Day in the Life of a CogSci TA: Emily Robles (COGS 101C)

My name is Emily Robles. I am a fifth year PhD student in the cognitive science department, and my main focus is trying to figure out how people use orthography–which is the way a word looks–and phonology–the way a word sounds, together when they’re silently reading in their heads.

I am currently TA’ing for COGS 101 C which is the Language and Culture course. But in the past, I’ve TA’d for like 13 different classes, and we have a limit of 18. I really like teaching 101B, which is Learning, Memory, and Attention. So that’s a fun class. I also really like teaching COGS 172, which is Brain Disorders and Cognition. That’s the one I’m actually going to teach over the summer! I’ve TA’d for it a couple of times.

What’re some of the other ones? I don’t know, part of it is also just like, the professor that you TA for, Like I like teaching for specific professors no matter what class they teach.

So those classes that I just talked about are the ones that are more closely aligned with my research. But I’ve also TA’d for a couple of the design courses and stuff that are really not related at all, to anything that I’ve ever done. The ones that are less related become more of a “How can you learn faster than everyone else in the class, so that you feel comfortable teaching.” Which, you know, being a first year PhD student, you also don’t necessarily know that much, especially because like, cognitive science isn’t something that’s at every school as an undergrad degree.

My undergrad degree was in neurobiology and a minor in psychology, so I had aspects of it. Whereas teaching learning memory and attention, it wasn’t that hard because that was more closely aligned to a class I’d taken before. Like I felt like I actually knew that stuff. Now I do more language related stuff, but the first time I taught COGS 101C, I was learning most of this newly.

And some classes are also taught very differently by different professors, like this class specifically, is very different every single time that I’ve TA’d it. So there’s parts of it, that I’m learning new, even this time, because [Professor] Sean [Trott] is more specialized in language model stuff. That’s something that I’ve learned as I’m doing research, but you have to pay attention to that stuff, because it’s not something that I necessarily know from having been taught in classes before. So just rolling with the punches, you kind of just learn faster. But it’s not hard to learn faster, because you have like, some background in it. You can connect those concepts easier. And, it’s not necessarily difficult, it’s just the reality.

Well, one aspect is that’s the only part of our job we get paid for. Doing a PhD is all about doing research, but you don’t get paid for that unless you apply for certain grants and get certain grants and fellowships and stuff like that, that are very competitive and hard to get. And so the part of our job that we get paid for is TA’ing.

But also, another reason that I wanted to teach a class – because that’s an optional thing that you don’t have to do – is because I realized I genuinely like teaching and like think it’s fun, and wanted to see if that’s something that I actually wanted to pursue as a career after this. So being able to teach my own class kind of gives me an opportunity to see what that’s like before… TA’ing was definitely the first step in that where it showed me that I do like this enough to try.

Part of it’s just which professors are easier and harder to TA for. I think there’s a lot of resources for TAs to learn how to become better instructors that are available. And I didn’t do a lot of those originally because I was like, “Yeah, I get the basic concepts, you know, like, I listen to lectures, and then I teach them faster, once a week, you know, like that the part that concepts not that hard, I don’t need to go take these extra classes on how to do that.”

But then, because I’m going to teach a class they require you to take those courses and I learned so much from them— just basically how the way that you learn as a human being shapes how we should teach human beings because there’s only, like, there’s certain ways that we remember things better and just me standing up there and repeatedly saying the same exact thing, like it’s a repeated exposure, and in that way, it is helpful, but that there are ways to do it better that the, the students actually, like, get it a lot better.

I think that there’s like the idea that in college, your classes are supposed to be so hard. And that like it’s like a big hazing thing before you get to the real world. We have to make it so hard that like, you know, see what it’s like to get a taste of the real world. But I don’t know – I feel like a lot of those classes have really changed my idea of that, where I wasn’t necessarily trying to make, you know, my TA’ing bad so that people didn’t get it. But that the goal of teaching is really to get people to understand it. And then the goal of evaluations is to see how well they did.

And it’s not necessarily to try to get everyone to, you know, land on a perfect bell curve around B – though that might happen, whether or not people can put effort into it, or people can like grasp the concepts – but your goal is to get everyone to get an A. That’s what a good instructor does. So I think that just using those resources, had I known how helpful they would be. Why would they have them if they weren’t helpful, but I don’t know. I guess I was like, “I’m better than them,” but then I learned from them. And I was like, “Just kidding. Not better than them.”

I think the biggest challenges are grading essays, because my brain does not want to focus on them. Just because reading — especially if everyone has the same prompt — takes a long time, giving helpful feedback. You spend like 15 to 20 minutes on each one. But more or less, everybody writes the same thing, right? And not the exact same thing, but you really do read the same thing 90 times and have to spend 20 minutes on each one and… ohh, boy. So there’s a whole balance of like, the things that are usually better for learning Something like demonstrating your knowledge through writing an essay, that is a better evaluator of how well somebody knows something than like a multiple choice question, right? Because it’s a deeper kind of understanding that you have to get to before you can do it successfully.

My very first time teaching a discussion section, I was super duper nervous, because like, I had been in discussion sections, because I went to UC Irvine. So very similar system with like, discussion sections. And so I knew kind of what I expected out of a TA. And so I kind of like was like, Okay, I’m prepped to do this. And like four, I think four people came. And I was so nervous before it. And then I just kind of started talking. And then I got almost didn’t even make it through all my slides, because I talked way too much. But then I got to the end, well, like, oh, wasn’t that hard at all. Like, I kind of know this.

