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Peer blog: Academic dual citizenship: My experience as a student and TA

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy November, everyone! Here we are, about 75% done with the fall term. Whether you are in the first year of your undergrad or fourth year of your PhD, I can guarantee we are all thinking the same thing: how the heck did I do that? By this point, you have likely handed in a few assignments, completed a few midterms, and, if you’re a TA, graded roughly 7000 assignments and/or midterms. So far, I have quite enjoyed being a dual citizen in academia. By this, I am referring to my status as both a Queen’s student and employee. As a student, I get the opportunity to learn about the things I am truly interested in and, as a TA, I get the opportunity to teach about the same. It’s a win-win situation.

This semester, I am taking the “Biological Bases of Behaviour” course. One of the required assignments was a press release in which we had to translate a recently published scientific article into layman’s terms for a non-scientific audience. The task seemed daunting, but I was intrigued by the challenge. These sorts of writing projects force us, as students, to flex different muscles than what we’re used to, especially because academic writing can be very formulaic. For example, lab reports begin with an introduction, followed by methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. After several years of writing lab reports, this style becomes ingrained in our brains. But then, every once in a while, a professor throws a curveball, like this assignment, which requires us to break the mould and get a little creative.

Press releases allow you to draw on a slew of literary practices otherwise frowned upon in scientific writing. Adjectives? What are those? Personal commentary? You wouldn’t dare! Definitive statements?! I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to write one. Nevertheless, I forged ahead on this journey reintroducing myself to the world of creative writing. As I began to write, I was nagged by the thought of: “well, don’t just summarize it,” which, ironically, is something I often tell my students when they review journal articles. So, naturally, the first thing I did was write a summary of the article. I then turned to SASS’s writing resource about avoiding plot summaries for guidance on what to do next. Although this blog specifically discusses how to avoid summarizing stories, not experimental studies, the key strategies were directly applicable to this assignment: you must provide just enough detail to situate the reader. and then focus on discussing the importance, rather than the story line, of the article. All said and done, I was proud of what I created and received very positive feedback from my professor!

My favourite aspect of TAing is interacting with the students. However, due to COVID-19, I knew this might not be possible because professors were forced to tweak their approaches to teaching. Unfortunately for us TAs, this meant that many professors eliminated the synchronous lab/tutorial components from their curriculum. Although I completely understand why this had to happen given the constraints of distance learning, I was crushed to find out my weekly 3-hour lab sessions had been whittled down to a mere 1 office hour per week. I have been a TA for 2.5 years now, yet this is the first TAship in which I have had almost no face-to-face discourse with the students. On the bright side, this teaching experience (or lack thereof) has only reinforced my fondness for in-person teaching! I look forward to, one day, being able to TA labs in which I can physically be in the same room as the students again!

Well, we made it another month. This is a reminder to celebrate your accomplishments, big and small! With our busy schedules, it is easy to overlook the small things (like receiving positive feedback from your professor), but I challenge you to truly acknowledge the amount of time and effort you put into each feat, and don’t be afraid to bask in the glory of your own triumphs!  A few weeks ago, I presented at my first conference which was a big milestone. I am going to share with you what my supervisor shared with me: take some time to enjoy the success, you deserve it!

See you next month!