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Peer Blog: Tips for Online TAing Success!

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy March everyone! At the beginning of the fall semester, a whopping six months ago, I remember feeling some apprehension about how my TAing experiences would be affected by the pandemic. I even mentioned it in my very first SASS blog. The most fulfilling aspect of TAing for me comes from the interactions with the students, especially during labs and tutorials. Luckily, I had only ever TAed courses with labs or tutorials before this year.

Moving to an entirely virtual learning environment has meant the demise of these interactive course components. The labs have been cut out of both psychology courses I’ve taught this year. In their place, I’ve been asked to run office hours and post a few lab videos here and there. While my experience as a TA has been different this year, my goal has still focused on the quality of teaching: I have tried to ensure the students are provided with the same opportunities as if we were in a classroom together.

Here is how I do it. Maybe you can try some of these tips too!

  1. Be proactive

Most TAs are also full-time students with jam-packed schedules. That means it’s easy for us to accidentally overlook tasks that may not directly apply to our own research or coursework, including their TA duties. But I implore other graduate students to fight this urge! Whenever I am preparing to TA a course, I go through the syllabus with a fine-tooth comb and add the dates of any quizzes, assignments, and tests to my personal calendar. That way, I can keep track of students’ progress and know what sort of emails will be collecting in my inbox.

If I am tasked with introducing a new assignment, I will often pre-emptively complete the assignment myself so that I have a good understanding of the types of concerns the students might have.  

Finally, I make an effort to keep in touch with my co-TAs (when I have them) throughout the term and especially before I begin marking an assignment or test. Maintaining consistency in grading is crucial, so before big marking tasks, I always check in with my fellow TAs to discuss any ambiguities in the grading scheme. This way, we reduce the potential for discrepancies in grading across students. Try these three tips and you will, hopefully, find yourself ahead of the game rather than constantly playing “catch-up.”

Luckily, the skills Kate has learned as a TA also make her a good bread-making instructor!
  1. Be approachable

Conveying approachability has been a tricky thing to master in this new, online world. With everyone so far apart, the chances of face-to-face interactions are minimal. As such, I have employed every trick in my book to engage with the students and present myself as an ally and educational resource.

I have been tracking my emails with vigour. No student email is ever left unread or unacknowledged. Typically, I respond to the students’ emails within 2 hours of receipt. One of my personal pet peeves as a student is when a TA does not respond. To me, it sends the message that the TA is either uninterested in helping or simply does not know the answer. I never want students to think the former, so I always hit the “reply” button. Secondly, I strive to keep an open mind when I am introduced to new perspectives. For example, every so often, a student will approach me to ask why they did not get full marks for a question on an assignment/ test.  In these situations, rather than just reciting the rubric and dismissing their concerns, I invite them to explain their perspective. Students often introduce me to a new perspective I had not considered. I’ll happily concede the marks when students explain their perspective and fair reasoning! The key here is to avoid getting defensive—and to learn more about other Queen’s community members by reading more about their needs (start by reading my fellow blogger Rahul’s take on decolonising the classroom). We all make mistakes: I know it. Students know it. We all know it. Handling these situations with grace and humility reaffirms the students’ trust in me as a mentor.

Of course, even with these tips, there are bound to be a few hiccups throughout the term anyway. Try as I might, I know it is impossible to predict or prevent every debacle. However, I also know that by taking these measures, I mitigate my potential for error as well as simultaneously enhance the learning environment of the students. As long as I am an educator, I will continue to put the students’ needs first and create an interactive space where they can feel confident asking questions and striving for success.

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Peer blog: Decolonizing the classroom: What can you do?

Rahul Patel (he/him), Sarah Cho (she/her), Joseph Oladimeji (he/him), and Grace Okusanya (she/her)

Hello everyone; Rahul here! Since my last blog post on delivering a stellar presentation, I reconnected with my group members from a course where we delivered a presentation on decolonizing the classroom.

