Thursday, March 17, 2011

Know Your Audience: How to Score With Your TA

If you are a university student, it's likely that most of your papers are read and marked by other students. These people are called TAs (Teaching or Teacher Assistants) or graders, and it is their job to read the papers that your professor doesn't have the time or wherewithal to read. It's true that TAs are fellow students, but they are also supposedly the best and brightest, those who received the highest grades in the classes you are now taking. Even still, they are students, and they are learning as they go. It is important therefore to write your papers with this audience in mind. I've drawn on my own experience working for five years as a TA and talked to other seasoned teaching assistants to compile this list of tips for when you write your college essay. Please feel free to add any other advise or tips in the comments!

1. Write with Clarity

It is never a good idea to write convoluted and dense prose, even if you think your professor will appreciate it. She won't. And neither will your TA. College essays usually have very specific goals: to persuade, to inform, and to prove that you have a strong handle on the subject matter. Often your professor gives a specific prompt. Stick to it, and keep your sentences clear of clutter and your paper neat and organized.

2. Revise, Revise, Revise

This is the case for any reader, your TA or your professor. No one wants to read a messy paper. Typos and mistakes hide the value of your work, and swimming through a sea of typos and annoying grammar mistakes makes your TA tired and angry. Believe me, you don't want to add to your TA's stress. A clear, interesting and clean paper is a breath of fresh air. It enlivens your TA's spirits and makes him more in tune to your fascinating topic. Ask your roommates or a parent to look over your writing, go to the writing center, or if you need that extra bit of help you could always look into hiring a proofreader.
Don't make your TA's head explode with a messy paper.

3. Make Things Interesting

Your TA likely reads hundreds of papers a month. It's important to make yours stand out. I always appreciated when students personalized their essays if it was appropriate to the topic. For many assignments professors wanted a personal response to a text, and while this can be one of the most engaging type of essays for a TA, I was often bored. I was bored because I could tell the students were bored, and because they obviously didn't engage with the text in the way the professor wanted them to. I couldn't give them high marks as a result.

4. Get to Know Your TA

By the time you write your first paper you probably feel confident that you know your professor. You've seen her lecture at least twice a week, you've met with her during office hours and you have a sense of what she's expecting from you. Don't stop there. Get to know who else is reading your paper. Usually your TA will be in the same lectures and seminars and often their contact information is made available in the syllabus. Talk to them after class, introduce yourself and find out a little bit about their experience with the topic and with the professor. It's not only good for them to know who you are, but it can be extremely helpful for you to have a specific person in mind when you're writing an essay.

5. Be Kind to Your TA

Don't get angry if you receive what you feel to be an unfair low grade. Remember that the TA is a human, and he's not a professor, he probably hasn't had much training in grading, and he is learning as he goes. Professors always give the final grade, and if you are dissatisfied with your mark then simply, and kindly, speak to your TA and to your professor. I once received a very low grade from a TA in a geography class. I was incensed. I was myself a TA at the time and had been getting As on papers for five years. How dare this 20-year-old-know-nothing give me a C on an essay? Well, my reaction was really unwarranted. I went and talked to the professor, he told me to quickly revise the essay, looked at it and gave me an A. TAs will make mistakes, but so do you. There are few fixed rules in academia, and we really are all figuring it out as we go along. It will benefit you and make your TA's and professors lives much nicer if you are kind and respectful when discussing grades. Any other tips, comments, suggestions? Let us know!

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