FAQs

When should I start thinking about the job market?

It is never too early to start thinking about the job market. When you enter the market, you will want to have at y our fingertips “evidence of teaching excellence,” and now is the time to think about compiling that evidence (and achieving excellence!)  Start by thinking about your goals.  What type of job are you most interested in?  How broadly might you cast your net in a job search?  Talk to the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative about what you should do now, whatever stage of your graduate career you are currently in, to best achieve those goals.

Teaching is a versatile skill: it is a necessary part of any academic career, and a valued aspect of many positions outside of the academy.  Whether your dream is to teach at a small liberal arts college, to be a top researcher at an R01 institution, or to leave academia behind, the skills you develop as a Teaching Assistant will be a tremendous asset as you begin your career.

Think about where you are going, and the role(s) that teaching may play.  In the meantime, begin writing things down, and begin a teaching file.  After each class, write yourself a few notes about what worked and what didn’t.  Save copies of the assignments and assessments you create; file away those emails from students which illustrate your abilities as an instructor.  Get feedback from your students, act on it, and save copies to refer to later.

If you are now on or planning to be on the job market soon, and have not yet compiled a teaching portfolio, meet with the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative to review materials or discuss your teaching portfolio, or attend one of the Graduate Student Teaching Initiativeworkshops about developing a teaching philosophy statement or teaching portfolio for more information and support.

How do I balance my research, being a Teaching Assistant, and having a life?

Balance can be a challenge for the most experienced of us, and is a learned skill that one must hone over time.  For graduate students trying to balance research and teaching responsibilities early in their careers, it can often be overwhelming.

Balance is, unfortunately, different for everyone, and so everyone has to work towards achieving his or her own balance.  It can help to remember that you simply cannot do everything, and also to remember that we each have 24 hours in a day: no more, no less.  Decide what you would like to accomplish with that time, focus on achieving your goals, and let lesser obligations go.  You are not expected to be a superhero.

Think long-term: Where do you want to be at the end of your graduate career?  What about ten years after that?  Work towards those goals in a selective way, focusing on the skills and experience you will need to reach the goals you prioritized.  When you have identified your goals, allocate your time appropriately. Remember that the normal work-week for a TA/TF with a full appointment should not exceed 20 hours, and that fractional appointments (three-fourths, one-half, or one-fourth) should not exceed the corresponding fraction of the 20-hour standard.  If you find yourself consistently dedicating more time to your TA responsibilities, talk to your faculty supervisor or to the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative about ways you can meet your obligations without working yourself into the ground.

Similarly, examine the number of credit hours of coursework you are taking per semester, and the investment of time required to meet your research and professional development responsibilities over the arc of your graduate career. If you are taking more credit hours than you can handle, meet with your faculty advisor and discuss a more measured approach to coursework which allows you time for other responsibilities.

Most importantly, remember that your first obligation is to yourself: you cannot do excellent research, be an effective instructor, and have a fulfilling personal life if you are not sleeping sufficient hours, eating properly, or giving yourself opportunities to relieve stress and decompress. Identify your own needs and priorities, reach out for the specific support you need to meet those needs and to prioritize appropriately, and remember that balance takes practice and constant self-reflection.

What are my obligations as a Teaching Assistant?

Teaching Assistants (TAs and TFs) at the University of Pittsburgh are graduate students who are receiving support in return for specified duties while gaining teaching and teaching-related experience under the guidance of faculty mentors. Their primary objective is to make steady progress toward an advanced degree. TA/TF appointment status is dependent upon graduate student status. The primary responsibility for all courses taught at the University rests with the faculty.

The normal work-week for a TA/TF with a full appointment should not exceed 20 hours. Under special circumstances, fractional appointments (three-fourths, one-half, or one-fourth) may be made in order to meet the requirements of individual departments. Fractional appointments should not exceed the corresponding fraction of the 20-hour standard. The duties and compensations for appointment that are less than full-time are in proportion to the fraction of a full-time appointment. For more information, see the University of Pittsburgh Policy Statement for Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, and Graduate Student Assistants at www.pitt.edu/~graduate/TATFGSAPolicyStatement.pdf.

An effective professional relationship between faculty and TA must necessarily encompass both supervisory and mentorship roles. Establishing clear expectations and communicating continually with your Faculty supervisor is fundamental to this relationship. It is the responsibility of the supervising faculty to ensure that TAs’ working conditions meet University guidelines and that students under TA instruction or evaluation are receiving an education which meets University standards of excellence. It is additionally the responsibility of the supervising faculty to ensure that Teaching Assistants receive training and guidance in developing teaching skills.

