6/11/2007

Kiddies Teaching The Kiddies

When I was an undergrad, I was a TA for the sophomore organic chemistry labs for a few years. Of all the things I look fondly back on as an undergrad (a pretty short list), being an undergrad TA is near the top. As an undergrad, I was still in love with the subject and how much it made sense to me, and I loved helping other people learn it. Educationally, the way organic chemistry just clicked for me was a first: never had any subject made so much sense on the first attempt. I lived and breathed it after taking it as a freshman (I was an overacheiving prick in high school, too). I know there are lots of undergrads who, like me, have a particular fondness for sophomore o-chem. These people, among the crowds of premeds and wannabe biologists, are in the minority, but it's these people I'm addressing this to; the kind of undergrads who would regularly read (AND WRITE IN HINT HINT) this blog.

If you ever have the opportunity to teach as an undergraduate, DO IT. It's fun and not really that hard. I could extol the virtues of helping other people and educating the community and it takes a village to raise a child and all that bullshit, but such altruism is so... med school application. There are better reasons for you to do it. Here are but a few.


  • Pre-meds. If you like chemistry, you probably don't like them. We all know the type- they're the ones who make up for their lack of intelligence with an ambition rivaling Caesar's. The ones who don't talk about anything other than tests, grades, med school, and how awesome they (think they) are- I especially feel for those who had to live in the dorms with these sycophantic, arrogant twits. If you ever pined to play Marcus Brutus for these types, step right up. You won't be able to get them all, but god willing, you'll be able to give a B, or maybe a C, to a few of them. If you do end up teaching a bunch of them, you might want to chip in and get one of Kyle's med bracelets. Also, teaching premeds will make you never want to go to a hospital ever again, even if you are dying of cancer. So there's that.

  • Do you panic unnecessarily when anything bad happens in lab? Being a TA will help you calm down, because the labs are typically much safer than research labs and the stupid shit that students do 90% of the time, things that you might have done while taking lab, are laughable. Eventually you'll learn to be aloof about things that go wrong and able to calmly and quickly fix any problem that might come up. Here's an example. When I was a senior, I had two years of teaching behind me, and a few of my students decided to boil some ether in beakers on a hot plate. The ether ignited. Had this happened when I was a freshman, I would have screamed and ran in circles, but instead, I just ran and got a big beaker and smothered the flamin' beakers. Many of my students were surprised at how I didn't freak out when ZOMG THE HOOD WAS ON FIRE WTFBBQ!!!11oneone. It takes some time to develop the psychological callous that keeps you from freaking out, and it might take longer for some than others, but it's a trait you'll want if you go into research.

  • Teaching forces you to learn everything. Feigning brilliance to your students is important to keep your image up, but you can't feign knowledge of the material. You have to know your shit, or you will be screwed. This is ultra-handy if you plan on taking the chem GRE or MCAT, as it keeps the material for the class you're teaching fresh in your head.

  • Ego. Teaching as an undergradute is an amazing ego booster. I mean, teaching as a grad student is cool too, cause your students will automatically think you're Einstein until you manage to convince them otherwise. But undergrads teaching undergrads has an even bigger effect, since you're essentially their age. In that vein, teaching as an undergraduate is a more informal introduction to teaching, and if you end up going to grad school, you'll already know what to expect in terms of workload and responsibility. Some students will not appreciate their classes being taught by undergrads, but in general, the selection process for undergrad students to teach is much more rigorous than grad student admission, and undergrad TAs are usually quite successful when implemented accordingly.

  • Fucking with your students. This is especially fun to do with pre-meds. As we all know, a million things can go wrong when performing an experiment, and most of them can be easily corrected or are completely inconsequential. In this grey area you can learn to have a little fun with your students. Solution turned yellow? Sorry, you fail. No precipitate? Start over (but I only have a half hour left!). You're on fire? Who isn't nowadays! Fucking around with your students also helps with their stress too, usually, because if, in this situation where EVERYTHING ISN'T WORKING AAGHHH, you can manage to joke about it, then that can really calm down the students' worries too. (if your student is on fire, consider putting him/her out before joking. First things first.)


