Adventures in TAing

One aspect of grad school I’m looking forward to is being a teaching assistant my second year.  It is a requirement, but even if it weren’t I would still have chosen to do my part in attempting to teach undergraduates some sort of biology.  I was a neurobiology TA a few years ago for my old undergrad advisor and the experience, though surprisingly difficult and time consuming, was deeply rewarding in a very personal sense.

Of course, there were some drawbacks to being the TA.  My class was roughly 40, mainly upperclassmen undergraduates and roughly a third were human biology majors (aka “pre-med”).  I never whined to my prof or TAs as a student and so went into my TAship naively thinking that there wouldn’t be that much whining.  I was wrong.  I was VERY wrong.  The amount of shit and excuses I heard from 40 students in that single semester was rather impressive.

I don’t like singling them out since I knew quite a few good ones, but the pre-med students pissed me off the most by far because they only had one thing on their minds: grades.  There were numerous safeguards in the syllabus for students to make sure a single disastrous outcome didn’t completely ruin their grade in the class.  In addition, we would regrade anything as long as the student could prove to us he/she was correct (we’d have them cite the book or some other source material), both of us held office hours every week, extra points were given to those who increased successive exam grades, we tended to be VERY generous in our grading, etc.  In all, we gave our students a great class and a fantastic environment to succeed.  Unfortunately, not all succeeded.

Correction: unfortunately FOR US, not all succeeded.  Since a few of those who gave less than stellar performances in the class were applying to med schools they wanted nothing less than 4.0s in all of their classes, so when some of them saw a 2.0 or 2.5 at the end of the semester they freaked out.  Leaving aside how they were unaware of their subpar performances all semester, which I am still baffled by, the prof and I were left to deal with these morons who thought they should have received a higher grade.  I hate to say some of my high school teachers were correct, but the vast majority of the time you earn the grade you receive; and these babies earned their grades.  Four of them were easy to take care of since they simply had no shot of earning enough extra points from regrades to increase their grade in the course.  The fifth one, well, he was another story.

This guy (I’ll call him Steve) really started to piss me off.  He had a 2.5 but he had to have at least a 3.0 on his transcripts so he would look good to med schools, so I looked over and regraded his final exam and found a point or two that I could give him since I felt very generous that day.  This still left Steve about 10 points (1% of the total class points) short of the 3.0 he desired, so he arranged a special meeting with me since the grades were due to be turned in soon.  I explained to him how generous the prof and I were in grading and how even that wouldn’t get him enough extra points to get his preferred grade.  Then he broke out the big guns: he thought he should get a little leeway because he worked really hard in the class.  This is one of my pet peeves, and one that has recently been written about quite extensively due to a recent NYT article.  I told him to take his problem directly to the professor.  He did.  Hilarity ensued.

My prof cc’d me on all her emails to the guy absolutely demolishing every point he brought up in a fairly bitchy manner (god I love that woman).  I later told her I likened it to a “bitch slap through email.”  It was awesome and Steve shut up and finally accepted his grade.

< rant
Most of the reasons why that final excuse of his, the “‘A’ for effort” spiel, so upsets me can be found in the above links, but the main reason it upsets me to the extent that it does isn’t expounded upon in those links.  I don’t want that person dragging society down with his/her ineptitude while thinking that it can be made up for with spent time.  I don’t want a kid in med school, potentially becoming a physician, who couldn’t pass an undergraduate basic neurobiology course with a solid “B.”  I don’t give a fuck how much time is spent studying if nothing was learned.  If I had a student who never came to class and aced all the exams I would be fine.  If I had a student who never missed a class, came to all the office hours, asked intelligent questions, and still failed most of the exams I would have no problem failing them from the course.  Of course, in the last example I’d try to figure out what was wrong with the individual and fix it, but if it just turned out that he/she couldn’t retain the information then so be it.

Essentially, we have to revise how we raise our children.  We have to begin to teach them that the sky isn’t always the limit and that some of them, regardless of how hard they try, can’t be some things.  Your child is not a precious snowflake.  Your child is not special.  Get over it and we’ll all be better off.

/rant >


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Filed under grad school, justice, life, pet peeve

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