27 October 2009

My time, Part 1: Teaching

In my recent musings about life and priorities, I've started to re-think how I spend a lot of my time. I have my share of embarrassing time sucks from my past...Webkinz (thanks, Dad and Bailey), Fark (although I never caught this bug as bad as Bill, the silly Farker), etc. Recently, though, I find myself always compelled to work more. Why? A large part of it is the imminent threat of graduation. That looming deadline (only 14 months?!?) is currently compounded by the amount of work necessary for the class I'm teaching this semester. Early in my graduate career, kept a small journal detailed exactly how many hours I spent working each week and which tasks I tackled each day. It was really useful for awhile to evaluate my progress and efficiency, and I will likely dig it out one of these days and compare it to my current workload. For now, though, I need a baseline. How do I spend my time these days?

The first issue to address: on average, how much time each week do I dedicate to my teaching assistantship?

Here are the issues to consider. I have 23 students, mostly upper-classmen from biology-type departments. It is a writing intensive field course.

Here's how my time breaks down, in hours per week:

Face-to-face class time with students: 4 hours (designated lab time, sometimes a little less if we get done early).
Weekly TA meeting: 1 hour
Prep time for class: 2 hours (reading handouts and papers, preparing and tweaking powerpoints, organizing materials)
Grading papers: This seems like it takes forever. I've timed myself, though, and I seem to take at least 15 minutes per student assignment (sometimes a little longer if I'm watching TV). 15 min * 23 students = 5.75 hours. Let's round that up to 6.5 hours, to include organizing papers, re-checking grades, etc. There are 13 weeks in the semester that I have something to grade, so this is an almost constant job.
Office hours: I have one official hour a week, but meet with students at other times, still only totaling 1 hour of work.
Correspondence with students: 2 hours. Students need to get their topics for papers checked with me on occasion, and I answer many questions about assignments via e-mail (this actually saves time by not making me schedule another meeting).

Total hours per week: 16.5

OK, so that is kind of shocking to me. I feel like it takes a hell of a lot more time than that. A TA position is generally accepted to require 20 hours of work a week. Sometimes it does take me that long to grade, prep, etc. But on average, it looks like I'm doing OK. This, however, does not include time I spend looking over the lecture material for the course, reading the textbook, and other things that make my ability to teach better without actually having a specific, tangible goal.

So why is the class such a strain on me this semester? Well, it's the first time I've taught it, so I have more work up front to get comfortable with the class material prior to teaching. It's also my first time TAing in four years, so I'm a bit out of practice. I also agonize about grading. I seem to have intermediate grades to the other TAs, though, so it seems like I'm not being overtly unfair, harsh, or too kind. And sometimes I really do dally while grading, so I probably sit with papers in front of me waiting to be graded for much longer than 6 hours a week.

I've come to realize, though, that the real strain of the course is the minutae associated with many assignments, doing field work, and arranging all of these things among myself and the other three TAs working on the course. This is compounded for me by the fact that I work in a different building from the course instructor and the other TAs. It doesn't sound like much, but running across the hall is a lot easier than walking to the next building (on both my energy level, organization, and possible experiments I may leave at my desk/in my lab to talk with someone about an ecology issue). It's the strain of trying to coordinate and remembering everything I need to do. Sometimes I really wish I had a more straightforward lab to teach this semester, where everything is planned for me and there aren't so many bloody decisions to be made! I would kill for a short answer/multiple choice/fill in the blank assignment to grade right now. Sometimes I also wish I were teaching a course where I felt like an expert at the course material. I am very confident in my ability to advise on writing, and on how to help students organize their thoughts, so I guess it's not all that bad.

And have I mentioned how great my class is lately? We went to the cemetery today. It was raining and cold. It started to pour pretty hard. I called the class instructor for advise, and she said if my students really start to complain we could leave early. Maybe this would work for other classes, but my students? No way. They'd never whine, and definitely not complain. They were soaked and cold, but we stayed a few more minutes before calling it quits. Hooray for students putting forth good effort!

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