My other favorite part about, my favorite part about TA is that basically, you get to be like, you get this special role of, you’re not quite the instructor. So you kind of get to be like, the fun aunt. And in that, like, you get to be like you’ve seen the test, but you’re not necessarily allowed to tell them what’s on the test. But you can be like, “Oh, maybe you should study this a little bit more,” and you get to have that balance of like being the peer but also being the instructor. And that can be stressful sometimes. And people can get paralyzed by not knowing which role they’re supposed to be in more, but I think it’s really fun to be in the middle. Where you don’t have to be the one that’s like, “No, this is how I’m setting the grade.” But you can be a little bit more on their side and understanding in all of it. Because it hasn’t also been that long since we were students, compared to some faculty member or other grad students.

It depends on the professor! I’ve had professors that have weekly meetings with the whole IA/TA team. That’s usually for the bigger classes, or the ones that are more intense as far as grading. So I TA for those classes that make you write three big essays, you know. So they’ll make it so that we’ll have weekly meeting so we can discuss and find examples of students work and be like, “Okay, I would give this one this grade, because I would take off this for this in the message,” just trying to like standardize grading for things that are more complicated.

For things that are less complicated to grade, usually, we just check in after class, you know, students walk up to the professor after class and ask questions like, just kind of loiter around. And then if we have something to say, I’ll just update it. Like, with the current professor, I’ll just update him about once a week. “Oh, this is how section went,” you know, or he’ll be like, “Oh, did you get that quiz uploaded?” And I’ll be like, “Yeah, I did.” And there’s some email communication, too. But it’s not a constant communication thing. It’s a check-in when you need to, but they trust you to get your stuff done and teach what you need to teach. And if you have like a thing where you’re like, “Oh, I can’t make it to this thing,” then you have to communicate.

When it was over zoom, we did just a lot more emails, like, I would get emails all day from professors. Because also because we were all working at different times. And so then it became a big thing about like, finding a professor that worked at the same time as you did, because like, if your professor is like always doing things at like, 7AM, and you’re more of a 9PM kind of person, you’d rather be working at 9PM than 7AM. Like, that’s going to be hard, because there’s going to be like, 12 hours between all of your communications, you know, yeah, but so finding a professor that also worked at the same time of you was, like, pretty, like getting that pair down was pretty important. For the distance zoom stuff, it was a lot easier if you’re both grading at the same time, and you can just like shoot emails back and forth, versus having full days between communications.

I just came up with another one that I really liked! There’s like a developmental class. That’s like, I don’t know what’s called, like, Developmental Cognition or something like that. It’s COGS. 115. I know that. That was the first time I had TA’d for another grad student, and now we’re very good friends. It was the first time she was teaching that class, and it was the first time I was TA’ing that class. There was some neurobiology stuff in there, like some developmental biology stuff that like I had learned in undergrad, but not necessarily from the perspective of the development of cognition. And so it was one of those classes where I felt like I was learning faster than everyone else.

But it was also interesting getting her perspective as being her first time teaching it. And so like, what she was nervous about, like talking about that was really interesting. That made us pretty close. Part of it’s like, I loved the classes that I TA’d so I would just be down to YA them again, and see how different people do them. There’s Bergen’s Swearing class I’ve always wanted a TA for, but I’m not as uniquely qualified… that’s the other thing is that a professor typically teaches about their expertise. That professor has grad students, and those grad students have similar expertise. So, you know, grad students TA’ing for their advisor is a very big thing. We put in like, you know, this is my top four ranked or whatever but like, and they’ll take that into account, but they also take into account if the professor wants someone, they basically get them right. But my advisor doesn’t teach undergrads anymore. She teaches a lot of the grad classes, but not a lot of undergrad ones.

Sara Creel’s Language Developmental class seems really fun. I really liked the developmental cognition class. The brain disorders and cognition class. Yeah, yeah, I don’t know, I like a lot of that. Like, I’ve taught a lot of the lower division classes a lot. And so I think that it’s fun, like, I do have fun, where it’s like, Oh, I know something about this topic. But I don’t know everything. Like it’s not my specialty. So I like teaching those classes a lot. Because I get to learn, like I do enjoy getting to learn in the classes too. Whereas like, when you teach, you know, COGS 101B for fifth time, you’re like, I got this down. It becomes like an easy routine to be able to teach it. But it’s less fun to learn in class, so going to lectures a lot more boring. So even though it’s more work to teach a class that I know less about, it’s more fun.

I encourage people to try teaching. Because I think that as long as you’re passionate about the material, you’ve learned a lot about as a student to be able to teach, because a lot of teaching is just figuring out like, you know, this was helpful when I learned it this way, or this explanation is helpful. And the more exposures you get, the more you learn the material until it like both helps you learn the material better, to revisit it all those times. But also like, teaching it and thinking about how you’ve learned it. I don’t know, like, I feel like, like, the more the classes that I learned more recently, were the ones that I felt like I was better at teaching, because I actively could be introspective about how I had recently learned that, versus like, and help students with those ways too, you know, especially a lot of the pneumonic-icky things or like, you know, like, you don’t remember those necessarily those 10 years down the line, or you’ve known this thing for a long time. You can pull confusing concepts apart easier, because you were more recently confused by them. If you’re a student in a class and you feel like “That material was hard for me but I feel like I conquered it.” Go teach that class. Because you have a unique perspective that will help students.

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