Graduate Handbook | Teaching Assistants
Teaching is an integral part of your professional development. Work as a Teaching Assistant provides an opportunity to develop your skills in this key area. The American Historical Association provides some excellent links on teaching here (two of them written by our own Terry Seip). Also be sure to check out USC's own Center for Excellence in Teaching (CET), which hosts a TA Wiki. Below you will find some quick tips relating to teaching at USC.
Shortly before the beginning of the fall semester, new teaching assistants (TAs) participate in several days of training by the University, College, and department. New TAs should check with the department for the dates of this training and plan their summer schedule accordingly as these meetings are mandatory.
Preparing and Leading Discussions – Most TAs are responsible for two discussion sections per week with 25 students enrolled in each. These sessions are meant to be discussion-oriented, providing an opportunity for students to engage with the material and actively participate in the learning process. They should not be treated as a forum for mini-lectures by the TA. Work closely with the course instructor in setting priorities and developing lesson plans for your discussion sections. If you plan an absense that will conflict with your attendance at course lectures or your discussion sections, check first with the course instructor.
Grading – Generally, as a teaching assistant you will be responsible for the bulk of the grading process.
- Be sure to meet with the course instructor and any fellow TAs before grading exams or other large projects. Make sure you understand clearly the guidelines for grading. Check back with the course instructor about any questions that arise during the grading process and again before any of the grades are assigned to the students. This process can take a substantial portion of time, so be sure to plan ahead and set aside ample time for such grading.
- You will also likely be asked to keep track of separate discussion grades for your students. Doing so formally and consistently from the beginning of the semester will make this process much smoother.
Office Hours – TAs are required to hold office hours for two hours each week on a regular schedule. These hours should be clearly listed on a syllabus given to your students at the beginning of the semester. Within reason, you must also be available by appointment for students who cannot meet during your regular office hours.
The Course Instructor – Students at USC work as a TA with a course instructor, a full-time faculty member who is usually a member of the history department. Beyond those set by the University or College, policies and procedures for the course are determined by the course instructor. Take time to understand the course instructor’s goals for the course. Work closely with the course instructor in setting policies, procedures, and priorities for discussion sections and grading. The course instructor is an experienced teacher who can be a great resource in helping you refine your own skills.
Fellow Teaching Assistants – Most courses served by a teaching assistant are large lecture courses with more than one TA. Working closely with your fellow TAs can be of great benefit. First, as you work with similar students on the same materials, you can share ideas and experiences drawn from your previous teaching experience. Second, by working closely together you can maintain consistency across discussion sections and grading. (Seek the counsel of the course instructor in determining how closely discussion sections need to be coordinated for purposes of the overall course.) Finally, a fellow TA can be an excellent source of assistance in the event of a teaching crisis, such as dealing with a troublesome student or locating a substitute discussion leader.
As a teaching assistant at USC, you represent the University, Department, and course instructor in your interactions with students. You must maintain professional standards in your conversation and behavior. Though you may not be many years removed from the age of some of your students, your relationship with them must be one of teacher-to-student rather than of peer friends. Though you may have your own insecurities about teaching or disagreements with fellow TAs or the course instructor, these are not appropriate topics of conversation with your students. The best approach is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety in your dealings with students, fellow TAs, or the course instructor.
Work as a TA will likely take up a significant portion of your time. As the old saw has it, “teaching will take up all the time you give it, plus one minute.” But because TAships are regarded as 50% positions of University employment, TAs are not permitted to spend more than 20 hours per week (on average across th esemester) on their teaching responsibilities. Those 20 hours include time spend in lectures and sections, office hours, class preparation (including TA meetigns with instructors), and grading. Some weeks of the semester will take less than 20 hours; other weeks, when readings are heavy or grading must be done, will require more than 20 hours (but you are never permitted to work more than 40 hours per week). Careful planning and scheduling is necessary to be simultaneously effective as a TA and student. If you find yourself struggling to keep up with both, seek counsel from the course instructor, fellow TAs, or other faculty mentors.