Although their messenger bags and Chuck Taylors serve as camouflage in a forest of 400 freshmen, their faces hint of navigating the trenches of undergrad and making it out alive. A fit of shy laughter comes from a group of girls as the handsome boy sitting beside them stands up and walks down the aisle. A young woman wearing a pant suit accessorized with a Hello Kitty laptop turns around to face the audience. Then, twenty COM graduate students make their way to the stage and stand before the crowd of eager faces to introduce themselves as COM 101 Teaching Assistants.
The World of Communication, or COM 101 as most students know it, is an introductory course for all students who want to major or minor in any of the communication fields. Most students enroll in COM 101 their freshmen year because it is a prerequisite for taking all other communication classes in the College of Communication.
However, with the sheer size of the lectures, Professor Tammy Vigil receives help from a group of twenty teaching assistants who lead discussion sections and grade student work. For many of the COM 101 students, this course is their first attempt at university-level thinking and a university-level course load, so the TAs are given the daunting task of showing how it can be done.
“I remember some of my favorite TAs and teachers and hope that I can be as amazing an influence to my students as my teachers were to me,” said Kendal Pierce, (COM ’13), the most experienced leader of the TAs.
Every communication department at BU is represented by the selected TAs, but the diversity among this special group doesn’t end there. Some of the TAs are freshly out of undergrad while others have been working for a few years. Many have degrees related to communication, but some have diverse backgrounds in biological archaeology, psychology, and law. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Georgia, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Columbia are just some of the undergraduate institutions that were attended by this year’s TAs.
But no matter their department, experience, or alma mater, the TAs all have one thing in common: a desire to make a difference with their students.
On top of their regular coursework, the TAs also attend a COM 101 lecture class every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Every Friday they also get up in front of the class and lead a section of twenty students in a discussion about the week’s topics that range from Marshall McLuhan to Gangnam Style. It’s easier said than done. As Pierce said, “One of the most challenging aspects is getting [students] excited in a topic-to relate with them. I am only several years older but already I feel decades behind them.”
As the first point of contact with the students, TAs hold office hours and answer questions from students through email. They also write the exam questions and grade student work.
What’s the most difficult part of the job is?
“Grading papers because it is so subjective,” said TA Renee McDonald.
However, to help the TAs learn the art of teaching undergraduates and to keep grading consistent across sections, all the TAs enroll in Teaching Techniques, a course Professor Vigil teaches that deals with the challenges and issues TAs might face in the classroom.
Being a COM 101 TA is one of the most coveted assistantships available at the College of Communication and looking at the practical benefits, it’s easy to see why. TAs earn tuition remission, a generous stipend and course credit for the semester.
At the end of the day, the teaching experience is the most rewarding aspect of the job. Veteran TA
, Kate Worthey (COM ’13) said, “I think we would all be fooling ourselves if we thought that we would be saving the world by becoming a COM 101 TA, but it’s the little things that count the most. If you can see someone’s writing improve slowly but surely throughout the semester, that’s something you helped push and nudge along that might seem small now but will help them for years to come.”
So you want to pass COM 101? Worthey’s advice: Listen to the Com 101 TAs. “We give good advice, we know how things are graded, and we know what common mistakes trip people up in this class,” Pierce said. “We’re like COM 101 ninjas. So take our advice to save yourself a lot of pain and heartache.” Pierce noted that COM 101“is your chance to explore all the options COM offers and to have access to the best resources to help you discover your major – your TAs.”