Is the TATP a Learning Community? The Power of Working for the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program

By Megan Burnett, Assistant Director, CTSI/TATP

I recently blogged about a Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education co-edited by current and former members of the CTSI staff (Bethany Osborne, Sara Carpenter, Carol Rolheiser, and me). The issue focused on “Preparing Graduate Students for the Changing World of Work”. Two things struck me in preparing this Special Issue that are directly related to the work we do here in CTSI and within the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program. One: graduate students want to develop their pedagogical skills and feel a lack of teaching experience negatively affects their ability to compete on the job market. They want to teach and they want to talk about their teaching (Sekuler, Crow, & Annan, 2013).  Two: most graduate students crave professional development beyond independent research, and studies suggest that such work does not delay a student’s time to completion – the ever-present argument against a graduate student pursuing professional development activities, or even taking on teaching roles. Graduate students want to be integrated into an academic community and participate in a social as well as professional network. Research shows that such support can actually help a graduate student complete. (Golde, 2000; Lovitts, 2001).

Such a social/professional network and teaching-focused community for graduate students exists within CTSI: the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program. The graduate students who work for TATP as peer-to-peer trainers learn a variety of skills and actively engage in mixing theory and praxis. They learn about pedagogy and effective instructional design that in turn helps them craft meaningful instructional materials and resources. They explore how and when student learning happens. They practice collaborating with others in disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams to design and facilitate training experiences. They hone their communications skills when consulting with departments about training, and with other TAs about teaching. Most importantly, they learn from each other and develop a network of support focused on teaching. (On a side note: TATP staff finish their degrees. Every year I am sad – but very proud! – to lose another excellent staff member to the world beyond graduate school.)

Our experience co-editing the CJHE Special Issue led me and the former Acting Assistant Director of the TATP, Sara Carpenter, to undertake an examination of the kinds of professional and personal growth experienced by the graduate student peer trainers who make up the staff of the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program. For years I have heard anecdotally from TATP staff that their work leads to a profound conceptual shift in their understanding of student learning which in turn inspires them to take more risks in their teaching. They have communicated to me over and over again the joy they feel in sharing a space with other graduate students who also value teaching.  In essence, the TATP staff experience a shift in their identities as educators and scholars.

A review of some of the literature on graduate student development suggests that a program like the TATP, beyond offering a stimulating workplace environment, may in fact exhibit the characteristics of a learning community. Such characteristics include: the ability to set defined teaching goals, shared ownership and commitment, the ability to connect practice to theory, the willingness and ability to experiment and take risks, the sense of belonging to a community, mentorship and feedback (Brower, Carlson-Dakes & Shu Barger, 2007; Sweitzer, 2009).

At the beginning of February, we posted the TATP positions for the 2015-16 year. Applications are due March 16, 2015. If you know of an exceptional graduate student teacher who would thrive in such a community, please invite them to apply. If you are yourself a graduate student interested in teaching, and you would like to join such a network, please consider applying. Below are some testimonials from current TATP staff that speak to the qualities and benefits of the community in which they work and learn.

“Through TATP I’ve come to see the absolute dedication of the UofT teaching community’s ‘first responders.’ TA’s are on the front lines of student contact. They are often the most approached body in a teaching team, yet they are likely the most alienated from a larger teaching community. Watching TA’s come together at TATP events has made me realize the immense necessity of peer-networks and peer-discussion. These TA’s light up with the realization that their teaching challenges are shared. “
–    Sasha Kovacs, TATP Trainer
PhD Candidate, Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies

“Through my association with TATP, I have come to understand the thought, skill and PASSION behind developing as an educator. Through my work with TATP my confidence and abilities have grown through the incredible support of people truly thrilled to talk about teaching.  As often said among staff…”it’s the best TA gig there is!”.  Surrounding yourself with people who LOVE to teach has definitely improved my teaching!”
–    Sandy Romain, TATP Coordinator
PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology

“Working for the TATP has taught me as much about myself and my potential, as it has about higher education and teaching. The transferable skills I continue to gain from a unique peer training teaching model have shaped me as a leader, decision maker and strategist inside and outside the classroom.”
–    Leanne DeSouza, TATP Trainer
PhD Candidate, Institute for Medical Sciences

“When I first started work at TATP, my approach to teaching and learning was very much oriented around content mastery first and foremost. I felt that my job as a teacher was to introduce students to new knowledge and guide them through the process of grappling with it, and I also felt that my ability to do this effectively was, to some extent, predetermined: great teachers are born, not made. I would say that the most profound and far-reaching impact of working at TATP has been to completely undermine both these assumptions. After being exposed to fellow TATP trainers and TAs from across the university, all of whom struggle with remarkably similar problems in undergraduate classrooms, and having had the opportunity to delve more deeply into pedagogical research and theory, I now feel that much of what our students need from us is support in developing the kind of long-term skills that will allow them to seek out their own knowledge and master it independently. I also now believe that great teaching is never fixed, static, or an inherent personality trait, but is something that changes each time you step into a classroom and that rests on a set of skills that can be learned and strengthened over time. This is fundamentally a much more hopeful vision of what it means to be a teacher!”
–    Robin Sutherland-Harris, TATP Coordinator
PhD Candidate, Centre for Medieval Studies

References

Brower, A. M., Carlson-Dakes, C. G., & Shu Barger, S. (2007). WP101: A learning community model of graduate student professional development for teaching excellence. Working Paper Series, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE). Retrieved from: http://www.wiscape.wisc.edu/publications/WP010

Golde, C. M. (2000). Should I stay or should I go? Student descriptions of the doctoral
attrition process. The Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199–227.

Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of
departure from doctoral study. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Sekuler, A. B., Crow, B., & Annan, R. B. (2013). Beyond labs and libraries: Career
pathways for doctoral students. Toronto, ON: Higher Education Quality Council of
Ontario.

Sweitzer, V.B. (2009). Towards a theory of graduate student professional identity development: a developmental network approach. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(1), 1-33.

Preparing Graduate Students for a Changing World of Work

By Megan Burnett, Assistant Director, CTSI/TATP

If you are a graduate student, or know a graduate student, these questions may have come up in conversation:

  • Will I get an academic position once I finish my degree?
  • What kind of position will I be able to obtain?
  • What can I do now during my graduate program to be more successful on the job market?

In my role as Assistant Director with CTSI and TATP, I interact with graduate students every day who are seeking clarity around these questions. In fact, for the past few years these questions have been driving a broader conversation in Canada around the purpose and focus of graduate education, including graduate student professional development. (Boman, 2013; Bilodeau, 2007; Rose, 2012) What, exactly, are we preparing our graduate students to do? How are we enabling their success when they leave graduate school? What can they expect when they exit their degree?

With these questions in mind, CTSI hosted an international SSHRC-funded conference back in May 2011 on graduate student professional development. The conference addressed four possible pathways to personal development within a graduate student’s degree program: professional, academic, teaching, and holistic (or, PATH). The goal was to highlight programming, courses, learning supports and networks at institutions from across North America that seek to prepare graduate students for the changing labour landscape by providing a broader range of skill development – not just a focus on disciplinary research expertise.

The PATH conference demonstrated the need for a deeper discussion of the purpose of graduate education and a re-definition of what success both during and after graduate school might entail. Building on the conversations started at the PATH conference, I recently worked with colleagues here in CTSI to further this debate (Professor Carol Rolheiser, Bethany Osborne, Sara Carpenter). In collaboration with another colleague at the University of Victoria we co-edited a Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education (Volume 44, No. 3, 2014). Drawing on studies or projects discussed at the PATH conference, and incorporating new research and new initiatives related to graduate student development, the issue highlights emerging trends in graduate student development and explores successful strategies that could point the way to a re-thinking of graduate education.

The issue includes:

  • a scan of graduate student teaching certificate programs across Canada,
  • a case study of a graduate student professional skills program at a major university in Quebec,
  • an examination of the impact of service learning in a graduate level course at a research-intensive university,
  • a discourse analysis of how Canadian institutions and media talk about teaching in higher education,
  • an examination of how a graduate student teaching development program can foster intercultural competence, and
  • a critique of the debate around graduate student competencies that focus on “transferable skills”.

Together, the six papers reinforce the notion that the changing landscape within academia and for graduate student employment following graduation, necessitates a reform in the way that graduate students are prepared for the labour market and a shift in the perception both within and outside the academy, of what success after gradu­ate school would look like. (Osborne, Carpenter, Burnett, Rolheiser & Korpan, 2014)

This latest issue of the CJHE emphasizes that we are at a pivotal point in Canadian graduate education. The questions that graduate students ask themselves and that others are starting to raise about the graduate student experience should stimulate an examination of our own support of University of Toronto graduate students. Given the success of our Graduate Professional Skills program (coordinated by the School of Graduate Studies) and the development of the co-curricular record for graduate students, and in light of the expansion in graduate education currently being experienced across Ontario and in many U of T units…what do we want from our graduate education programs and from our graduates? What is the world we are preparing them for, and how can we give them the tools to make that world better? What is the role of teaching development programs, leadership programs, research skills programs, community-based or service learning curricula, writing programs, etc. in preparing graduate students for a changing world of work?

References

Austin, A. E. (2002). Preparing the next generation of faculty: Graduate school as socialization to the academic career. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(1), 94–122.

Boman, J. S. (2013). Graduate student teaching development: Evaluating the effectiveness of training in relation to graduate student characteristics. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 43(1), 100–114.

Bilodeau, P. (2007). Professional skills development: From ideas to action. Ottawa, ON: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Fullick, M. (2014, January 10). Thinking beyond ourselves: The ‘crisis’ in academic work. University Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/speculative-diction/thinking-beyond-ourselves-the-crisis-in-academic-work/

Goldstene, C. (2014). The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor. National Education Association website. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/53403.htm

Marincovich, M., Prostko, J., & Stout, F. (Eds.) (1998). The professional development of graduate teaching assistants. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Nyquist, J. D., Manning, L., Wulff, D. H., Austin, A. E., Sprague, J., Fraser, P. K., Woodford, B. (1999). On the road to becoming a professor: The graduate student experience. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 31(3), 18–27.

Osborne, B., Carpenter, S., Burnett, M., Rolheiser, C., Korpan, C. (2014) Preparing graduate students for a changing world of work: Editors’ introduction. Canadian Journal of Higher Education. 44(3), i–ix.

Rose, M. (2012). Graduate student professional development: A survey with recommendations. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Association for Graduate Studies.

Schönwetter, D., & Ellis, D. (2011). Taking stock: Contemplating North American graduate student professional development programs and developers. In J. E. Miller & J. E. Groccia (Eds.), To improve the academy: Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development, Volume 29(pp. 3–17). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.