Four Ways Lecturers Can Support Their TAs in Writing Courses

Rebecca Schoenike Nowacek, UW-Madison WAC Program
Four best practices for how lecturers can support TAs in Communication-B and Writing-Intensive courses.

With so many Comm-B and Writing-Intensive courses taught in a lecture-discussion section format, TAs are often on the front lines of implementing the general education requirements and must juggle a multitude of responsibilities. To succeed, TAs need strong and consistent support from their lecturers. As I’ve conversed with experienced TAs in departments across L&S—including Biocore, English, ILS, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology—it has become clear to me that there is a strong consensus among TAs on the following four tips as the most important things lecturers can do to support TAs’ work.


Work with your TAs to develop well-paced assignment sequences:

TAs who had the chance to meet with their lecturers well before the semester began unanimously stressed how important such a meeting was. If you are developing the writing assignments for your TAs, you can use this time to explain what your expectations and sequencing ideas are so TAs can coach students on the assignments appropriately. Alternatively, if you allow or expect TAs to design their own assignments, this meeting gives them the time and support to do so. Expecting TAs to design a sequence of assignments on their own only days before the semester begins, many TAs report, is unrealistic. One effective way to guide your TAs while still allowing them the freedom to draw on their own expertise is to outline a potential sequence of assignments. Your TAs can then either adopt the outline entirely or use it as a model to develop their own assignments.

Also, allow enough time between papers during the semester to avoid “the domino effect”: if TAs don’t have enough time to return one paper before students start writing the next, the TAs’ schedules can quickly fall out of synch with your intended schedule. Similarly, because it is impossible to anticipate before the semester begins how much guidance students will need as they undertake the assigned writing, your TAs will benefit from some flexibility in the pace of the semester. One way to ensure flexibility is to leave multiple “TBA” sections throughout the semester that your TAs can schedule according to their students’ needs.


Work to create a community of teachers:

By meeting with your TAs to discuss the hows, whys, and whens of the writing assignments, you’re already starting to build such a community. There are other ways to build strong working relationships between you and your TAs: If you can, arrange for your TAs to have offices near each other and near you. Build a file of TA materials (handouts, writing assignments, assignment sequences, etc.); you can share these materials with future TAs (especially less-experienced ones) and explain how such exercises support your course goals. Make it clear to your TAs that you support them. Consider having regular staff meetings (perhaps 30 minutes before or after lecture once a week) to encourage your TAs to “cross-fertilize” their ideas and communicate their concerns and successes with you. Talk about grading with your TAs¾perhaps having a staff meeting to “calibrate” grading standards¾and make it clear that you will not undermine the TAs if students come to contest their grades. And whenever possible, give TAs plenty of notice regarding paper deadlines, staff meetings, etc.


Emphasize the experience and strengths of your TAs:

Just as it is important for your TAs to know you support their work, it is important for your students to know that you value the TAs. Too often, students see TAs as merely the distributors of handouts. When appropriate, explain to your students that the TAs were specially selected because of their abilities and experience. Even “little” things¾like referring to your TAs as “instructors” rather than “teaching assistants”¾can shape the way students perceive the role and worth of TAs. Consider inviting a TA to give a guest presentation or even a full lecture on her area of expertise. Overall, simply convey to your students that you and your TAs are a team and that you value the work that TAs do with students.


In your lectures, stress the value of writing:

Students take what the lecturer says seriously. Therefore, it sends a powerful message if you explain to your students that you believe in the value of the large amount of reading and writing they do in sections. Consider bringing in or talking about your own drafts, stressing that professional writers work on and revise their writing, evaluating class readings as examples (successful or otherwise) of disciplinary writing, or having someone from the Writing Center come to do an “outreach.”