As a Teacher’s Assistant, these are the top ten tips I would give my first-year self.
As a graduate student, I had the privilege of being an English teaching assistant (T.A.) and leading first-year English seminars. My experience as a T.A. yielded an unexpected result; I gained invaluable insights into academia from a professor’s point of view. If I could travel back in time, these are the top ten tips I would give my first-year self.
1. Ditch your laptop
It may seem counterintuitive to leave your laptop at home when attending lectures. But, if the temptation to tag yourself in photos on Facebook is too strong, you may want to consider leaving your laptop at home to help you and those around you to focus.
2. Learn to write a strong paper
Forget the five paragraph essay. A thesis is not a statement, but an argument with supported evidence. Make your program’s style guide your bible and most importantly, proofread. This is not just running spell check, but re-reading your work at least once before you print. Ensure your paper matches the assignment requirements – the most papers I failed were because they did not meet the page count.
3. Effort counts
Stalk your professors and T.A.s. Okay, maybe not literally, but attending office hours to ask questions about lecture or assignments is a great way to show your enthusiasm. We love this! Professors and T.A.s will recognize effort when it comes time to grade assignments. I’m not suggesting effort will turn a “D” paper into an “A” paper, but a student’s effort may be the difference between a 62% and a 65%.
4. Partying loses its appeal
Going to the bar five nights out of seven seems like a blast during first semester, but I promise that you will get tired of it. Try to balance the bar scene with joining various campus clubs, which will help you to meet like-minded people outside of the bar scene. This will also benefit your wallet and health.
5. E-mail etiquette
When e-mailing your professor or T.A. do not use slang or short forms. I was inclined to not respond to student e-mails that addressed me as “yo” and used words like “BTW.” Starting your e-mail with Dear Professor Smith and using please and thank you goes a long way.
6. Professors are people too
This is one of the hardest messages to convey to students. Just because you pay tuition does not make your T.A. or your professor your slave. We are not obligated to respond to frantic e-mails the night before an assignment’s due. We do not grade assignments on your schedule. We are allowed to have our own life and not answer e-mails on the weekend.
7. Your first-year will be your worst academic year
But don’t fret, there is a steep learning curve and understand that you are not only facing academic challenges, but you are also dealing with the general upheaval of your life. Clean laundry no longer magically appears and no one is telling you to do your homework. For most students, this takes some getting used to.
8. Have an opinion, but be prepared to support it
Opinionated and engaged students are a professor’s dream; even if a student’s opinion is contrary to our own. But, there is nothing worse than a student who says: “I think you’re wrong” and stops there. If you are going to contradict your professor you better have some strong evidence.
9. Your professor might not care
Although this is a very unfortunate circumstance, it happens. For the majority of professors, less than half of their responsibilities are teaching. The rest is made up of service to the university or academic societies and their own research. They are not paid to teach, but to research, which may be why Professor Smith really could care less about how boring or confusing his lectures are.
10. It’s okay to change your major
You may start university studying business, but discover a passion for women’s studies. University is the most self-indulgent time of your life, which means that it is your prerogative to change your mind. Just be wary of becoming Van Wilder (a.k.a. the terminal student).