TAs take distinct paths to teaching

For money, experience or both, TAs work to find their niche on campus.

Graduate student and TA Andy Mattern helps psychology senior Tara Wong review her contact sheet Monday in Regis’ photo lab.

Graduate student and TA Andy Mattern helps psychology senior Tara Wong review her contact sheet Monday in Regis’ photo lab.

Even Cameron Ferguson admits he’s known to embark on religious theory tangents during classes.
“Tangents tend to be the way I teach,” he said.
Ferguson started as a teaching assistant in the classical and near eastern studies department in fall 2009. That semester, he began his master’s degree in religion and antiquity, and the University of Minnesota “offered him a package” that he couldn’t refuse –– including a minimum of $17 an hour, substantial help with tuition costs and comprehensive health care.
Teaching assistants at the University enter the program for reasons ranging from financial need to curiosity.
The University employs 2,189 graduate students as TAs as of March 13, according to Susan Cable-Morrison in the Office of Human Resources. Along with graduate students, undergraduates fill teaching gaps. The College of Biological Sciences, for example, employs 62 current undergraduate and 31 graduate students as TAs.
Cable-Morrison said there has been a slight reduction over the past few years in the number of graduate students in TA positions, but not a dramatic one.
But the number of CBS TAs is increasing as undergraduate students fill spots previously held by graduate students, said Bruce Fall, an education specialist in the biology program. He said for the fall semester, he and a colleague will likely employ about 25 TAs for three basic biology courses.
A typical TA would have taken upper-division biology courses with a CBS major and be a junior or senior with a 3.5-plus GPA, Fall said.
But despite differing reasons for becoming graduate and undergraduate TAs, students have been surprised with the results, from making new friends to discovering the amount of knowledge they can offer students.
‘They take pity on us’
Ferguson said taking a TA position was essential for him, as is the case for the majority of CNES graduate students.
“The reason for it is because we’re all going to be poor coming out of this major,” said Ferguson, who received his bachelor’s degree from the University in religious studies and Latin. “So they take pity on us … they cover your cost of tuition, they give you health insurance.”
With that financial support, he currently is a TA for Greek and Roman mythology, where he does the “grunt work” — leading a discussion group and grading the work of his portion of the entire course’s students.
“I like to think that I do all the work and get none of the glory,” Ferguson said, “but it’s not true.”
Teaching classes involving Bible interpretation meant Ferguson had to “tiptoe” with students, he said, because some are always “reluctant, for example, to accept the fact that Paul only wrote seven letters in the New Testament.” But he said this isn’t too bad and he enjoys teaching overall.
“The most brilliant ideas you ever hear come from your students,” he said.
S. Douglas Olson, a CNES professor, has known Ferguson for more than four years. Olson taught Ferguson as both an undergraduate and graduate student and had him as a TA last fall.
He said Ferguson is “full of energy,” wanting his students to feel the same excitement for the subject he does.
Ferguson said he will pursue his doctorate at the University of Chicago Divinity School this fall, with the ultimate goal of being a professor.
‘On par’ with her students
University genetics junior Amy Kaschmitter glanced over her shoulder in Spanish class and saw a familiar face. Sitting behind her was a student she recognized –– a peer in this class, but also a student whose biology labs she graded as a TA in another course.
“It was like instantly I was on par with one of my students,” Kaschmitter said.
University sophomore Samantha LaBrasca and Kaschmitter soon became friends. They talked about Spanish in biology labs and biology in Spanish class.
“She really tries to relate to the students, which obviously she can because she’s still an undergrad,” LaBrasca said.
Last fall, Kaschmitter taught University students who she said take biology to meet a liberal education requirement.
But because she had never taken the class herself, during her first semester Kaschmitter attended weekly training sessions with Fall, who told her what to emphasize for her students.
“They don’t know biology,” Kaschmitter said, “but at the same time, whatever their major is, I probably know nothing about that.”
The most difficult thing, she said, was learning to grade fairly and consistently, and she soon discovered she had to relearn basic biology.
“You realize when students ask you a question where you might have gaps in your knowledge,” Kaschmitter said.
This semester she teaches two lab sections for Biology 1001 and plans to be a TA again next year.
Discovering the ‘human element’
The studio of Andy Mattern, a second-year graduate student and TA, is lined with pictures of orphaned gloves and mittens he’s spotted during the winter. Other photos depict dirty snow chunks, which Mattern, who grew up in New Mexico, described as a “local phenomenon.”
The chance to try teaching, as well as the financial perks, were the two reasons Mattern decided to be a part of the program.
“It’s a great deal,” said Mattern, who began as a TA in fall 2009, “because you get your school paid for, essentially.”
James Henkel, an associate professor in the University’s department of art, said that as a TA, Mattern is “almost like a second instructor.”
“His absolute love of the medium is what makes him so effective,” said Henkel, who said Mattern is one of the best TAs he’s had.
Mattern said he thought he knew what being a TA would be like but was nonetheless surprised.
“It was illuminating to realize that I actually have something to offer,” Mattern said.
He said the “human element” has also been interesting — he was not just teaching the technical aspects of photography.
“It’s about dealing with people and being sensitive to the range of experiences they’ve had,” said Mattern, who graduated from the University of New Mexico with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2002.
Next year, he would have “first dibs” on the photography classes if he chooses to continue down this path, but he said he hasn’t decided yet.