TA at Grad. School
May 8, 2005 10:24 PM   Subscribe

I am thinking about graduate school in math. Assuming I were to be accepted on as a TA where I apply, how soon does a TA teach classes?

I'm curious to know: if I start in the Fall, will I be given a class to teach right away? It is understood that I will be teaching, but I wonder when. Also, how does the class structure usually work for a TA? Do I get a boilerplate syllabus and a chosen textbook to work with, am I completely on my own, what?

Just curious what I would be getting into. I plan on talking to a member of the faculty about these questions next week, but thought I'd ask y'all too.
posted by teece to Education (6 answers total)
Varies widely, and it really all depends on the school and the program. I'd imagine that if you are at a large state school, they will throw you into the fire fairly quickly; while if you are at a much smaller school you might be assigned mentoring relationships but not teach classes.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 10:36 PM on May 8, 2005

Yeah, check with the specific programs in which you're interested. Though, pretty much every university will try to give you a break your first semester or two. As for your second question, they probably won't just unleash you on the undergrads. Generally, the professor for whom you'll be working will tell you what to do in your sections. Some professors will plan your sections for you down to the minute, some will give you more freedom. But, no matter what, you'll have guidance. Also, the department/university will probably make you take a class on how to teach, depending on how much responsibility you will be given.
posted by epimorph at 11:39 PM on May 8, 2005

From a friend without a MeFi account who wanted to respond:

First, let me wish you luck with your upcoming application process.

Now I'll get to your actual question. This was a popular one at the NCUWM last winter, and I'll share what I learned there with you. If you're offered a TA Position, you should expect to be teaching during your first quarter there. Most schools do have a week of TA Training before school starts, and have a good system in place to offer you guidance and support (as you might imagine, they have TONS of experience with first-time teachers and will have support for you.) However, depending on where you go, "teaching" can mean very different things (something you should ask about when they invite you to visit! Try to go to a TA's section!) A couple of examples....

At the school I'm at now as an undergrad (University of Washington) you start out teaching small quiz sections 2-3 days a week that basically supplement the calculus lectures lead by professors, doing things like proctoring quizzes and answering questions. You don't have to design any curriculum, or really have lesson plans, you just need to be prepared to answer questions and grade homework. You can move into having your "own" class where you have more control, but that's something you have to be motivated to do. (Not really required.)

At the school I'm going to next year as a grad student (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) graduate students teach the whole class -- most first year students teach a course with tightly controlled curriculum (they hand you the lesson plans) but you're in charge of running the show. As you move into teaching something more advanced you get more control over what you are teaching and are expected to structure your own lessons.

A grad student I met from University of Michigan said that sometimes TAs get assigned to the math computer lab. (And at UW, sometimes TAs get assigned to the tutoring center.)

So be prepared for pretty much anything as far as TA-ships go, but don't stress it too much -- you're totally not going to be in over your head, all alone with no one to talk to about if it gets rough.

And with any luck, you'll get an offer that won't include teaching your first year (it's more common than you think.)
posted by j.edwards at 11:50 PM on May 8, 2005

I'm almost done with my first year of my masters in math. The only good answer to this question is ask the graduate program coordinator in your department. Here at UW, freshmen level math courses are large (between 100 and 200 students), and TAs working under the instructor for the course run smaller quiz sections (30 to 40 students). In quiz sections, you talk about homework, do review, etc. Most instructors leave it up to the TA to decide exactly what happens, but there are some requirements to give TAs some structure. First year grad students run quiz sections starting their first quarter with the department.

After a few years, you'll probably be given the option of actually teaching your own class. But you (probably) won't have to deal with that right away.

Also, your institution probably offers some sort of TA/teaching workshop type thing before Fall quarter starts. Your department doesn't expect you to start out with a bunch of teaching experience, so there are people/tools/resources to help you feel more comfortable with running a class. You department and institution wants to see you succeed, after all.

Good luck. Studying mathematics at the graduate level is very rewarding.

On preview:
Small world. And I type too slowly.
posted by samw at 12:02 AM on May 9, 2005

In the name of all that is holy, apply for an NSF fellowship. Even if your odds aren't great, the payout is great and the application is free.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:03 AM on May 9, 2005

It also depends on the financial aid package the department gives you. My department generally offers their incoming graduate students a package that allows them to start TAing their second year. That's basically a fellowship that pays tuition & a monthly stipend; the next 4 years' tuition (& stipend) depend on TAing. We're required to TA for 3 quarters total for our degree, but if you get a grant that covers all of your fees (& gives you a stipend if you want/need one) at some time during your graduate years, you may only need to TA for those 3 quarters.

As for the structure of the classes you may TA, it does depend on the professor. I've TAd for classes that just focus on clarifying the professor's lecture. Others have required me to teach new material in my classes. Often, there's no structure given from the professors. For example, I've been told many times to do something like, "Cover mood disorders." In all classes I've TAd, I've been provided the text required for the class.
posted by Four-Eyed Girl at 6:35 AM on May 9, 2005

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