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Ask the Art Professor: How Do I Become a Teaching Assistant?

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"I am an undergraduate student in art school, and I'm interested in being a teaching assistant. How do I become a TA and what is involved?"

Many students are often times confused about how to get a TA position, since every professor has their own process for selecting their TAs. My recommendation is to always take the initiative to contact the professor at least one semester in advance to express your desire for a position. I keep a list in my head of potential TAs, but I always give first priority to students who have directly communicated their interest to me. When I was a student, it never even occurred to me to ask for a position, which I now regret. Don't wait to be chosen. Instead, take matters into your own hands and inquire early.

From the point of view of a professor, choosing your TAs is actually not as easy as it might seem. Over the years, I've gotten much better at anticipating which students will be a good fit. At the beginning of my teaching career, I mistakenly made the assumption that the top students would automatically be good TAs. I once had a TA who was an extraordinary student, but who later became a big headache for me. He was uncomfortable with his new role as an authority figure which caused him to freeze up during group critiques. He set a bad example for the students by coming to class late. After all, if the TA doesn't come to class on time, why should the students? His presence became detrimental to the class, and I found myself having to manage his issues on top of everything else.

Since that experience, I've learned to be very picky about which students I choose to work with. I think carefully about how they conducted themselves as a student in my class. Most students don't think about this at the time, but being a student in my class is basically the audition to be a TA. I look for these attributes when considering potential TAs: 1) genuine care and concern for other students, 2) lively social skills, 3) active participation in group critiques, 4) reliability and consistency, 5) a sense of humor, and 6) a willingness to go beyond the minimum requirements.

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This selection process has resulted in the opportunity to work with many incredible TAs over the course of my teaching career. When I start becoming the absentminded professor, my TAs remind me of critical details and keep me on track. I see them as indispensable to the course, and I can't imagine teaching without them. My best TAs had these qualities:

1) Has infectious enthusiasm. Make your energy contagious amongst the students. You have a responsibility to be the official cheerleader for the class.

2) Is outgoing and socializes with the students. When there is a break, go get yourself a cup of coffee, but then return to the classroom and engage in casual conversation with the students. Check in with them and ask how things are going. Students are usually very eager to dish to the TA in a way that they are not with the professor.

3) Reads the professor's mind. I'm only half-joking here. I'm astounded by the way my TAs are able to anticipate what's coming up next, and how they take concrete actions to help prepare.

4) Makes him/herself available. Several of my TAs have been extremely generous, going well beyond the call of duty. They give their contact information to the class, and encourage the students to get in touch outside of class time with any concerns. Occasionally, my TAs have even come into the studio the night before an assignment is due to provide in-person critiques. Several students came to rely on this additional support system during the semester, and to this day I still get comments from former students about how important these meetings were to them.

5) Alerts the professor to student concerns. Especially at the beginning of the semester, many students are more comfortable expressing their concerns to the TA. Last semester, a student came to the TA because he was feeling really discouraged. The student felt like the other students were ganging up on him during group critiques. This was an important issue that I might not have observed on my own, and knowing this enabled me to help remedy the situation more quickly.

Working as a TA can be a highly enriching and rewarding experience. By collaborating with the professor and students, you learn to cultivate vital relationships and gain essential perspective. Down the road, these are fundamental skills which can then be applied to a career in any field.

Ask the Art Professor is an advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com