May 1, 2023

MEHLER | Become a Teaching Assistant

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As the end of the semester approaches, all students are submitting final projects, writing their last papers and calculating what their grades will be a month from now. While the vast majority of students will only experience classes as a student, one of the most influential activities at Cornell can be re-experiencing the same classes you took as a teaching assistant. All Cornellians should seek to be a teaching assistant for at least one class they took and experience the joy of teaching something you love.

Teaching assistants at Cornell serve a variety of roles depending on college, department, professor and class. However, all of their work for any particular class can encompass a wide range. Teaching assistants can grade exams, take attendance, oversee discussion sections, host office hours, assist with problem sets and serve as an additional resource to students as they go through a course. Teaching assistants can be found in introductory courses with more than 1000 students to even the smallest of courses with only five students. And although common, all TAs are not graduate or professional students; hundreds of undergraduate students serve as teaching assistants across the University.

I have served as a teaching assistant every semester since my junior fall semester, having TA’d a total of eleven courses. These classes have been as small as LAW 6029: Campus Mediation Practicum II with five students to as large as AMST 2001: The First American University with over 400 students. I have had a range of responsibilities as a teaching assistant, but I have found the most rewarding part of the job to come from interacting with other students.

Teaching a subject that you already know well as a student not only helps you understand the content better yourself, but it gives you a perspective that professors simply cannot have. Because you were once a student in that same class, learning that same material, completing those same assignments and taking those same exams, you bring a perspective to teaching that becomes invaluable to students. If you have ever spoken to or worked with a teaching assistant who previously took the class, you know that their help can at times be even more beneficial than that of the professor.

While many graduate students, including myself next year, have agreements to serve as teaching assistants in return for tuition assistance, the same financial opportunity is not fully present for undergraduates. With most classes trading teaching assistantships for credit-based compensation (albeit the ILR exception that demands all ILR students are paid for their work regardless of which class or department they are TA-ing for), many students may not TA because it does not compensate enough for the work required. While that was not the case for myself, I have spoken with dozens of students who have considered TA-ing but do not feel that they would get out of the experience compared to what they would have to put in.

Compensation aside though, the experience of being a teaching assistant is more than something for a resume or additional financial support. TA-ing is an experience unlike any internship or job one may have, even if one plans to work as a teacher. Teaching assistants get to see how courses are put together, executed and reviewed, all without the personal risk of it being their class. Additionally, teaching assistants can have the most influence in changing courses for the better and helping to create a better learning environment for students; as students who have taken the course, we know best how to improve it.

So why should you become a teaching assistant? In addition to pay or credit, you have the opportunity to help students in an unparalleled way in what might be their most difficult time at Cornell. The pride in seeing a concept click for another student, just like it clicked for you, is a feeling unlike any other.

 Patrick J. Mehler is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Mehl-Man Delivers runs every other Monday this semester.