Becoming a MCS TA at UTM

Foreword

Note: This article is a collaborative project done by all the TAs at the UTM White Van Discord (http://discord.gg/Efr5aKkDDZ). Thank you Georges for proofreading, Paul & Akira for providing insight as math TAs, and everyone else for helping out!

Introduction

TAs are an integral part of your university career — they lead tutorials/labs, provide guidance to students, mark assignments and tests, and answer Piazza questions (No doubt you’ve already seen Naaz’s speedy response time if you’ve been TAed in one of her courses). The job is (in my opinion) really great — being able to see the progression of students’ understanding and helping them through the course content is really fulfilling. By teaching it, you also get to solidify your understanding in the course. In addition, the pay is solid as an undergrad — the current pay is $46.24/hr plus vacation pay (Source: UTM CS TA Applications site)

By now, you’re probably thinking: wow sounds like a really great gig. Where do I start?

Working as a TA

There’s four types of positions for TAs: lab, lecture, prep, and marking (personally I’ve been employed for the first three).

Lab TAs are the ones you’re probably the most familiar with — they lead tutorials in which they either review course content and solidify your understanding by working through problems or they help you through a tut/lab assignment which are handed in for marks.

Lecture TAs are employed in classes that employ an Active Learning Model. Whether you love ALC or hate it, TAs are necessary to guide students along the in-class activities and answer questions that arise.

Prep TAs work on content creation leading up to the semester, so usually they work during summer or winter break. Their duties could include assignment & lab creation/revision, providing input on the syllabus, and creating course websites/Discord servers.

Marking TAs are TAs whose sole duty is to mark. These usually go to very experienced TAs since there are less of these positions and they’re ideal for TAs that are currently working (co-op/full time).

However, your TA duties will not always be exclusively lab/lecture/prep/marking. Your duties will have a majority of its hours towards your position, and then some marking/lecture/prep work like helping out on Piazza or with an exam jam, marking the midterm/final, etc.

Getting Hired

Obtaining your first TAship is difficult, however once you do you’ll have momentum for further TAships and will find it easier moving forward.

First off: where do you apply?

This page has all of the information you’ll ever need! It links to each department’s method of hiring (Google Form/separate site) and the application deadlines for the upcoming hiring periods.

Next up, what do professors look for in applicants? These factors are going to be ordered by importance.

Previous experience — Without a doubt, this is probably one of the major contributing factors to getting hired. People who have TA’d previously can be cheaper to hire and have a proven track record.

Being known by the profs — It’s easier to hire a familiar face that you’ve talked to as you have more of a basis for how they are as a person. Obviously don’t talk to profs with the pure intention of seeking a TAship as they’ll see right through you. However going to office hours, being involved in class discussion, and demonstrating your understanding by answering questions on Piazza is a great way to get started. For students seeking to TA in their second year, this is the most important factor.

Having a good GPA— This varies between departments, but having good grades in your courses is a good indicator of your academic skills. However, it’s not a deal breaker for CS! There’s plenty of amazing TAs that don’t have the best GPA due to a weak first year.

Doing well in the course— This isn’t a hard and fast rule as I know of some people who TA’d courses that they didn’t 4.0, but it definitely adds credibility to you becoming a TA!

Express Interest

If you really really want to TA a specific course because you enjoyed it a lot and did well in it — send out an email to the course coordinator! Worst case scenario — your email isn’t responded to & you’re not hired, but you’ll be in the back of their head for future applications.

Showing initiative goes a long way! When they’re reviewing the applications, being able to remember you and your desire to TA that course will help.

For new TAs: be realistic with your course load when you TA for the first time! TAing can be a lot of work, and the last thing you want is a mountain of deadlines and due dates between your courses and TAing (credit to /u/JeffreysTortoise for this great advice)

I got a TAship! What next?

Congratulations! Here’s a short outline of things you will be expected to do:

  1. Attend training, mandatory for first time TAs. MCS offers a department specific one in the fall, but if you get hired in the winter you’ll attend training with other departments.
  2. Sign a DDAH (Description of Duties and Allocation of Hours) form. This form is an outline of your duties and how much hours are allocated for each.
  3. Sign your TA contract, provide bank forms for direct deposit/tax credit

Being a Good TA

Prepare!!! — It’s frustrating for everyone when they come into a tutorial and it’s obvious that the TA hasn’t even reviewed and they’re just freestyling it as they go. It’s not fair to the students that you’re not putting your best effort towards their learning.

Avoid biases while marking — this is difficult as we’re all human but you should try to avoid any unconscious cognitive biases that you may have while marking. Eat before you mark! Juries are more lenient after lunch breaks, the same thing applies as a TA. Marking platforms like Crowdmark are great because all student information is omitted and you’re just presented with the work.

Provide proper justification for a mark — you’ve probably experienced this on your own end as a student. Getting a flat mark with no comments is extremely frustrating! How do you improve? Did the TA even read my work??

Be understanding —Be aware of how your work as a TA can impact student’s and their wellbeing, especially during the pandemic. Belittling students accomplishes nothing, and gives off the impression that we don’t care about students or we want them to fail — when in fact the opposite is true.

One thing to be careful of is phrasing, rather than saying “this question is easy” say “this question isn’t too hard” since it can negatively affect them if they did poorly on that.

Lastly, be patient with questions. It comes easy to you because you have multiple years of practice at a university level, meanwhile these students are fresh out of high school with varying levels of education. Some concepts take a long time to understand, and you may need to explain it from different perspectives.

Conclusion

That’s it from me, thanks for reading! I hope this helped demystify the process. If any TAs have any feedback or stories, I’d love to hear it in the comments and will be updating the article accordingly :)

4th Year CS @ UofT | jarrodservilla.com