Being an undergraduate student isn’t always easy and you can’t help but think about what your life might be like after graduation. In a mini existential crisis, I started to wonder what grad school would be like. That led me to shadow my philosophy 144 teaching assistant (TA), Dzintra Ullis, for a total of three days. She is currently in her second year of graduate school under the supervision of Dr. Kathleen Akins.
Surprisingly, she didn’t always imagine a career in philosophy; it started as an innocent elective course in metaphysics. Being an undergraduate, one bad decision can lead to an unfulfilling career. Luckily for Ullis, this course changed how she thought. Like a bolt of lightning, she had found her passion.
Working as a TA is optional, but part of a lot of people’s graduate school experience. You can learn a lot from your students and learn how to incorporate the same idea in different ways in order to explain it better. Plus, it covers some parts of your tuition, which is always a benefit.
TAs are not just an arbitrary group of people present to make the professor’s life easier by marking our papers. They are pursuing their degrees just like us and stand as a bridge between the student and the professor. They’re like superheroes with real double lives.
Ullis is currently also marking papers for another course even though she isn’t a full-time TA for it. She finds it hard because of the level of detachment from the students. For her, being a TA — especially for a 100-level course — gave her a chance to interact with a non-philosophical audience. Ullis explained that the students that take these courses tend to be “more untrained in your domain” and in turn “makes you connected to a wide audience.”
Ullis is currently working on her ‘Pro-Paper’ which will eventually be a writing sample for her PhD. Right now, her research revolves around speech development, specifically in the first year of life. This time is known for the transition from babbling to simple words including constant-vowels pairs, but not full adult communication. This transition works on a multi-sensory level, and involves vision and somatic (physical) sensory information.
Her work also studies a monkey species, marmosets, which tend to have similar developmental stages as children. Her work gives her the chance to get emerged in scientific research that hasn’t received much attention.
Another concept Ullis has been studying is phonemes — the sounds that make up different words. She didn’t mind sharing some of her knowledge with me, such as the different forms of native phonemes that people who are learning another language can’t always register. This was very intriguing to me as I am an international student and I have the hardest time explaining my name to people who don’t share the same native language with me and, in turn, might not share the same phonemes.
Being a TA seems to have a significant impact on who you are as an academic. In Ullis’ case, she has had the chance to further her communication skills and learn how to better articulate her data and ideas. She credits the fact that every student learns in their own way as her reason for being able to elaborate information in different ways. It can get a little repetitive, but ending up with a great connection with those students is worth it to her. Plus, it keeps her on her toes.
Ullis says because some students have questions about a topic that she might not have thought of, she has to be more patient. Just because the topic might be clear to her doesn’t mean it’s clear to the other person. Being a TA can also reduce problems with public speaking and fear of failing, according to Ullis.
Being a TA might seem overwhelming, but it’s an opportunity to learn about a topic you love and work with incredible scholars in their respective subfields. When asked to give some advice to those planning on being TAs in the future, Ullis had nothing but a kind response. “You should not be afraid to branch out into other . . . areas,” she said, “[once] you have [received] sufficient training and the requisite background knowledge.”
Ullis’ other piece of advice can be helpful to everyone: “Be prepared and show up on time.” She told me that people in the first week of tutorials might not speak and she was afraid of people not engaging. According to her, the best thing you can do is try to have fun and bridge the gap — something undergrads can keep in mind, too. “People in [grad school] think that they might not be ready,” she said. “Be reassured that everyone feels that way. Be confident.”
Her finally comment to prospective TAs is to remember “it’s about helping students, and putting them on the same page as the lecture.” No wonder Ullis is one of the best TAs I have ever had.