The Alan J. Perlis SCS Student Teaching Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Teaching and Learning are Community Events

Robert J. Simmons, 2008

I was remembering the scene in Good Will Hunting when the brilliant main character mocks a graduate student for not thinking on his own, and paying for an education that he could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.

My experience of being a TA is that learning to think for oneself is a process that does not largely happen by oneself. The student working on their own at odd hours of the is-this-evening-or-morning is still being guided by the instructions that were written into the assignment by a TA, still being informed by that example that the instructor presented at the lecture. The miraculous moment when the connection happens and the idea makes sense is by some measure completely individual and internal, but the moment was anticipated and prepared by any number of unpredictable events before that point – a carefully constructed question on a problem set, a student's fortuitous question during lecture, a quickly answered email posted to the course discussion board.

I think at its best, the job of a TA is a manager of this madness, a guide and coach and cheerleader through the unpredictable course of learning. A teaching assistant is similar to a student in that both must understand examples in recitation and solve puzzles on problem sets; the TA is unique in that they must also invent the examples and puzzles to be motivating and illustrative. Then the role is to guide without carrying; it's no good to get lost, but it's worse to never learn how to navigate by oneself.

Learning to teach is also a community event. I'm new at this; when I walked into my first recitation this semester, it was the first time I had stood before a room of college students to teach them something. My throat was dry, and I remember that the first thing I did was take a sip from my Nalgene bottle and spill water on my shirt. I guess it must have been uphill from there!

I'm honored that my students think I've taught them something, because I've learned an enormous amount from them, and I know I still have a lot to learn. I got to work with a remarkable group of students and a dedicated course staff that deserves a lot of credit for any success attributed to me.

Return to: SCS Student Awards