First Day of Discussion

I taught my first discussion lesson on Monday.

First, a short preface: Most graduate students  pursuing a PhD in science or engineering fields do not pay much for graduate school. Students typically receive funding to pay for education and a cost-of-living stipend. (Of course, some students struggle and actually end up with tremendous debt; especially those with families to support). The cost-of-living stipend can be covered by outside grants or fellowships, research assistantships, or teaching assistantships.  For the materials department at UCSB, graduate students are fully funded for their first quarter by the department. The idea is that new students will be able to focus on finding an advisor and not have to worry about teaching labs or grading papers during their first quarter. This luxury is not available to many other departments, where students have to balance teaching, classes, and research immediately or come in with their own funding. My understanding is that it’s even worse for humanities and social sciences, where research is not typically funded as well as in science and engineering. Unfortunately, this year has not been ideal across all disciplines. Every professor I spoke to was hesitant to accept me into his or her lab, worrying about the effects of the sequester where the government made discretionary cuts to various funding institutions. (Sequester Cuts)

I moved to Santa Barbara early though and started in a lab before school started. This helped me to secure a spot – but only after I stated my willingness to TA to help pay my way. Not that this was a bad thing, since I really do want to teach, but it does require a substantial time commitment to TA – time that I could be spending researching. I’m enrolled in the materials department, but I was a chemistry major so my advisor and I thought I could easily TA for chemistry. The chemistry department disagreed. The chemistry department sets stringent standards for their TAs, requiring them to attend a department-specific orientation at the beginning of the school year. While I genuinely admired the dedication to thoroughly training TAs (Really, I do! I wish my department had offered something similar. We only were required to attend a campus-wide TA orientation.), I was now forced to request a TA-ship from the materials department.

In the time that it took to learn I could not TA in chemistry, the materials department had filled all of their available TA spots. Great. Now how am I going to get funded? Luckily, my advisor did have money to fund me for the quarter so I wouldn’t have to TA, but he said I’d have to pay my dues by TAing eventually. I was looking forward to TAing but having more time to focus on my research would also be great. Then, I get an email saying I need to come to the materials department to sign a waiver for the class I’m going to be TAing. As it turned out, someone was going out of the country for the quarter and wouldn’t be TAing the class. Since my advisor had requested me to be a TA, I was first on the list to take his spot. So I am now TAing Materials 101, an upper-division introduction course on how the structure of materials relates to materials’ properties.

My first discussion was Monday. Since it was going to be the first time I ever taught a class, I was a little nervous throughout the day. The pressure wasn’t insurmountable though; the discussion sessions weren’t mandatory and the first week of class was a review of basic principles. Still, I prepared thoroughly so I wouldn’t be caught off guard by any overeager students. I had demonstrations, example problems, and concepts all ready to assist me. Then, a hitch – I couldn’t figure out how to connect my laptop to the classroom projector. Since I prepared well, I had hand-written notes as well and I was able to easily formulate a plan B: write everything on the board as I was going along. The discussion went well, even though I couldn’t show the class some interesting visuals that would help them in understanding the 3-D representations we were trying to draw in 2-D. The experience reinforced my desire to teach, as I was left with a satisfaction coming from helping the class understand new concepts in materials science.

Comment on what your first teaching experience was like, advice on how to make teaching a good experience, or anything about this post in general!

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