In any class at a university, you’ll encounter a course either fully administered by a Teaching Assistant (TA) or assisted by one. University courses and visiting lecture conferences make students think critically. But what is a student to do when a TA isn’t as friendly as the course professor?
What about when you as an undergrad and a TA are unexpectedly students together sharing the same course?
In my time as a student at UCLA, I’ve encountered a wide spectrum of TAs, from those who are optimistic and helpful to the unfriendly, unapproachable and conceited. Last quarter in Arabic was an eye-opening experience where I was in a classroom where all my classmates were TAs except for myself and one other student. It’s intimidating to feel the presence of older, wiser students’ judgments on you for every simple action. You don’t know whether they do this to make themselves feel more reassured about themselves or to critique your habits as a student or, even worse, to judge you as a person.
During one class session, early on in the quarter, I had arrived thirty minutes late due to the terrible L.A. traffic. When I walked into the classroom, all of my classmates gave sinister stares that devoured my inefficiency and my inability to take action to come to class on time.
I buried my face in shame for the first few minutes.
I tried my best to catch up to the lecture, burying the reactions of my peers far from my mindset.
The tension escalated when during the last half of the class, my professor split us into speaking groups for the daily language exercise. None of the TAs wished to communicate with me. They spoke amongst themselves in my group, while I ended up speaking to the wall to appear that I was immersing myself in the language.
Not too long after that, one of my classmates said in a boastful manner, “I’m glad I am not in a class with a bunch of undergrads, they can be so immature.” I know that student wasn’t specifically referring to me but, I know from my own college experience as a non-traditional undergraduate student and from the other undergraduates who are parents, served in the military or left school for medical purposes–those I’ve befriended over the years–immaturity doesn’t apply to all undergraduate students.
As someone who has always loved exploring my deeper curiosities outside of the classroom, I thought by this aspect of my personality I’d attract more likeminded people. But TAs seemed to be in a world of their own with their own kind.
It seems that TAs communicating amongst each other is the norm.
I tried to interact with TAs from the French department at a conference with scholars outside UCLA presenting their research. I ended up in the same cycle; left completely ignored or uninteresting in their eyes. I tried to jump into a conversation about French litérature by talking about works by female French writers Colette, George Sand and Madame de Stael but they heard my one sentence then began to talk amongst themselves all over again. As the only youthful undergrad, I found myself alone. I guess in their eyes, I wasn’t worthy of a conversation because I’m not a PhD student or I didn’t reach their level of knowledge.
It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class where I finally met a TA who was comfortable speaking to me both inside and outside the classroom about film. When I expressed my interest in writing, he kindly invited me to join him and his friends to read scripts and critique each other’s scripts together. It was the first time in my undergrad experience where I didn’t feel looked down upon by expressing who I was.
I was looked upon as a human being, not as some young undergrad taking a course for credit.
After the meetings I had with my film TA it made me realize that the TA’s I’ve come across never got to know my story nor did I learn about any of theirs until the end of the quarter. As usual, when my professor split us into our speaking groups for our daily exercises, I eavesdropped into the conversation of my group. I overheard a conversation between my partners confessing their inner struggles — one was stressed out because he is a father and wants to split his schedule between school time, his wife and kids. The other was expressing her fears about finances as a student abroad, that she never wants to be sent back to her country; how living in Los Angeles is too expensive for the funding she receives as a TA.
It didn’t take me until the end of the quarter to fully understand why they didn’t open up to me or open up amongst themselves earlier. Although I wasn’t active in the conversation, they finally opened up on their own. With time they learned to trust me enough to hear their personal stories. A major issue most TAs face is depression due to their balance of teaching, learning and researching while balancing their personal lives.
All college students have their own personal lives to juggle between family, work, research, internships and their education — it’s hard for everyone.