Monday, August 15, 2016

39 Years Ago - I was a TA at Northwestern

Tuesday afternoon I will be doing a session for the Grad Academy, a couple of days training the campus offers new teaching assistants.  On one of my slides, which are mainly there for the attendees to look at afterward, I ask them if they were around 39 years ago.  I expect none to say they were, or perhaps one or two who say otherwise and that they are doing grad school as a path to a second career. 

In any event, I'm trying to recall what being a TA was like.  I don't think we had any training whatsoever in pedagogy.  And, truthfully, I don't think that mattered.  I believe I was a very good TA.  Then I came down to Illinois and I was a quite horrible instructor in intermediate microeconomics.  This recollection has vexed me over the years.

I have very few concrete memories of what being a TA was like.  What I do recall is:
(1) I held office hours in the Library lounge.
(2) I was the rep on the Grad Studies committee that year and they had changed the requirement from 4 quarter courses, typically 2 courses over 2 quarters, to 6 quarter courses, 2 courses for each of the 3 quarters, and this was a time when it was done without pay, meaning if you were on fellowship that you TA'd as a degree requirement, not because it paid the bills.  A colleague at Illinois told me that the IRS eventually cracked down on this practice.  This was before that happened.
(3) The prof I TA'd for the first quarter was a visitor from Israel and he left to go back home before the grades were entered, leaving that responsibility to me.  This preceded FERPA as a law, I believe.  Anyway, I submitted the grades without incident.

I don't remember the teaching itself at all.  I really wish I could construct a few mental pictures of that.  I did micro the first two quarters and stats the third quarter.  I do remember a handful of students who came to see me in office hours and in stats a couple of students who saw me at Vogelback, then the computing center.  But I don't remember the live class sessions and I would very much like to have a sense of those.

I'm sure I was enthusiastic for the micro, probably not so much for the stats.  Does enthusiasm carry the day, or is there more to it than that?  There is also that the difficulty level of the classes was set by the instructor, not by me.  I ran their playbook.  Elsewhere, I've written that I may simply be better working as a supporting actor in somebody else's project.  As the lead I make too many heroic assumptions, which end up wrecking things.

Being a TA is the first time I did any teaching for real.  It would really help me now to have a better picture of what is was actually like.  Alas, too much of it has vanished into the haze.

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