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The all-important TA

BY MICHAEL DAVIS | OCTOBER 07, 2009 7:20 AM

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The recent news that UI officials could cut additional UI teaching assistants because of budget cuts — on top of the 150 already axed — was like an unexpected slug.

In my four years at this university, I have had many memorable TAs.
They are the young embryos of the teaching profession. They’re not yet fully tenured but still capable of wearing ridiculous tweed jackets. As newly minted academics in their fields, they provide a breadth of knowledge while still being able to share a beer with you at Joe’s Place.

Professors can give off an aura of mysticism in their weather-worn faces. Sure, they can be helpful during class, and, more often than not, they are willing to work with you outside of class. But TAs are still irreplaceable.

If General Patton was rushing a bunker in battle, TAs would be at his side.

They are highly adaptable to any situation and can work in tight places. Just take a look at the size of their offices. Prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have more room to spread their feet, and they don’t have to write a thesis on the sociological impact of Facebook on teenage adults.

Their lives have become dominated by deciphering coded words and distressing signals: Students can sometimes be messy and schizophrenic writers.

They know how to ration their food. With their small paycheck, many of them survive on ramen noodles and Ritz crackers with a delectable garnish of mustard and ketchup.

The reason teaching assistants are so important to the fabric of this university is that the basis of whether the class is a good one largely depends on the excellence of the TA. Take, for example, the dreaded Interpretation of Literature class. The engagement of the student is primarily based on the engagement of the teacher, and even more so, her or his selections of what students will read that semester. Poetry is a killer for college students. Anything more sophisticated than Shel Silverstein, and we go into epileptic shock.

Making connections with these individuals is another easy way to get on their good side. I can’t even recall the number of times I have gone to office hours to have a chat or discuss an assignment and immediately upon my arrival, they become ecstatic with jubilation. It’s like they were in an iron cage and just released to freedom. Your questions become the oxygen they breathe.

Furthermore, it’s refreshing to see the average teaching assistants have lives outside the classroom.

It’s always great seeing them out on Saturday enjoying the game-day festivities. Seeing TAs chug beers lets you know they are normal, everyday students. With the only exception being that that they just gave you a B- on your midterm. But who cares about the texture and density of rocks anyway?

Living in a dual reality of student and teacher, TAs are more apt to understand our failings and mistakes. They understand the cumbersome technicalities that stress us out. They experience the same types of problems we do, but on a magnified scale.

The news that the UI may cut additional TA positions is distressing on many levels. Professors can inspire us to do great work and think creatively. But teaching assistants can do that as well, sometimes with greater effect. The reason I became a journalist in the first place was because of the influence of a TA in my Media and Consumers class.

So the next time you spot your TA on the streets of Iowa City, say hello and chat with her or him for a while. It beats having to grade the crappy paper you wrote in three hours.

Yeah, they know about it, too: It’s called SparkNotes.

TAs are students, too, after all.


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