful because there were lots of ideas for discussion sections upon which to draw.  It was definitely useful for me to be among a group of more experienced TAs who have worked in large classroom settings like this.

2.  Managing attendance requirements in such a large course.

Discussion sections were one thing, when we were in a more or less average sized group of about 25 students, but the lectures were another beast altogether for TAs maintaining attendance.  One thing we tried was dividing the theater up into assigned section seating, leaving the first two rows for those who may need to sit close to the stage and screen.  It was a little confusing at first, and met with a little resistance.  I think it would have been useful to be more precise by actually saying rows 1-5 seats 1-10 for section A & B.  Maybe it is more work than necessary.  Not sure if that would have made the directions more clear, but it’s something to consider when managing the course’s expectations.  To take attendance, I taped up a sign in sheet near my section and greeted students as they signed in, though some TA’s had students check-in with them in person.  Some students would come and sign-in with me at the end of class, it was a little difficult to know whether they had been there the whole time. How can attendance policies be best managed in these situations? An important question to keep testing.  Also, learning 50 names and faces was challenging, especially when we only meet 1 each week for 10 weeks in our section groups.  Learning names accurately is such an important community building tool and method for inclusion.

3.  Consecutive sections work really well for me.

It was especially useful for me to have two consecutive discussion sections of the same class.  I felt a little bit like the first section was rougher, quite, less engaged.  The second section was boisterous, more interactive.  Was this because I felt more confident in the second having worked some bugs out of my plans to facilitate?  Or was there just a different temperature in the room?  How can a TA adjust the same plan for two very different groups?

4.  Do not put the burden of the class work on your self.

I also felt like sometimes I was giving students too much of my own thinking and not pushing them to think critically.  I was not always sure that I was being clear.  Sometimes, I think that I am asking them to think at a level they are not at.  I am not always sure confident in what I am doing to create discussion.  For me, there is a lot of murky territory, especially in a class like this, general education, many different majors, and me being new to UCSC and not really knowing how required courses fit into the curriculum is/was challenging.  In the classes I previously taught (also different because I was the instructor), I relied heavily on interpreting outcomes and objective.  Maybe doing that would help or speaking to someone who is on a committee for undergraduate education if issues like this arise again.

I, and I think other TA’s, also have to remember that it is easy to place anxious feelings and uncertainties about the success of discussion sections squarely on ourselves, which is not a good habit, nor is it accurate.

I also must note that in my evaluations one student pointed out that I did not give enough time to short writing activities that we produced in class.  I want to make sure to improve this by polling the class early on to see if this is necessary.  I am not sure that this goes for everyone, if only one person noted it.

5.  Establish clear rules and expectations for any peer review work.

My attempts at peer reviewing writing failed miserably!  This is in part due to the assignment being due on Fridays and my sections were on Tuesday, so many students just hadn’t started.  If I am going to try this in the future, it will likely depend on scheduling.  But I can set aside time and activities for prewriting.  Managing my own time was also a challenge.  There were a lot of students, a lot of grading.  Rubrics and clear evaluation guidelines are essential to speed this up.  Though getting all students to bring their texts was challenging and always an unfulfilled goal, when I had a handout prepared–the day before class, because copy machines always rebel when you have to move quickly–I had much more response and felt accomplished.

6.  Some things I did that I really liked.

Day One Stuff — “Ice Breakers” that don’t waste time and are not cringy.

Day one was a good day.  Not because it is the “easier” of the days, but I had a fun creative activity that got people writing, sharing, introduced, and thinking about the class.  I had students write about themselves, as if they were writing a myth about themselves.  Of course, only including what they were comfortable sharing, these myths could be as autobiographical or fantastic as they wished.  It was really good.

In case I ever get the chance to teach Medea again!

I really enjoyed thinking about the staging of mythic tragedy and we watched in fascination the Japanese production of Medea by Ninagawa (see video above, it’s fantastic!).   I like this, but I would do it differently next time, asking groups to find clips of other reproductions and discuss the choices made in the direction of the play with some guiding questions.

PROMPT DECONSTRUCTION–THIS ONE IS REALLY IMPORTANT!

Oh, one really important thing that I should have done sooner was prompt deconstruction.  I noticed after grading the second out of three writing assignments that prompts were not being answered fully.  For the final prompt, I  modeled with a prior prompt how to pick out the tiny essential tasks buried in a prompt.  Then, I devoted time to group work where they created as many small question for each of the prompts as was possible.  We compared this with other groups to see if anything was left out.  For a group of lower division non-majors, this was an essential task for many students that helped them see what they needed to do to fully build an answer to the prompt that takes a position.