Graduate School Meditations

Jane the Virgin: TA Reflections

Being a Teaching Assistant (TA) for “Jane the Virgin: Latinx Readers and the (Latin) American Literature,” a 300 person course that examined Latin American literature and popular culture through the lens of a popular dramedy, was a fun experience.  The CW series Jane the Virgin centers on a young writer who triumphs despite becoming accidentally artificially inseminated with an acquaintance’s child, which causes inevitable complications for her career, relationships, and future.  Jane’s identity as a reader and romance fiction author connects the show to a history of Latin American writing and culture that offered many opportunities to examine cultural forms such as telenovelas, metafiction, historiographic fiction, and to peer into the Latin American literary canon introduced by the show.  The course focused on learning about genre, metafiction, intertextuality, and Latin American literature.

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I say it was a fun experience because of the many valuable lessons I learned watching the instructor lead the course.  This instructor was exceptionally skilled at engaging a diverse group of students with active and creative work, as well as making the course inclusive to all students.  She provided transparent explanation of course design and justification for course policy, access to prompts, access to lecture slides, and she even recorded and hosted each lecture for absentee students.

Students were offered the opportunity to produce creative projects for their final exam.  Students produced Latinx literary zines, illustrated children’s books, horror film trailer’s, and performed and recorded original telenovela scripts.  Throughout this post will be samples of outstanding student work.

Teaching Assistant Recollections

1. How can we encourage office hour meetings?

Working with several other TA’s this quarter was useful.  I always try to mine them for ideas.  One discussion we had was office hour attendance as TA’s.  This was the first quarter where I had NO students come and see me.  This is problematic, because many would have benefitted from further assistance.  This quarter, I tested out a system of frequent but brief office hours.  I think this was ineffective.  Speaking with the other TA’s, who had more student engagement during office hours, I decided next time I will not only hold all my office hours at once, but I will also utilize a google doc or some type of accessible sign-up sheet to arrange appointments.  This seems to help students feel like there is a structure, and it gives them a realizable goal.

2. Get Active!

This particular class was not about passive lecturing.  Many engaging techniques were used to facilitate engagement: google docs, online real-time surveys, white boards, google polls, and more.  There were some online survey platforms the instructor used which allowed students to respond and answer with the option to be anonymous.  I thought this feature really made students feel comfortable.

WHITE BOARDS.  These objects may be particular to our department.  The instructor used a grant to purchase hundreds of laptop-sized white dry-erase boards, with markers and erasers, for instructional purposes.  Now, these things are heavy and require some labor to get to classrooms, distribute and collect, but they were useful learning tools.  During lecture the instructor can build in small tasks and questions to check thinking. Students then can hold up their boards and make visible their thoughts and work.  They are great for quick check-in and large courses, which can alienate instructors and students.  We lugged these things to lecture each day–phew!  And they may lose some of their efficiency if used to often, but I am excited to know that tools like this exist and can be made available to any instructor.  I remember at my last school there were things like this, but I had never seen them used, so I was hesitant to try.  Now, I am eager to know what else I can utilize to make these courses more interesting and productive.

3. Scaffolding

In our discussion sections we were encouraged to think really carefully about scaffolding, using a series of short and increasingly complex activities to build learning.  It is important to remind students what they are doing as they do it to make student activities transparent and clear.  Having the whole course laid out in advance, knowing prompt and future assignment goals made this especially easy.  This will not always be the case, but it is essential to use discussion time wisely to benefit students while thinking ahead about the course.

4. Should I make a section syllabus as a TA?

The quick answer, yes. I have on and off created section syllabi.  I decided not to this time around, but I think I will try to stick with the practice.  I decided against it in this instance because the students already had a very long syllabus to manage, and I didn’t want to overwhelm them.  I think it would have been better to do so, this way they are clear on my policies as well as the instructor’s.  This way I can also give them direction for the office hour sign-up sheet I will use in the future.