Reflections of a retiring TA

It is often assumed that Teaching Assistants are powerful, vested with institutionalised power to instruct, monitor and evaluate. No doubt, these represent power over the students. But this is nothing compared to the power that students have over the TA; a kind of power that is silent but brutal. When a hundred notebooks close silently, it can bring the mightiest professor to a halt. A few glances at the clock or one row of blank expressions can freeze the vulnerable TA and crush his ego at the same time. There is no experience more humbling that the knowledge that you cannot create an interest by discussing world peace or economic collapse when someone outside the class can make them smile with a text message like, “Hey, what are you doing?”

The stakes are high. They decide if you’re cool, if you belong to this place and time, if you are knowledgeable, good looking, witty and everything that you wish to be. None of these, of course, are said in words. I instantly knew that I did not belong when fifty eyeballs turned to me saying, what is wrong with you, when I asked, “did you enjoy the mid-term exam?” I knew I was a relic of the past when the polite comment of a student invited muffled giggles from the entire class, “Oh no professor, I am not texting. I am just entering the date of the next quiz in my blackberry”. If they can quash your ego, they can also prop it up. An occasional comment like, “I think it is cool that you use Skype” would make me sigh with relief; I still belong to this generation.

Being a TA is like going through a long trial in front of critical jurors who will decide something more critical than life – one’s sense of self-worth. The TA surrenders his ego to a set of strangers to be tried week by week for months together. We crave for that occasional smile, a question, a moment of engagement or any other small sign of approval every meeting. What is the power that a TA has to monitor a student a few times a semester compared to the power every one of them has to monitor your every word, every week?

We work hard, prepare, anticipate, discuss with the hope that we can find the ultimate strategy to salvage our sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, there is no definite strategy. Each class is a live organism with its own moods, desires and ideas. What works in one does not work in another. It can be a hit in the morning and a flop that evening, leaving the poor TA vulnerable and exposed. Some days its fun and sometimes its frustrating, and overall it’s a rich learning experience that leaves you without any doubt that your control over the world is limited.

And there was that last day of the discussion sessions. The impatience in them was palpable when I took a brown envelope with forms that evaluate me. “When do we get to evaluate you?” asked one student with a sparkle in his eye that unparalleled anything I had seen so far. I felt at that moment that the student’s experience of the TA must be analogous to masturbating…strenuous, painful at times, but it has that one last sweet moment – when they get to evaluate me. It is time for me to retire from being a TA. I may become a full-fledged teacher one day, but it will be with a firm knowledge of my limited influence, a willingness to surrender and the wisdom to enjoy the moment when it presents itself to me.

Ps. Let me add that I had a great time as a TA and I have high regards for my students.  This piece was inspired by the good relationship I developed with my students.  They started gently pulling my leg on a number of issues and this is my turn to get back at them with love 😉

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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