Undergraduate teaching assistants, otherwise known as TAs, form the backbone of many classes at Virginia Tech. They take on a variety of roles, from grading assignments to helping their fellow students pass their classes. Along with everyone else, for this past year, TAs have been doing their jobs almost exclusively online. This move has resulted in a number of changes to how their work is done, but TAs continue to do the best job possible.
However, the adaptation to online classes hasn’t been completely smooth. One major omission from online assistance is face-to-face interaction between TAs and students.
“In-person office hours have a lot more personality. In my opinion, it could be more effective to teach students certain concepts if we were in person,” said Christopher Cerne, a senior majoring in computer science who is a TA for CS3214, Computer Systems. “It was much easier for the TAs to articulate certain pieces of information and maybe even type out some debugger commands or help out with coding.”
While face-to-face communication has been lost, TAs have been able to continue their jobs through various platforms, including Zoom, Discord and other online formats. These platforms may not provide the same interface as in-person office hours, but they may make up for this loss by making TAs more accessible for students.
“(TAs) have a great advantage for online office hours in that hours are very accessible for students,” Cerne said. “(Students) can join the queue from the comfort of (their) own home and get instant TA access.”
The move to online formats has also made life easier for TAs reporting to work. As with most other students, TAs can do their jobs from their homes.
“I enjoy (being a TA) a lot because it’s online. It’s very flexible and I can do it from wherever I am,” said Ashley Cruz, a senior majoring in business information technology and management who is a TA for Organization Behavior.
Easy access to work isn’t always a good thing, however. When reporting to work is as easy as opening Discord, a site where one may also converse with friends, work-life balance may be harder to achieve.
“(My job) could end up being more work at times,” said Justin Vita, a junior majoring in computer science who also works as a TA for Computer Systems. “If (I am) looking at the Discord and (don’t) have anything better to do, sometimes I get students direct messaging me questions and I do my best to respond to that.”
All of this is contingent on the fact that Zoom, Discord and the other apps that run our lives are functional. Technical issues that weren’t a problem before have become an issue for some TAs.
“My account happened to be one of the accounts (Discord) flagged (to suspend during a massive false flag). So, while I was helping a student, I disconnected,” Vita said. “It’s odd how much my job is determined by the services of another platform.”
Although the move to online classes has created a myriad of unique challenges, TAs are optimistic about their work’s impact. Consistent access to assistance from TAs has helped students do the best they can this semester.
“We do our best. I feel like I have been able to help students finish their projects, which is the main goal for all of the TAs in this class,” Vita said.
The constant access to assistance and the social nature of many of the tools TAs offer has helped students not only get help from TAs, but has also helped students communicate with each other. In an era devoid of physical study lounges, efforts to recreate study spaces online are valuable.
“(Students) can look up questions that have already been asked,” Vita said. “I think that leads to less time spent answering questions, and it’s also nice that other students can communicate during this online time.”
Efforts from TAs are only worthwhile if students work with them, however. With the variety of tools and availability of help, students should not hesitate to ask for any help that they need.
“TA office hours are not as heavily utilized as people think,” Cerne said. “I always went to TA office hours before becoming a Systems TA. That was one of the reasons why I decided to be a TA; I wanted to put that knowledge back into circulation.”
Like any other job, being a TA has been much different this past year. However, many TAs have seen a silver lining in this new format and are using their new tools to their best ability to help as many students as possible. Virginia Tech students would be wise to consult these assistants in the future as we continue to power through quarantine, as they are always happy to help.
“I met some truly phenomenal people while being a TA,” Cerne said. “Honestly, I could only say good things about this job.”