What is a recitation?

A recitation is a component of an undergraduate class. Large lecture classes are the introductory courses for many disciplines.  The definition of ‘large’ depends on the department.  For some departments in the professional schools, large classes may consist of 75 students, in other classes that meet the general education requirements, enrollments can go as high as 400 students.

Because these are introductory courses, lectures cover a lot of new information with students. Many times there are too many people to handle all of the questions that students might have, or, the rows or configuration of the room do not easily allow for smaller discussions and group work. Recitations offer students the opportunities to review information or labs in ways that allow them to practice skills, solve problems, or clarify ideas.

Do I need to attend the New Teaching Assistant Orientation?

At the start of the fall and spring terms, the University Center for Teaching and Learning holds an orientation for new Teaching Assistants from across campus. The orientation consists of workshops led by experienced teaching assistants and is designed to prepare graduate student teachers for their new roles at the University of Pittsburgh. The workshops are designed to provide new TAs with the practical skills they will need and to familiarize them with University policies and resources, and is open to all TAs at the University. All new teaching assistants in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences are required to take part in the orientation unless their department has been exempted by the Dean’s Office; many other schools and departments around the University similarly require new Teaching Assistants to attend. If you are unsure of your department’s policies, speak with your department administrator or contact the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative.

How can I find a workshop that I’d like to attend?

The University Center for Teaching and Learning is pleased to offer a wide variety of workshops on topics ranging from pedagogy and professionalization to technology in the classroom.  All of our more than 100 workshops are open to graduate students, and we encourage TAs to take advantage of these training opportunities.  Many workshops are designed specifically for Teaching Assistants.  For more information on Graduate Student Teaching Initiative workshops see our catalogue of offerings, and register on our workshops page.

Should I take Faculty Development 2200, the University Teaching Practicum?

FacDev 2200, the University Teaching Practicum, is a three-credit graduate seminar is offered every semester. The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences requires that this course be taken concurrently by all graduate students who are teaching independently for the first time. The Practicum is a practical introduction to teaching and a valuable asset to anyone who plans on teaching at the University level. New instructors are encouraged to share concerns and experiences through class discussions, and assignments encourage graduate student instructors to create and improve classroom materials including syllabi, student assignments, and lesson plans. Coursework is structured around the construction of a teaching portfolio, which serves additionally as a final project. Have you found yourself teaching at the University level? Are you interested in teaching at the University level in the future? If so, this course is for you.

I am teaching a new class as a Teaching Assistant next semester. Where do I start?

Start by talking to your faculty supervisor about the course you will be offering, and ask what his or her expectations of you are. Learn a little bit about the course, and make a plan to stay in touch with your faculty supervisor.  How often will you check in with him or her?  Will you be responsible for initiating contact or will your faculty supervisor? What responsibilities will you have towards achieving course objectives? What elements of student support or skills development will you be responsible for?

Speak to other graduate students who may have been a TA for this course in the past, and find out about their experiences. Start developing your recitation or lab syllabus, if appropriate. The New TA Orientation is offered twice a year, in January and August, is open to all TAs at the University of Pittsburgh, and is required by the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences for all students who will be Teaching Assistants for the first time in the ensuing semester(s). This one-day event is designed to introduce the basic information needed for classroom success to graduate students in their first semester as a TA at the University of Pittsburgh. Register on our Workshops and Events page, or email tahelp@pitt.edu to learn more. Make an appointment with a TA Services teaching consultant for additional support.

I am teaching a new class as an independent instructor next semester. Where do I start?

Start by talking to your faculty supervisor about the course you will be offering, and ask what his or her expectations of you are.  Speak to any other graduate students who may have offered this course in the past, and find out about their experiences. Start developing your syllabus.  Make an appointment with a Graduate Student Teaching Initiative teaching consultant for additional support.  FacDev 2200, the University Teaching Practicum, is a three-credit graduate seminar is offered every semester designed to be taken concurrently by graduate students who are teaching independently for the first time. If you are in the Dietrich School, FacDev is a requirement; if you are in other schools you may not be required to take the course but are encouraged to take advantage of this teaching support.

How can I improve my teaching?

The first step to improving your teaching is to assess your current teaching ability: Ask your faculty supervisor to sit in on your class and give you some feedback.  Administer an in-class survey and ask your students to identify your teaching strengths and weaknesses. Make an appointment with the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative to have your class video recorded, so you can watch yourself teach and get some feedback from one of our consultants.