But why are you listening to me? Just go out and do it! It looks awesome on a resume, too.

13 comments:

Ψ*Ψ said...

I applied to do it in the fall, but I don't know if they'll take me. They pay pretty well for it, which is a plus, since I don't really want to eat cat food next semester.
Grading and proctoring, however, do NOT sound fun.

ElwoodCity said...

Teaching as an undergrad is a huge part of how I got my soon-to-be job, teaching undergraduates. I KNOW that if I hadn't that experience on the CV, I would be heading to a post-doc, instead

milkshake said...

Have you seen that utter puzzlement kind of look - when the Bunsen burner was connected to a water hose?

Anonymous said...

Are they really usually that competitive? I go to a small liberal arts college with a teeny chemistry department and a HUGE bio department so they'll let any idiot teach a gen chem lab (orgo and advanced labs are all taught by faculty).

Anonymous said...

I'd like to amend your #3 to: "Teaching forces you to learn everything, OR be able to find out faster than the students."

If you're one of those people who are a little unsure, don't let this item scare you. You'll learn LOTS of rewarding ways of deflecting the temporary mental blank-out. "Well, why don't YOU tell ME" works on theory questions. If there's a competent student in the room, you can resort to "Well, let's see how X handled it." (Note that this one requires some class awareness, which is another useful skill itself.)

And perhaps the best one is when a really good student asks you something, and you don't know, and after distracting the rest of the room you get a chance to say real quiet "beats the shit out of me, why don't we try it and see...."

SubitoPanda said...

Well, I'm an undergrad reader, reporting in -- though sadly not in Chemistry.

"teaching premeds will make you never want to go to a hospital ever again"

Sometimes all it takes is talking to them -- like the girl who sat next to me in a class this quarter. She wants to be a doctor, but is afraid to start taking Chemistry. *sigh*

Excimer said...

anonymous #2: you're absolutely right, on all accounts. teaching definitely keeps me on my toes, and makes me find out the answers to questions i didn't even know i had.

Ashutosh said...

I second the contentions about the pre-med types. Out of 60 or 70 premeds whom I TAd for, there were probably 3 who were seriously interested in the lab and were there for something other than grades. Most others were fawning pseudohips.

Kevin said...

My favorite one to do was: "Mr. TA, is this okay?" as they hold up a beaker of something. "Yeah" I'll say, "...in opposite world!"

My second favorite one to use was: when we walked into lab for a quiz, and there was lots of pchem crap written on the board, I'd say "OK, class, your quiz consists of one question: explain this concept" and point to some pchem mumbo jumbo on the board. They stand frozen in fear until I blurt out laughing.

Anonymous said...

I'm still laughing over your story about the fire! I had a very similar experience....I always warned the students to stretch out the hosing they used for bunsen burners looking for cracks before they use them....you can see where this is going. As I was standing there, a student lit their burner, and the hose promptly ignited. She screamed and they all looked at me wondering what to do. I calmly reached over and turned off the gas. Problem solved! :)

The Lil'est Naturist said...

I heartily agree with your assessment of pre-meds, as a generalization. But one of my best friends in undergrad was a chemistry major with me in the College of Chemistry, and he was also a pre-med. Even did chem research 'cuz he loved the stuff. All-around righteous dude.

taitauwai said...

What I really miss is the oohhh and ahhhh when one of your student was successful on his first attempt. But also the screaming and running around (like a headless chicken) when the bench's on fire.
At the end of the day, I sincerely hope they have somehow pick up some knowledge before heading of to med school.
Sigh...

Ψ*Ψ said...

Naturist: Yeah, a friend of mine just graduated from the chem program and is headed off to do an MD/PhD program. Wherever she goes, she is pretty much guaranteed to be incredibly successful. But she didn't have anything resembling the pre-med personality complex, either.