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LAS Teaching Academy: Working With TA's and RA's

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Notes on Best Practices for Working With Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants

LASTA workshop, 1.26.10

Faculty Presenters:

  • Alex Scheeline, Dept. of Chemistry
  • Andrea Golato, Graduate College and Dept. of German Languages and Literatures
  • Leanne Knobloch, Dept. of Communication
  • Sarah Grison, Dept. of Psychology

Moderator: Cara Finnegan, Dept. of Communication (author of this synthesis of the discussion)

Best Practices for Working With TAs

Intellectual/Relational Considerations
  • Make sure you value TAs as intellectual resources for the course, and let them know that. Give them opportunities to contribute to intellectual development of course. Involve TAs in curricular change, encourage their ownership of the course.
  • TAs are often eyes/ears in course overall; they can help you figure out potential problems in course and troubleshoot.
  • Empower TAs to problem-solve themselves; they don’t always have to come to you.
  • Work consciously to help TAs see how they fit into overall course goals/objectives.
  • Be aware of your own power!
  • Treat TAs as colleagues.
  • Foster community spirit among TAs: dinner/pizza/socializing all help everyone think of themselves as a team.
  • Temper criticism with praise.
  • Model good teaching practice yourself!
  • Promote competence by communicating best practices of pedagogy as well as course content.
  • Promote autonomy (not the same as independence) by encouraging TAs to develop their own versions of course materials, revising current ones.
  • Invite feedback on your own supervision practices.
Practical Considerations
  • Keep notes from year to year so that you don’t lose institutional knowledge when TAs change over time.
  • Create a culture of information-sharing across the staff.
  • Encourage senior TAs to help newer ones.
  • Meet regularly with TAs.
  • Pay attention to GEO contract guidelines about work expectations, feedback, etc.
  • Observe TAs’ classroom teaching and give useful, prompt feedback.
  • Always put expectations in writing (esp. helpful for international TAs).
  • Keep interactions focused on what you can do for them at any given moment to discourage too much monopolizing of your time.
  • Act quickly to nip potential problems in the bud.

Best Practices for Working With RAs

*see also Graduate College’s “Mentoring Toolkit” for grad students and advisors; much of this information may be applied directly or indirectly to working with RAs as well. http://grad.illinois.edu/faculty-staff/mentor-toolkit

Intellectual/Relational Considerations
  • Encourage intellectual investment in the work by making it clear how important their labor is to your research project.
  • Be clear about how individuals’ work fits into goals of project overall.
  • Cultivate idea of working together as a team via regular meetings, socializing.
  • Use RAship as opportunities for giving students new to research concrete, valuable training/practice they can apply later in their own work.
  • Emphasize higher-order issues so RAs keep bigger picture in mind as they work.
  • Celebrate successes: exciting discoveries, conference papers, publication, awards.
  • Treat RAs as the professional collaborators that they are.
Practical Considerations
  • Make work expectations very clear (esp. with undergrads) and put them in writing (e.g., giving undergrads doing research a syllabus that outlines expectations).
  • Encourage accountability by using time-sheets, work logs, and similar report methods.
  • Meet regularly to encourage regular work.
  • Having an RA means YOU need to stay on top of things! Make sure you’re staying on track with the project so you know what you need from RAs and when you need it.
  • When possible, hand-select people to work with (esp. important with undergraduates).
  • Emphasize accountability.
  • In team settings, monitor group interactions to nip potential communication problems in the bud.

This document was reproduced with permission from Cara Finnegan, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, who authored the synthesis of ideas from faculty panelists.