If you have identified an area in which you would like support, meet with one of our consultants to get specialized, one-on-one assistance with your specific concern.  Take advantage of our workshops and other events, which are open to graduate students around the university and cover a wide array of topics in pedagogy and professionalization. Explore the online resources for TAs available on our website or in our Knowledge Base.

The Graduate Student Teaching Initiative is here to help you develop as an instructor. Contact tahelp@pitt.edu with any questions or concerns.

How do I get my students to participate more in class?

Few things are less comfortable than asking a question and seeing a classroom full of blank faces staring back at you in silence.  There are, however, strategies for eliciting student participation, best practices for handling difficult students, and tips for encouraging the quiet students to contribute.

It is important to note, however, that participation is not simply a matter of how many students raise their hands when you ask the class a question: different students may be comfortable participating in different ways.  These might include full-group discussion, small-group discussion, pair work, individual or group presentations, mock debates or other simulations, discussion boards or wiki pages, and a whole host of other possibilities.  Start by thinking about the material you hope to cover in class, and the kinds of activities students might participate in which lend themselves to your particular course material.

Participation starts with an atmosphere in which students understand expectations, stay on task, and feel comfortable contributing in appropriate ways.  There are things we can do to promote participation BEFORE class, IN class, and AFTER class.

Before class begins, set the stage: Think about how particular kinds of student participation relate to course goals. On your syllabus, set your expectations and goals for class participation, and in class be sure to create a comfortable, safe environment.

When it comes to specific types of student participation, allow students to prepare: ensure that they know what you expect from them, and have time to do the work they will need to do in order to meet your expectations.

Class discussions are one of the most common– and one of the most challenging– contexts in which to encourage student participation.  These must be well-orchestrated, though a well-orchestrated class discussion often feels like it unfolds naturally!  Class discussion, however, isn’t dinner conversation.  As the instructor, you must prepare extensively.  Have a plan: know where you will begin your discussion and what you hope students achieve in the course of the discussion. Plan compelling questions to keep students on task, manage student contributions to keep discussion on-topic (and to keep everyone engaged), and draw (or have your students draw) clear conclusions.

If participation enhances student understanding and increases effective mastery of objectives, it is an integral part of the course and should be graded accordingly.  Care must be taken to ensure that a variety of types of participation are included in such a grade, so that all students are able to benefit. Our job isn’t over after class ends.  Between and during meetings, we should give our students feedback.

It can be helpful for us as instructors to receive feedback, as well: Ask your faculty supervisor to sit in on your class and give you some feedback.  Administer an in-class survey and ask your students to identify your teaching strengths and weaknesses. Make an appointment with the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative to have your class video recorded, so you can watch yourself teach and get some feedback from one of our consultants.

If you have identified an area in which you would like support, meet with one of our consultants to get specialized, one-on-one assistance with your specific concern.  Take advantage of our workshops and other events, which are open to graduate students around the university and cover a wide array of topics in pedagogy and professionalization. Explore the online resources for TAs available on our website or in our Knowledge Base.

How do I know if I’m doing a good job?

It’s important to constantly assess your development as an instructor, and impossible to do so without feedback.  Assess your teaching ability by asking your faculty supervisor to sit in on your class and give you some feedback, or by administering an in-class survey in which you ask your students to identify your teaching strengths and weaknesses. You can also make an appointment with the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative to have your class video recorded, so you can watch yourself teach and get some feedback from one of our consultants.

What can I do about a problem student?

Classroom management takes patience, considered response, and practice.  If you have a student or students you are not sure how to handle, talk to your faculty supervisor or contact the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative for advice and support. If you suspect your student has violated the University of Pittsburgh Student Code of Conduct, contact the Office of Student Conduct to talk with the Student Conduct Officer. Student Conduct Officers are there to talk through your concerns, and can help you navigate a potentially sticky situation. Student Conduct, under the Division of Student Affairs, provides the framework by which members of the University of Pittsburgh community may address alleged violations of the Student Code of Conduct by University of Pittsburgh students. Student Conduct is a neutral body, taking neither the position of the complainant or the accused, but providing fair process, and education, for both parties.

I’d like to improve my university teaching skills. How can I get more involved with the Teaching Center?

The Graduate Student Teaching Initiative is here to help you develop as an instructor. If you would like to improve your teaching skills and aren’t sure where to start, make an appointment with us to meet with one of our consultants.  We can help you to identify areas for improvement, as well as opportunities for expanding your experience and enhancing your teaching skills.

In the meantime, take advantage of our workshops and other events, which are open to graduate students around the university and cover a wide array of topics in pedagogy and professionalization, and be sure to explore the online resources for TAs available on our website or in our Knowledge Base.