Office Hours, the TA, and you

Over the years, I have come to a certain conclusion: you never know how to do something until you have already done it.

For some things, this is less problematic.  For example: I didn’t figure out how to write a college level paper until the last semester of my Senior year of undergrad.  While it meant that I struggled through writing them for most of my career as an undergrad, it also meant that I had plenty of opportunity to perfect the style in my Master’s and I’m still learning things about how to write a paper (and look forward to continuing this learning throughout the course of my career as an academic).  Things that you, inevitably, will be forced to repeat have an acceptable learning curve.  Your first anything is going to be the sacrificial lamb which dies upon the altar of experience.

Unfortunately, some things you really can’t go back and re-do.

As part of my job, I am required to hold office hours.  While this sounds horribly official, what it truly means is that I make a promise to the students that I will be in a given place (i.e. my office) at a given time (i.e. my hours) and at their disposal to answer any questions they may have about the class, their work, their grades, or the universe in general.

So far, none of the students have taken advantage of this.  I go, I sit, I wait, I bring work

A grading session from my Master’s. Yes, sometimes it really is that bad.

which inevitably doesn’t get done because I share the office with many colleagues who tend to want to talk and visit (which, don’t get me wrong, I do as well), and I mark time until I can go home and actually get some work done.

And I wonder, why am I sitting there alone when this is a golden opportunity for some undergrad to grill me about all of the questions I know they should be asking especially if they intend to go on to graduate school?  Why can’t they see that this is a gift, a precious commodity of connection which they could be cashing in on in order to better edify and prepare themselves for the life to come?

And then I remember: when I was an undergrad, I never went to office hours.  In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of out-of-class interactions I had with professors who were not my advisor (even the professors who had the most profound impact on my academic career and/or personal development).  This is not to take into account that I’m not even a professor; I’m a TA.  I never even spoke to the TAs when I was an undergrad.  They were like some sort of weird mutant minion creature that the professor had cooked up in vats to do his bidding because he was too busy working on his latest book project to grade our finals.  They didn’t warrant making eye contact with much less speaking to.

Ah, the certainty of youth.

Alright, let’s set the record straight: a TA is a teaching assistant.  It’s an individuals hired by the department to help make the professor’s life easier.  This individual knows the subject matter, but perhaps doesn’t have as much in-class teaching experience as a tenured professor (but then again, who does?).  That doesn’t necessarily mean that this individual isn’t smart, capable, and desperate to answer your questions.  In fact, it probably means that the individual ischamping at the bit to get a chance to pass on something valuable.  A TAship is often the first in a long series of steps towards becoming a real professor.  We all serve our time observing, working in a supervised environment, and doing a bit of grunt labor so that we too, someday, can have the coveted job of molding young minds.

The TA’s office hours can be extremely helpful if you find yourself struggling with your writing, understanding an assignment, understanding the course material, or even the college experience in general.  Think of the TA like a friendly neighborhood spiderman: the TA is closer to the undergraduate experience and so is more likely to remember what it’s like, the TA knows the library resources really well because she spends her days digging through them, the TA is excited about whatever it is that you’re studying and would love an opportunity to pass on some wisdom, knowledge, or advice, and the TA works closely with your professor and so knows what is expected of you/the class in general.

Think about the possibilities for a moment.  Instead of turning in a paper that you think may be what the professor wants, with a little advances planning you have someone to ask!  You can better understand course expectations!  You can learn what a comma splice is and why people keep writing in the margins that you’re making them!  You can improve your grades with better communication, pointed questions, and a little bit of diligence!  The TA is there to help, not laugh maniacally while marking down your work for something you did but didn’t think to ask about, so think to ask about it.  How can you use this person to your advantage?  This MVP can bat for your team if only you would take the time to ask her.

So love your TA.  Embrace your TA.  Don’t worry about being bitten by your TA and turned into a radioactive creature of the night… unless your TA actually does glow in the dark and has weird freakish horns, green skin, and eyes without pupils, then you might want to worry.