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)

Lucky for me, I'm not special

Tanvi Bajpai
2019 Introductory and Service Teaching Award

TAing 15-151 was one of the most intimidating things I've ever done, not only because teaching introductory proof writing to students who have never seen proofs before is challenging (which is an understatement, to say the least), but because 15-151 is one of the first classes an SCS student takes. It is their first introduction to the 'science' part of Computer Science. It is the first time they sit in a lecture hall with all of their peers. It is terrifying for most of them, and the nature of proof writing admittedly does nothing to assuage their fears.

Concepts, as 15-151/21-128 are so lovingly called, has had an unfortunate reputation for being the course that makes students question their belonging in Computer Science and Mathematics. But for me, Discrete Math was the reason I chose to become a Computer Scientist in the first place – it made me feel like Computer Science had a place for someone like me.

When I applied to TA this subject, I did so because I wanted to change the culture around it, and wanted to make it for someone else what it was for me – an invitation to Computer Science. I vehemently disagree with the notion that introductory courses (of both the programming and proof writing variety) should be 'weed-out' courses – they should be 'welcome' courses: they should encourage students to enter our field. They should teach first-year students how to learn the skills needed to start working in our field. They should both challenge our students and inspire them to want to challenge themselves. That's a tall order to fill for instructors. But honestly, I can think of no better facilitator for this than an undergraduate TA – someone who had been in the same position as their students are in now.

What I learned when I TA'd 151 is that I was not special, and that none of my students were either: all of the freshman were experiencing the same kind of fear and hesitation as I did when I was in their shoes. And lucky for me, I had never forgotten that feeling. This made me able to empathize with my students, and that empathy was, for me at least, the key to my success as a teaching assistant. Proofs and code are inherently apathetic things, but their student authors, on the other hand, are not – they are emotional and vulnerable, and it is important to remember this when you are teaching them. The more I was able to empathize with my students, the more they trusted me as their teacher. This trust made them more open to learning, and in turn, made me more effective as a teacher.

Nothing, in my opinion, is more instrumental to a students' success in a class than maintaining their willingness to learn. If you lose that willingness, you lose any chance you had of teaching them. The last thing you want is for a student to lose hope in a class, or in a subject. If keeping this willingness aflame means you have to keep up with the memes, or make silly analogies, or do whatever you can to keep their attention and interest and trust – do it. That investment is worth it in the long run.

What ended up being a serendipitous by-product of fostering students' willingness to learn was fostering their willingness to help their peers learn as well. I've had so many phenomenal students become TAs with me, and quite honestly, do my job far better than I have or ever will. Each of my co-TAs had their own unique experiences and perspectives as a student in this class, and each have used th eir experiences to inform their teaching. Lucky for them, they aren't special, and neither are their students: with high probability, at least one student will have a similar experience to theirs, and therefore will have a great mentor to turn to in trying times. Nothing has brought me more happiness than watching my former students inspire and help other students, and knowing that this cycle of support will continue when I'm gone.

I have been so absurdly lucky to TA this class for three years, and help to change the culture around it; I have Professor Mackey to thank for that opportunity. I would not have been able to do any of that without his support and the hard work and passion of my co-TAs over the last three years; they have all made me a better TA simply by being great TAs themselves. We are a team, and I would not have been the TA I am today without them, therefore all of them deserve to be named here with me:

David Altizio, Emily Zhu, Leo Huang, Alka Earathu, Vidhart Bhatia, Nina Edwards, Liza Sulkin, Peter Shi, Harlene Samra, Parmita Bawankule, Chloe Ireland, Komal Dhull, Komal Dewan, Maryia Oreshko, Amy Zhang, Anirudh Baddepudi, Anubhav Baweja, Vatsal Ohja, Gunmay Handa, Josh Clune, Mayank Jain, Sayan Chaudhry, Shreya Bali, Rohit Kopparthy, Abinaya Rajesh, Alan Sun, Alp Müyesser, Andrew Kwon, Brendan Ney, Claire Scoggins, Jennifer Lee, Hao Wu, Yiyang Guo, Zachary Sussman, Sunny Gakhar, Bryan Lee, Andrew Benson, David Zeng, and last, but not least, Clive Newstead.

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