Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Torturer’s Apprentice

T.A. doesn’t stand for what you think it does…

by Joseph Hickey
In Place of Death

Teaching assistants at the University of Ottawa are apprentice slave drivers. We are torturers in training, and this training involves doing the dirty work of rewarding or punishing students for their reproduction of the professor’s ideology. This is achieved by grading papers, policing students at exams and incriminating “cheaters”, and patrolling lab courses to ensure that students don’t escape from the holding cells outlined in their instruction manuals. All as part of an arduous quest to have ourselves certified as “masters” or “doctors” of the process we’ve put ourselves and our students through. Will somebody sound the alarm?

You know that school is oppression and your undergrad students know it too. There’s physical pain: knotted-up shoulders from marathon marking sessions, binge-eating of baneful food, sleep deprivation. There’s the nagging frustration that the students aren’t interested in the material, and the papers keep showing that they “just don’t get it.” Ever wonder why the students who demonstrate the most persistent creativity and curiosity in the material are the ones who sink toward the poor end of your grade profile? In the first year physics lab course, students have a demanding set of instructions to follow for each experiment and a detailed marking scheme outlining where and in what quantity the marks will be awarded. If the students finish all the steps by the end of the three-hour session and have a report written up according to the strict course standard, then they will earn a high grade. They will also be stripped of an opportunity to experiment in the physics laboratory or to even think about what they are doing, except to ask the demonstrator questions like: “is this working right?” or “is this the right answer?” Whatever that might mean.

We, as teaching assistants, are needed to enforce this madness that takes free spirits and spits out brainless young professionals and intellectually castrated graduate students who will fill our jobs once we’ve moved on to the master torturer position. That’s what we’re paid for. But that’s not what our job is: the teacher’s role is to provide the best educational experience possible. The Instructions and Advice for Demonstrators document, which is given to all first year physics lab T.A.’s at the beginning of term, explains that due to the large size of first-year courses, the demonstrator will be in a position to interact personally with a small group of students while the professor cannot, and therefore he “has a much larger influence over these few students.” Demonstrators are thus entrusted with the bulk of the responsibility in helping new students “develop a liking for the subject”, according to the document. It goes on to state that “your only objective should be to remove obstacles to the students’ learning.”

As honest T.A.’s we need to identify and eliminate the obstacles that interfere with creative and authentic learning: remove the needles and the electric clamps. Drop the red hot iron and cut through the wires. Act out against the grading system that is shredding your own mind and the minds of your students. Transform from torturer into teacher.

For reference:

(1969) The Student as Nigger: Essays and Stories, by Jerry Farber. (Original essay available here).

The University of Ottawa Department of Physics document Instructions and Advice for Demonstrators can be found under Joseph Hickey’s section at the website here.

Joseph Hickey is a physics graduate student and a member of university senate at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

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