The Mysterious Art of the TA (by Andrew Schlager)


Our old friend Freud, in his essay “Some Reflections on Schoolboy Psychology,” observes that in the course of “a youth’s development… he comes into contact with his teachers” as “substitute fathers.” Regrettable as Freud’s placing of only men behind the desk and in front of the chalkboard is, I was reminded of Freud’s essay when, during the first meeting of my recitation section for British Literature II last year, our TA, a PhD candidate in the department, pointed out during the last five minutes of our class that she was not our mother.

At first I felt surprised that such a fact needed to be pointed out at all; then, I must admit, a slight sting of disappointment. If I came to you in tears, I wondered, would you turn me away and push me back into the cruel cold world? My TA didn’t seem hard-hearted or insensitive, so I began to consider why she had flagged this fact. Eventually I came to see the statement as a quite progressive and professional assertion of her role in the class, as explicator, interpreter and grader, not as consoler and nurturer.

A few weeks ago I emailed that TA, and asked her if she remembered telling us that she wasn’t our mother, and further inquired about just what she thought the role of a TA was. Is the professor the parental figure, and the TA your older sibling or that one cool aunt or uncle who introduces you to the s-word or Pearl Jam? In her response, she confirmed that TAs are “negotiating a position somewhere between peer and authority figure”; she added that a TA is usually “assisting in classes out of her area of specialization.” As a medievalist teaching sections of an early American Literature course, she recalled, “I was as much a student as my students were in terms of the material, but I also wanted them to feel that they could learn something from me.” That “something,” she explained, isn’t field-specific: “I consider my main job to be creating an atmosphere where students feel comfortable talking to one another and learning how to form coherent insights about works of literature. Because the focus is not necessarily on my expertise, the class can be free to pursue alternative (even wacky!) questions, references, and strategies for understanding course material.” So the TA isn’t just a kind of model student: instead, she can create a particular kind of emotional and intellectual space where something like expertise is held in suspension; in this zone, a more playful kind of learning can take place.

“I find that students see the TA as somewhat of a mediator and will talk about the course much more candidly with a TA than they would with a professor,” my former TA observed, noting that the TA can, by the very fact of her not being the professor, serve a subversive or challenging role in relation to the professor’s lectures. Some of my favorite TAs have both explicated, elaborated on and pressured professors’ arguments, though not every TA sees it as their place to offer this kind of opinion. There are those TA’s who create a recitation environment that preserves and requires the formality of lectures, and who view their task as further clarifying and recapitulating to students what exactly the professor has been positing in lecture.

My Brit Lit II TA established a more playful and relaxed dynamic, but she also made sure to define her role. “I also tend to set very clear boundaries with my students from the beginning…..While I never mind a student speaking openly with me about the course or material, and I do strive for my recitations to feel more laid-back than the lectures, I remind them of the many services on campus that can help with more personal issues. I can find my way through seventeenth-century American literature, but I am in no way a qualified counselor or therapist.” That she never lets her position as a TA transform into a therapeutic service or parental attachment (the return of repressed Freud) allows her freer access to all the different identities she slides through in the classroom, creating a richer, more capacious learning environment.

With thanks to Gina Dominick