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The graduate teaching assistantship has long served a range of purposes in higher education, from subsidizing the high cost of a graduate degree to supplying critical instructional labor, from allowing faculty at research institutions more time for research and scholarship to providing graduate students with on-the-job training. Each purpose is essential, but the last often occurs unintentionally or in unstructured ways.

Many graduate students are reluctant teaching assistants, although the teaching assistantship is the primary type of financial support that many graduate programs offer. When we have polled funded graduate students at our orientations to gauge whether they would prefer to be teaching assistants or research assistants (if given the choice), the overwhelming majority say research assistants.

New graduate students tend to see teaching, or the range of instructional work assigned to TAs, as socially complex and emotionally taxing work—work that in both knowledge and skills they may feel ill equipped to perform and that will subject them to the judgments of undergraduates. They are correct, of course. Experienced instructors understand that teaching is all of these, requiring continual reflectivity, re-evaluation and reinvention.

Thus, at our university’s orientation for new TAs, we offer a session titled TA-ing Your Way to Academic and Career Success. This session is designed to help them connect the dots between their instructional duties and their roles as student researchers, their own well-being and that of others, their TA experiences and their career paths. Most are surprised to learn that the coveted faculty career has become the alternate career path for a growing number of Ph.D.s as faculty lines in many disciplines decrease.

As Leonard Cassuto and others have pointed out, a consequence of the changes in the Ph.D. career landscape is that the teaching assistantship is no longer chiefly an apprenticeship. While the instructional labor that TAs are hired to do must get done, emphasizing or reconceptualizing the assistantship as a source of skills that are transferable within and beyond academe will help students and graduate programs alike meet the current challenges of Ph.D. job markets.

Making Professional Development Explicit in Teaching

What does shifting the assistantship toward professional development require of faculty and of TAs? Mostly it requires attention and intentionality. Just as effective professional development can be integrated into the graduate curriculum without diminishing the curriculum’s content, so too can a wider range of professional development be integrated into assistantships.

TAs already acquire an impressive range of transferable skills while engaged in instructional work, although neither they nor their faculty advisers may realize the extent of it. There’s very little talk within academe about identifying and articulating those skills. Rather, the labor we do is often masked under the rigid categories of teaching, research and service. Such a reductive perspective can be a hindrance to graduate students exploring and pursuing careers beyond the tenure track.

It wasn’t too long ago when the word “skill” was avoided in graduate education, especially in the humanities. But the movement toward identifying transferable skills has been a vital professional development opportunity for graduate students to begin to unpack and articulate the range of competencies they actually use on a day-to-day basis in graduate school.

Karen Kelsky, in her book The Professor Is In, and other career consultants have enumerated many of the common transferable skills graduate students develop from teaching, such as motivating individuals and groups, running focused meetings, using backward design effectively, sharing constructive feedback, and identifying and cultivating an individual’s strengths—the list goes on. While those skills may seem obvious within a list, they are often hidden in practice.

Graduate students’ roles as primary instructors, recitation and lab leaders, and graders help them develop indispensable professional skills. Core among them is the ability to communicate effectively. Professional development initiatives for grad students often point to public presentations on research, such as the Three-Minute Thesis, as a way to hone communication skills. But teaching is also an activity with a process, results and an impact that can and should be publicly communicated.

Teaching challenges us to make our content compelling through storytelling. It obligates us to inspire curiosity. It rewards us for keeping our emotional intelligence sharp. But the art of teaching is often hidden, as teaching is collapsed into an isolated category within an academic portfolio. When graduate students are challenged to think about the ways in which their instructional practices hone communication skills, the veil is lifted and they can see more clearly how teaching is a communicative art.

Communicating Complexity and Practicing Reflectivity

When we are teaching novice learners in our disciplines, our depth and breadth of disciplinary knowledge can be both a blessing and a curse. Developing the habit of imagining what it was like to be novice learners requires us to shift our mind-sets and practices to teach from a place of empathy. The art here is also that of distilling complex information into a form that students with varying levels of knowledge and preparation can understand and apply. Communicating complexity to a diverse audience while guiding that audience toward the goal of understanding is a key to success in any career. That skill alone can help distinguish TAs in their professional career job searches.

The perceptual ability to discern different degrees of understanding is also a valuable skill that teaching develops. Teaching a discipline’s content, practices and habits of mind requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, especially in self-awareness and perceptivity. As instructors, we are often reading nonverbal expressions on our students’ faces. Many of us realized how much we relied on this nonverbal communication when we moved into Zoom and were often met with a set of blank boxes instead of student faces. The high degree to which we use our ability to read student facial expressions and body language to gauge understanding and engagement has been thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic.

It is within those teaching experiences that graduate students can grow and further hone their communicative skills. In order to help stimulate that growth, advisers or TA supervisors can encourage critical reflection in teaching practice. Maintaining a teaching journal, for example, gives students a space to consider where any gaps may lie in their instructional communications and how they can adapt their teaching practices to address those gaps and enhance student learning.

Providing opportunities for graduate students to hone their communicative skills through practice sessions in supportive environments is also vital. Microteaching exercises are a common way to achieve that. TAs can find those 10-minute or so mini lessons particularly useful if they involve an interdisciplinary audience, such as within collegewide or universitywide orientations. They receive feedback from a wide range of peers acting as undergraduate students, as well as from an experienced teacher in the room, and come away with a video recording to help them see and reflect upon their communicative practices and body language. Faculty may consider holding versions of microteaching sessions throughout the academic year for all TAs to continue to practice the art of storytelling, distilling complex disciplinary concepts and honing emotional intelligence to determine engagement and understanding.

Three years ago, as a way of drawing more campuswide attention to the exciting and innovative teaching that TAs do, our Graduate School and Center for the Enhancement for Learning and Teaching partnered to launch GradTeach Live!, a teaching-focused counterpart of the globally successful research-focused Three-Minute Thesis competition. GradTeach Live! challenges TAs to describe concisely and engagingly a touchstone component of their teaching philosophy and to demonstrate or illustrate how they enact that component in their classrooms or labs. Faculty, TAs and administrators are the intended audience, rather than the 3MT’s public or novice audience, but the skills practiced are all nonetheless transferable across career paths.

Graduate school is a crucible where students surmount challenges and forge intellectual habits. While TAs are on the instructional front lines and may often feel besieged and undervalued, they can and should have ongoing opportunities to develop the enduring skills they will carry with them into what will likely be a diverse and demanding portfolio of work ahead.

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