COE TA Panel 2002 Notes

These are notes stemming from the panel for new TAs given by the College of Engineering during UW orientation, 2002. Thanks to Maria Siciliano for organizing the panel. Contributions below reflect the ideas of the moderator, Dean Chen-Ching Liu, and the three panelists, Marsha Whitney, Charoenchai (Charlie) Khompatraporn, and myself, Steve Wolfman. However, the opinions expressed are my own; so, don't blame anyone else!


CIDR is the Center for Instructional Development and Research. From a TA's perspective, the most important services CIDR can provide are consultations and assessments on your teaching. You can start by checking out their web page and focusing on the SGID (mid-course teaching evaluations), micro-teaching, and similar services. However, the best way to explore CIDR is just to set up a meeting with one of their staff and ask them how they can help you. E-mail them at
Catalyst gives you tools to help integrate technology into your courses. As a CS grad student, I can vouch for the fact that these tools are helpful even if you know your stuff on a computer, and I've heard that they're especially valuable if you don't! There are tools to build web pages, tools to get feedback from students, advice on integrating technology, etc. I'm personally most excited by the Catalyst toolbox. You'll need a UW NetID to log in.
This is a source for all sorts of official university info and services. Charlie mentioned the ability to set up mailing lists from here (which I didn't know about!). You can manage various other aspects of your account and course here. You can also find info about getting your UW NetID from this page.
Other resources
CELT is an Engineering-specific instructional development and research center (like CIDR for engineers). PETTT is a program specifically interested in technology in teaching. They're research-focused but are definitely interested in establishing collaborations with various departments and individuals and have lots of cool stuff in the works. A great resource for starting to understand the challenges facing underrepresented groups in engineering—focusing on women in CS but broadly applicable—is the book Unlocking the Clubhouse by Margolis and Fisher.

Elaboration on the workshop

Quite a few excellent questions and points came up. Unfortunately, that also left some other important points unsaid. I've tried to summarize all the things I wanted to say but either didn't have time or didn't get an opening to say below.

Before jumping in, let me give one caveat. Some of the advice below sounds pretty time-intensive if you want to take every piece of advice, cross every t, and dot every i. Taking this advice to extremes may not be constructive, however. Try it out and use it to the extent that it is constructive and not more. (The only exception to this is taking notes: take that to extremes!)

Key steps to good TAing

We mentioned a few things that you can do to "be a good TA." Here are the key steps as I see them, with several that didn't get mentioned in the workshop in boldface with further notes.

Think about what you want out of teaching

It's important that you understand, going in, what you want to gain from your teaching experience. Funding is an acceptable answer, but be aware that it may not be (and probably isn't!) your only answer. The satisfaction of teaching students is another good but usually implicit answer. Other goals you might consider include: a teaching portfolio to get teaching jobs later, enough experience and understanding of the issues involved in teaching to write a strong teaching statement for a research position, connections with faculty and students (esp. for grad courses!) that will later further your research interests, opportunities for experimentation with new techniques to make you a stronger teacher, or even users/partners for your research projects.

All of these are reasonable and (usually) positive goals! Recognize the goals that matter to you, and make your time TAing contribute to accomplishing them!

Drawing lines

Drawing lines came up a couple of times during the workshop. Setting boundaries on your teaching times and responsibilities will save you from losing track of your other responsibilities: classes, research, home-life, and service. Still, it can be difficult to draw those lines: students may not understand when you need to be doing something else or may be resentful of your "inattentiveness."

The key to making your boundaries stick is to manage expectations. Make clear (to yourself and students) what you'll give to this class and how you'll indicate your status. The "open-door policy" I mentioned is an example of this although it's a bit impractical in 15 person offices. Consider other ways to make this work: post not just office hours but "do not disturb" hours (e.g., "Thursday and Sunday are my days off from class"), make an IM account just for teaching and have its availability status reflect your status, put a sign on your lab's door with a spinner showing your availability, buy a hat with "TA" on it and wear it when you're free... Whatever works!

A key trick: "double-billing"

Did you ever have an engineering course requiring a design project at the same time that a humanities course wanted an eight-page paper and a research paper was due and wonder if you could get away with turning the same thing in for all three? Well, if you can find that sort of "double-billing" opportunity in your teaching, coursework, service, and research, you should usually do it!

There's nothing wrong with making an overlap between research and teaching work for you as long as you invest some time to make sure that the interests of the other parties (your advisor, your students, your instructor, the university, society, etc.) are addressed. Using your current research to inspire problem sets for students or having students build on a system you constructed for your research or for a graduate class are good examples of this.

Created by Steve Wolfman
September 23, 2002
Copyright 2002
Copying is permitted as long as: this copyright notice is included, citation is maintained to the organizer, moderator, and panelists, and a link to this site is given. Fair use is allowed as always. Parodies are especially encouraged.