It should be no surprise that there is a growing need for instructors and students alike to facilitate building inclusive spaces at Queen’s. The QTBIPOC (Queer/Trans/Black/Indigenous/People of Colour) student community has faced ongoing discrimination. Since our first day at Queen’s, my group members and have experienced this discrimination. In our presentation, our aim was to bring awareness to our experience of discrimination in the classroom, and to explain what we think instructors and students can do to build a more inclusive educational community at Queen’s and beyond.

Now we want to share some of these ideas on this blog.

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Have you ever felt that the methods an instructor used for assessing your learning didn’t fit who you were and the way you experience the world? Was the assessment style an inaccurate way to test your knowledge? Did your instructor give you another chance to show them that you “know”? 

That feeling of injustice is a common experience for many QTBIPOC students. Many of us have been forced throughout our education in Canada to follow a Eurocentric culture of learning. Some of us are lucky enough to learn the system before enrolling at Queen’s, but others have to learn the “rules” as they go. We shouldn’t have to do this, and institutions and community members should recognize the emotional and scholarly labour that goes into the process.

Here are three ways that, whether you’re a student or an instructor, you can engage in a process of decolonizing the classroom.

1. Belongingness

Courses at Queen’s that actively embrace other ways of knowing are few and far between (Indigenous ways of knowing, for example, are often based on oral expression of knowledge). Eurocentric assessments and class discussions can reproduce gender, socioeconomic, ethnic, or other cultural stereotypes.

You, as students, have a unique opportunity to find ways to bring misrepresented/neglected peoples and ways of knowing to the surface; by doing so you will bring forth justice for those whom western institutions typically marginalize. Ask yourself: can you include other ways of knowing in your assignments, presentations, and contributions to class? Can you draw attention to a positive example of knowledge from a non-European culture in your work?

By doing so, you will be showing that white, western people and knowledge should not be the norm. This might not work for every course or in every assignment, but where the opportunity exists, seize it—and if you’re not sure where to start, why not broach the conversation with your professor at office hours.

2. Engagement.

Even the experience of being in class can be a shock to some students. For example, learning the western scientific method asks some students to adapt their approach to the world to the demands of a different culture. Western students, however, are rarely asked to cross such cultural boundaries in return, leaving the marginalized feeling like their traditions, views, and approaches are irrelevant. We need to make it clear that such differences are natural and are valued, that students can be themselves, and that diverse students allow us to integrate unique knowledge, understandings, and perspectives that only they share.

We—students and instructors alike—can help this process of engagement by paying attention to our interactions with QTBIPOC classmates. Are we welcoming? Are we respectful of all opinions? Do we encourage connection and participation? Most importantly, do we value the contributions of QTBIPOC students? Next time you’re writing a discussion board response, speaking in class, or giving a presentation, ask yourself if you can express yourself in ways that recognize diversity of thought and behaviour—and prompt others to do the same. If you’re looking for a way to start, try working towards the intercultural awareness certificate jointly offered by QUIC and the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre.

3. Self-awareness

You might be privileged enough to have role models—people who look, feel, and think like you—in your faculty or discipline. Remind yourself that not everyone looks or thinks like you, and that not everyone may have a role model in your textbook or reading list. If you do feel represented, you can still ask, “What has been misrepresented and neglected in the past? Who has been relegated to the sidelines?”

Reflect on your current and past experiences: how can you facilitate an inclusive climate that increases self-awareness? Are people like you and ideas similar to your forms of knowing dominant in the classroom? If so, can you add to class discussions by sharing materials from beyond the traditional canon? Or showing how people from your background might perceive materials? You might start to think more deeply about your background and about representation in the university by taking some training in awareness, EDII, anti-oppression, and anti-racism.

In conclusion

We all have a role to play in decolonizing the classroom. Instructors, and institutions, have the weight of responsibility, but everybody can help seek epistemological justice for those who were voiceless in the past. Highlighting the invisible work that QTBIPOC communities have done and continue to do is essential. Remember that the goal is not to know everything. What’s more important is making sure that education is a system that encompasses and welcomes students’ lived experiences and ways of encountering the world.

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