The Mark J. Stehlik Introductory and Service Teaching Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Question Everything

Harrison Grodin
2022 Introductory and Service Teaching Award

After nine semesters as a teaching assistant for classes that primarily emphasize functional programming, I've come to an ironic conclusion: everything is mutable.

When I first started TAing, I assumed the decisions that led to everything around me must have been intentional. As I talked to older TAs, though, I heard stories about how each problem, example, and tool was built over many semesters, and I began to realize that everything was constantly changing, evolving rapidly to better suit students' needs. Suddenly, my creativity began to run wild; everywhere I looked, I saw more and more possibilities to help students and TAs alike.

On the student-facing side, I learned that I could refine or replace examples that I didn't find instructive. The more excited students are, the more easily they can connect to the topics at hand; as a teaching assistant, you are uniquely positioned to identify possible areas where motivation is lacking, having taken the course recently and working with students directly. By thinking critically about homework assignments and lesson plans, you can have a tangible impact on students' perceptions of the course.

As I was developing new content, I found that difficult-to-use, outdated tools were causing bugs that distracted from the learning experience. By finding (and building) more effective tools, I observed concrete issues vanish over time. While not every course is limited by weaknesses in infrastructure, no course is perfect; identifying and addressing the most significant frustrations can go a long way in improving student enjoyment.

Over my time as a TA, I've realized, however, that just fixing what you notice is not enough: there are always problems that can't be solved in the short term. In these cases, I've found it invaluable to document any issues I notice and trust future TAs to improve them. TAing is not only about solving problems for now; it must also involve thinking about the overall sustainability of a course, including what you can learn from those who have come before you and how you can help those who will come after. Every TA knows that there's no feeling quite like helping students understand the ideas you love; by zooming out and thinking about long-term changes, you can affect not only current students, but students for semesters to come.

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