it’s 12 o’clock, do you know where your TAs are?

The first meeting of my undergrad class is in 57 hours.  Not that I’m counting.  I have sixty students registered, and the students have signed up for discussion sections along with the lecture.  I do not, at present, know whether I have one or two TAs.

Am I weird to think that at this point I should know whether I have one or two TAs? I’ve had a plan for what I was going to assign the students work-wise, which may have been slightly stretching it with myself and two TAs but will be flat-out impossible and so require substantial revision with only one.

With respect to my graduate seminar, I find myself hindered by the fact that not only did I not teach any seminars at Wisconsin, I can’t really remember what happened in whatever seminars I took at Indiana.  I know it seems weirdly late to be making a general call for ideas, but does anyone have any recommendations for what makes for a good graduate seminar?  I know more or less what topics the seminar will cover; it’s more the format that is the issue.  An added wrinkle is Northwestern’s being on quarters; this will be my first experience teaching with a quarter system.

The graduate seminar I expect will work out okay regardless.  “What’s the worst that can happen?” is what I tell myself.  Except, then I remember it’s a seminar about “genetics and society” and I imagine someone wildly misunderstanding something I say and there being riots.  Yet despite my penchant for deep pessimism I have decided to proceed with the conviction that riots will not happen.

The undergraduate course, on the other hand, I am really quite nervous about.  It’s been unconscionably long since the last time I taught undergraduates, especially considering how much I enjoyed the undergrad teaching I did at Wisconsin.  (More, no offense to anyone intended, than I enjoyed teaching graduate students there.)  I’ve decided to try something quirky in how I’ve organized the course topics-wise, and I have no idea how it will go.

My dream is to develop a gratifying and well-received course at this level, and then teach it every year until I die.  I know that Version 1.0 will involve me figuring out how to do things better the next time, but still I want to feel like I’m doing well the first time through.  I don’t know about y’all, but when teaching is going well it is something from which I draw a good deal of energy and enthusiasm to other parts of my work, and when it’s not going well, I just want to crawl into bed with some mints and wallow.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

11 thoughts on “it’s 12 o’clock, do you know where your TAs are?”

  1. The graduate seminars I have taken that had the best discussions all required weekly or nearly weekly response papers. While presumably something of a pain for the professor, the reward of regular feedback and fear of discovery made doing the reading much more rewarding, and hence the class discussions much more on point and engaging. Students may moan a bit about them, but each of those classes has afterwards been regarded as one of the best. I think it also greatly eases the burden of student presenters (if you have them), since everyone has some thoughts written out ahead of time. A course I took last fall required the response papers to be turned in a day or two ahead of time, to be handed back at the beginning of class. I’m a bit more neutral on this policy – I honestly think in the frantic pace of the term that making students do the reading 2+ days in advance sometimes leads to people forgetting the details.
    But, to make a medium-length comment short, response papers good.


  2. I agree with Dan. Like I said in response to Tina’s related post, writing memos before each class (or almost every class) can be very helpful both as a student and as a prof. It certainly helped me take away much more from those classes as a student, and as a prof it helped me understand where students stood regarding the material. Then asking students to lead discussions can help get them engaged actively in class.

    So what’s the quirky organization?


  3. I agree. Graduate seminars with weekly responses tend to be the best, particularly since the success of a seminar is wholly dependent upon good discussions and response papers really facilitate those.

    If you make the response paper requirement substantial enough, your graduate students — particularly those who are currently teaching themselves — will thank you if you don’t have a final review essay/paper.

    If you are going to have a final, though, it’s probably better to make it more open-ended in a way that allows students to do a small chunk of a grant proposal, literature review, etc. that will actually be helpful down the line for them, rather than a more structured review essay assignment, for example.


  4. jay141: I realized that the class has four scheduled discussion sections, two at each of two different times. So presumably I do have 2 TAs.

    I have no idea how the normal allocation of class sizes and TAs is done.


  5. I came across Paul DiMaggio’s Sociology of Culture syllabus recently and was very impressed by how he spelled out his overall approach and – most relevant for this discussion – how he wanted students to approach the almost-weekly memos. Five stars for demystifying academic work. You can access his syllabus from here (apologies, I haven’t figured out the embedding link thing):


  6. I came across Paul DiMaggio’s Sociology of Culture syllabus

    I took Paul’s Soc of Culture course in grad school so experiences with his seminars are partly what taught me how helpful memos can be. (Other faculty in the department also use that method and it was always valuable.)

    Worth noting here is the amazing amount of care that Paul puts into reading and commenting on his students’ memos. He used to respond to them in great detail in writing. Very impressive, and helpful.


  7. Re: the TAs — Just imagine how the poor graduate students feel. It indicates to the grad students that teaching as a team requires no effort from the team and that teaching requires no preparation on their part.

    Nice lessons. Sorry but this really bugs me on all levels.


  8. Q: I agree with your concern about the teaching problems of last-minute appointments. My TAs for spring are still being assigned. At our school, a lot of the problem is that the grad students quit at the last minute to take research jobs, and then we have to shuffle everyone around to get people assigned to things that they are at least vaguely qualified to teach. On the other end, we have some TAs who assume they don’t need to show up for work until classes begin, even though they are payrolled from the week before, and seem resentful of the idea that they should be expected to cut their vacations short or do anything to prepare in advance for the class. This is a minority, though.


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