A Few Tips for Undergrads (and Teaching Assistants) from a (Former) Graduate Assistant

It’s that time of year when students and professor return to college classrooms to, gods willing, learn something to take out into the world. Last semester became an extended learning moment for me when I agreed to become a graduate assistant for one of my professors. Like many graduate assistants, my duties included creating and grading assignments for one of her undergraduate courses. After a few months and many frustrations, I can tell you that there are a few things undergrads (and teaching/graduate assistants) could keep in mind to make this process easier on all of us. Things like…

1. Don’t plagiarize.

This seems like a no brainer, but you might be surprised at how many college students lift text from other authors and academics and present it as their own. Many more paraphrase other authors or simply rehash entire pieces by others without ever citing their sources. Undergrads, if you don’t already know, many universities provide software for professors and instructors to use that automatically detects plagiarism. Even without the software, it’s pretty easy to tell when a student hasn’t actually written what you’ve turned into us.

The kicker is that it’s really easy to avoid plagiarizing. When you quote people, cite your sources. When you paraphrase knowledge that isn’t common, cite your sources. When in doubt, cite your sources. If you don’t know how, there are plenty of online handbooks to guide you and even websites that will create in-text and references pages for you; all you have to do is enter the information. In addition, many universities have accounts with sites that allow you to import citations from the internet (we use RefWorks). Check with your library to see if you have access to any of these services. Finally, if you’re having trouble keeping track of your citations or where you read what, try creating an annotated bibliography as you read and take notes. It can be a bit of a pain, but I promise that it will help in the end and also save you a lot of writing time since you already have summaries for everything you’ve written when you begin your papers.

But, graduate teaching assistants, please remember…

Not all students may be familiar with what constitutes plagiarism or know how to use citations. The most common problem I ran into was the latter; students simply did not know when or how to cite their sources. So, I spent a lot of time introducing students to the basics and writing, “Watch your citations!” at the end of many a paper. Over the course of time, students became much better about crediting authors for their words and ideas. And, hell, even as a graduate student I still need handbooks and Refworks to keep my affairs in order, so I say cut students a little slack and direct them toward the nearest writing center. Or, if you’re feeling particularly charitable, try building in a short module on how to conduct and credit research. Your university librarian should be able to help you with that.

2. Don’t turn in first drafts.

Over the course of your college career, you’re going to learn that writing is revising. Learn it. Live it. Love it. Most writers in any discipline, and certainly all “professional” writers, will write several drafts of a piece before delivering the final product. Even your professors write several drafts of papers, presentations, and books. If people who have been at it for years and do this for a living wouldn’t turn in a first draft, you shouldn’t either.

Nothing will put me in a cranky mood faster when I’m grading papers than realizing that the student didn’t give a paper the once over before sending it my way. That’s a sure fire way to end up with a reduced grade and so much red ink on your paper you’ll think my pen burst. If nothing else, for the love of all that is holy, run a spell and grammar check on your papers; most word processors have one built in automatically. But, please, try to give yourself at least one hour, if you can, to re-read and revise your work. If you’re lucky, you might be able to ask someone else to read it for you (my brother and I regularly exchange papers) and give you feedback.

Alternatively, give your paper time to “rest.” Write your first draft, walk away from it for a while (even just an hour), then come back to it later. I guarantee that many of those typos jump out and snarl at you. To make the revision process even easier, change the format as you revise. Change the line spacing and the font so you’re forced to read each line carefully. If you’re feeling super determined, read your paper aloud. This works very well for me because I have to read what I actually wrote instead of what I think I wrote.

Finally, if we give you feedback, please try to incorporate that into your work. It’s really frustrating when I spend a lot of time and energy making comments and suggestions on your paper only to have you ignore it. I promise that I’m not just trying to be mean; I’m trying to help you improve your writing. Some of my favorite professors from my undergrad days are those that were well-known as “hard” graders because they were brutal with the feedback. But, it all helped me grow as a writer.

But, graduate teaching assistants, please remember…

Many students enter college without the ability to write at a “college level” and may also be crunched for time because of other circumstances. The best piece of advice I received when I became an assistant was from a friend who struggled a bit when he first entered school. When I complained about the low quality of student writing, he said, any one of those students could be like him, struggling to do their best. All they need is a little help and understanding to become the student he eventually became. His words completely overhauled my perspective and made me focus more on student growth and effort and fostering a relationship rather than just editing for the sake of editing.

It also made me remember to keep in mind the ways in which the college experiences is typically structured will privilege some students over others. I came from a Tribal school with great teachers but few resources, even fewer than most public schools, with a worldview and ways of communicating that were very different than what’s expected at most universities. It became very clear, very quickly, that university was not a safe space for me as a poor, woman of color. I also thought about my younger brother who became a caregiver for my mother last year suddenly having much less time to write and revise papers. With those things in mind, I advise teaching assistants to try and value differing methods and styles of communication when reading student papers and also to realize that sometimes life happens. Try having students turn in first drafts or partial first drafts over the course of a semester and giving them feedback they can use in their final papers. Give them some room to for error.

3. Do think critically and develop your own voice.

The most important advice I can give any student is to develop and use those critical thinking skills. College should not be about rote memorization of facts or spitting out what you think the professor wants to hear. (If your professor expects that, they’re a shitty professor.) It should be about learning how to turn an analytical lens on your world. Even one of my most ostensibly straight forward classes, statistics (ew), required me to think critically. We had to create tools to collect data and interpret that data which all required my input. This should be a time when you question and rethink everything.

This should also be a time when you develop your own voice. That will take some time, but I can tell you with no hesitation that reading your papers and engaging in discussion is loads better for me when I actually hear you rather than myself or other scholars through you. You are an interesting person with unique and varied life experiences and perspectives to bring to the table. So, let that show in your classroom discussions and in your writing.

But, graduate teaching assistants, please remember…

Critical thinking and analytical skills are constantly in development. Sometimes I get frustrated with students (and classmates for that matter) when I feel like there’s a lack of analytical rigor. And, I’ve definitely had a lot of moments where I wonder how something so obvious to me isn’t apparent to others. I’m sure others have felt the same about me. But, the ability to look at a problem or issue from multiple angles doesn’t come naturally but rather much be developed and fostered over a lifetime. So, give your students a break if they’re not always on the ball or if their writing lacks personality in the beginning; it’s a process. (Note: When I say that learning to see things from multiple perspectives in a process, don’t take that as a way to deflect legitimate criticism of things you say and certainly if you say and do things that are oppressive. I had a lot of classmates try and get away with busted, oppressive behavior under the guise of ~learning~. That crap shouldn’t fly if you care an iota about your classmates’ or your students’ wellbeing.)[sws_divider_line]

That’s all to say: your instructors are not dungeon masters. Many of us are overworked and underpaid and usually teaching for the experience or college credits or both. And, teaching assistants, remember when you were an undergrad learning the ropes and trying to balance work, school, and life? A little empathy goes a long way toward improving the instructor/student relationship, y’all. Now, I’m off to campus. I’ve got a thesis to write.

By Marena

Marena recently earned her Master of Arts degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular mass media. You may find her creating fanworks, testing her hand-eye coordination with beadweaving, flailing over her fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory texts, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can find her writing on Marena ni yukyats.

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