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Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Make Your Time as TA Work for You

Summary:
Good Work If You Can Get It is backordered on Amazon, but you can still get it on Kindle. Thanks, readers! The book combines data-based analysis of what it takes to succeed with practical advice. Note that I trying to explain how to succeed in academia as it is, not trying to justify how it is.Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on succeeding in grad school, specifically on how to spend your time as a teaching assistant. If this advice seems obvious to you, good. Unfortunately, most grad students don’t follow it.  In the humanities, social sciences, and even in the natural sciences, graduate students usually receive their living stipends in exchange for working as teaching assistants, often for large 101-type introductory/gen-ed courses with hundreds of disinterested

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Good Work If You Can Get It is backordered on Amazon, but you can still get it on Kindle. Thanks, readers! The book combines data-based analysis of what it takes to succeed with practical advice. Note that I trying to explain how to succeed in academia as it is, not trying to justify how it is.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on succeeding in grad school, specifically on how to spend your time as a teaching assistant. If this advice seems obvious to you, good. Unfortunately, most grad students don’t follow it.

 In the humanities, social sciences, and even in the natural sciences, graduate students usually receive their living stipends in exchange for working as teaching assistants, often for large 101-type introductory/gen-ed courses with hundreds of disinterested undergrads. As a teaching assistant, you may be required to attend your professor’s main lectures for two classes a week, then lead 2-3 smaller discussion sections on Fridays. You’ll be expected to grade all the papers and tests for the 50-90 students in your sections. You’ll hold 2-3 office hours per week, which means you’ll sit in the TA office, ready to tutor or talk to any students who decide to drop in.

As a teaching assistant, your university may say on paper that you’re expected to work 20 hours a week. You aren’t really. Don’t. They say “20 hours” for political reasons, to appease state legislators or the board of trustees. In reality, you should work about 5 hours a week on the modal week and maybe 10 on weeks you have to grade papers and exams. If you spend more than that, you’re doing it wrong and sabotaging your career.

This isn’t an economics book, but here’s a relevant economics lesson. In classical economics, the now discredited labor theory of value held that the value of a final product or service is determined by the amount of labor that goes into that product or service. Since the 1870s, we’ve known that the labor theory of value is false. The value of the final product is instead determined by the forces of supply and demand, and the value of the labor that goes into the final product is itself largely determined by the value of the final product. The labor theory of value is not just false but backwards. More labor doesn’t mean something is worth more.

Many students seem nevertheless to believe the labor theory of value applies to teaching: The more time I spend preparing, the better a teacher I must be. Nope. You need disabuse yourself of this myth. Good teachers rock their classes but also ensure teaching doesn’t swallow all their time.

Suppose it takes you 20 hours a week to prepare discussion sections of someone else’s class. With that kind of work routine, you’re not going to hack it as a professor, when you’ll instead have 2-5 distinct courses of your own to teach a week. If it takes you this long to prepare, you’re either wasting your time—putting in effort far past the point of diminishing returns—or you’re bad at teaching. This isn’t the job for you.

As a TA, you might have to attend your professor’s main lectures for 2 hours a week. During those hours, don’t sit back and congratulate yourself that you already know the material. Instead, use that time productively. While your professor lectures, prepare anything you’ll need for your discussion sections, such as handouts, slides, games, or activities. You should think like a teacher, and determine how you would present and explain that very same material. You should grade papers and quizzes. You should take the time to design your own syllabus. If you’re a TA for Government 101, you should walk out of the semester with your own version of Government 101 prepared and ready to go. 

If you have to serve as a TA 10 times in 10 distinct classes, then by the time you graduate, you should have 10 or so classes prepped. If you later get a faculty job, you’ll have less prep, because you already have those 10 classes ready to go.

If your professor has a problem with you doing prep work while he lectures, then your professor is sabotaging your future. (Slip a copy of this page under his office door.)

During your office hours, don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs. Write. Do your class work. Read for your classes or comp exams. If you have to grade, grade. Bring your laptop—and a pair of noise-cancelling earphones if you’re sharing the office—and write your seminar papers or dissertation. When a student comes in for help, stop and help, and then get back to doing your research work. Holding office hours means you must help any students who show up, but it doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from doing your own work when no one’s there.

There are plenty of ways to reduce prep time for classes. For one, you shouldn’t write out an entire lecture. Your PowerPoint slides, if you use those, should probably have less text. Your fellow grad students and professors might be willing to share their teaching materials. (I, for one, make it a point to offer all of my slides and teaching materials to my colleagues and any of our post-docs. Heck, I’ll give them to strangers, including you.) You can try inverting the classroom: each week, assign 2-3 undergraduate students to be discussion leaders who must present the material and lead discussion among their peers. You can give undergrads a list of questions to discuss ahead of time, and have them come in with pre-written answers, ready to talk. At any rate, you should be able to teach a 101-style class off the cuff.

 I’ll return to this point in the next chapter, but I’ll introduce it here: Don’t dwell on teaching. Even though most faculty become full-time teachers rather than researchers, don’t dwell on teaching. If you want to get a job, even a full-time teaching job, publishing beats teaching. Plus, only the people who finish get jobs. The grad students who spend the most time “perfecting their teaching” often fail out of their programs, and thus never get careers as teachers. 

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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