Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 2. recruiting your teaching staff

The first logistical task when setting up your course is recruiting your teaching staff. A large course may have up to a dozen (or more!) staff ranging from graduate student TAs (teaching assistants) to undergraduate TAs to lab assistants to part-time graders. Good TAs can make your job much more enjoyable since they can take on more logistical responsibilities and let you actually focus on your teaching. But bad TAs can be a drain on your energy and a huge disservice to your students' education.

Given how important your teaching staff is, how can you recruit good TAs? Well, the bad news is that if it's your first time teaching at your university, you probably won't be able to choose your own TAs. You won't know anyone when you arrive, and TAs will have likely been selected already. Even if you're given a list of candidates to choose from, you won't know anybody in the department yet, so you'll have no idea who's good or not. One way to start filtering is to ask for feedback from professors who have had those candidates as their TAs in the past. But those signals aren't ideal, so you should just expect to not have an optimal staff in your first year. Do your best but don't sweat it.

However, after your first term teaching, you should proactively recruit your own TAs as much as possible and not leave things up to random chance. Here's whom I tend to recruit:

  • My own graduate students in my research group: these are my top choices for TAs since we already have a history of working together. Since I'm not made of money (really!), my masters and Ph.D. students often need to TA to fund their tuition and stipend, so hiring them as TAs helps both of us out financially.
    • Note: if you decide to hire your own students, you're now both their research advisor and their teaching manager, so be very careful not to overwork them in either capacity.
  • Grad students in related research groups: these students probably know my course content well. Also, I'm likely serving on their thesis committees and know their advisors, so that gives them more incentive to be good TAs for my course.
  • Undergrad (or grad) students who excelled in my course the last time I taught it. At my end-of-term staff meeting, I ask the TAs which students stood out to them as being exceptionally good. I jot down those names and sometimes reach out to them later to see if they want to become TAs. I also get cold-emails from former students who want to TA; for those requests, I look over their old assignments and ask my TAs from that term if they remember those students standing out.
    • Note: Large courses often depend on undergrad TAs since there's usually not enough department funding to pay for all the grad student TAs you need. That means the burden is on you to constantly recruit new undergrad TAs every term, which can take a lot of work.
  • If someone was a good TA, I try to hire them again the next time I teach if they're still available. They'll be more invested in the course the second time around and more willing to give me candid feedback that will help further improve it.

In contrast, these probably aren't the best TA choices for you:

  • Grad students in unrelated research groups who need to TA for funding or because they don't have good relationships with their advisor (so they're not being funded by them).
  • Someone with a history of being disrespectful to others. If you develop good working relationships with your faculty and grad student colleagues, they'll trust you enough to point out which people in the department have had these issues.
  • Candidates who cold-email you but who have no prior connection with your course.
  • Someone whom your department randomly assigned to you.

Again, despite your best efforts, you won't have an ideal teaching staff every term, since there are probably more spots to fill than optimal candidates. Just roll with it, and expect the unexpected.

Lastly, I've found that if you develop a reputation as a good teacher and mentor, then you'll have an easier time finding good TAs in the future, since the best students will be more motivated to work with you. Like it or not, your reputation will quickly spread throughout the student population via word-of-mouth, so the more you invest early on in running your courses well, the easier time you'll have in finding good TAs for future terms, which helps your courses run even better! And conversely, if you always seem to be having a hard time finding good TAs, maybe take a hard look at how you've been teaching in the past.

Next part: Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 3. designing your course calendar and policies

(see all parts)

Appendix: why do students want to TA?

I think it's important to understand why students want to serve as TAs so that you can help them achieve their professional goals. I've found it useful to simply ask them why they want to TA. Here are some example motivations:

  • Grad students sometimes need to TA to fund their tuition and stipend, or as part of a teaching requirement for their degree program. Thus, they're TAing because they need to, not necessarily because they really want to. That's OK; they can still be good TAs. Figure out whether they want to get more out of the job than simply a paycheck (which is a perfectly fine motivation!), and give them opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Some grad students want to pursue a teaching-focused job in the future, so they want to take on greater responsibilities as TAs to build up their teaching portfolio. Engage those students more deeply and give them additional responsibilities as you see fit, but be aware not to overwork them.
  • Some undergrads want to TA to build up work experience that they can put on their resume and to get a letter of recommendation from you for their future job applications.
  • Other undergrads want to TA to engage more deeply with the material of a course that they really enjoyed taking in the past.
  • Some students may be interested in joining your research group in the future or to otherwise engage with you as a mentor. TAing is one way for them to work with you in some capacity and get to know you better.

Remember that your TA staff is itself made up of students, so it's important for you to be a good teacher and mentor to them too.