The Pivotal Role CS TAs Play in Inclusion

Victoria Yang
Jul 6 · 7 min read
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Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Two months ago I wrote the article “The Role CS Professors Have In Supporting Marginalized Students” about my experiences in my college’s CS department. Since then I have seen more and more students at my college and others come forward with their stories of racial and other forms of discrimination. It is now crystal clear to me through reading the stories of my peers on Instagram accounts such as @blackivystories and @dearpwi that this is a systemic and far-reaching problem that has deeply impacted my Black and other classmates of color. It has also made me reconsider how I, as a TA, could have been done more to help facilitate an inclusive environment.

In college I was a TA for two intro CS classes over six semesters. As both a student and a TA, I am well acquainted with the power dynamic that exists in the classroom, particularly when you are first starting out in a subject. The classes are difficult, and it is easy to feel lost. During my office hours where my main role is to answer questions and help with assignments, I have had students tell me that they feel like they don’t belong, question if they should stay in the major, and wonder if they will be able to find internships. Even though it is beyond the scope of what I am responsible for, some of my favorite interactions with students were talking to them about upper-level classes in the major and my internships, encouraging them that even if they don’t do well in a particular class they still have a future in the major — things that didn’t necessarily relate directly to the class but would be helpful to their growth. I firmly believe it was my duty to encourage them as much as possible in that position, share my personal failings and successes, and reassure them that they are not alone in their feelings.

On the flip side, as a student I have had a TA tell me that the code I had spent days on was unsalvageable and needed to be completely rewritten before they could help me (a simple one-line change ended up doing the trick). Perhaps in their mind they were being direct and were doing the best they could to manage all the students they had to deal with, but to me it read as callous and aggressive. This was an assignment I had struggled with a lot, and was one of the first assignments of the class. It made me scared to interact with TAs. It was one of the first times I had ever gone to office hours, and it set the expectation that I might be treated the same way if I continued to ask for help. It was only through actually being a TA and getting to know other TAs that I was able to dismantle that idea.

In departments such as Computer Science where the classes are often huge, TAs might comprise almost all of the one-on-one time that students get, particularly in the crucial time when they are first starting the major. Personally, I only went to a professor’s office hours once in my college career while often attending those of my TAs, since TA office hours are more frequent and therefore supposed to be more accessible. Particularly in the CS department, when many of the TAs are undergraduates and the actual peers of the students they teach, it is especially important to remember the position that TAs are in as role models and support systems. I’m well aware that being a TA is often a thankless task — you have to deal with students hounding you for points, reading unnecessarily rude emails, and are arguably sometimes taking on more responsibility than an undergrad should. But that is also a source of power in itself.

I have also seen how the professor a TA works under directly influences how they interact with students. My first semester as a TA (as a sophomore, still not even sure I would stick with the CS major) was for Introduction to CS (not the same class I discussed in my previous article). The professor I taught with made sure that every TA was completely aware of how we should correspond with students. I remember him saying that if a student emailed and we felt like we wanted to respond with sass or anything that could even be construed as such, we should wait a day and revisit it or forward the email to him or one of the head TAs to deal with. This set the tone for how I felt I should interact with students. The class was still considered by many to be difficult or a catalyst to dropping the major, but it was important that the students felt like their TAs were on their side and supportive, and the structure and teaching of the class was not what drove students away. I have seen this sentiment echoed by other professors in the department and throughout my time as a TA, which I think is crucial in cultivating an environment where students feel welcome.

I have been guilty of forgetting the unique position I was in as a TA. There have been days where I have been tired or stressed and might have come across as curt or unwelcoming to my students when I am trying to help them. At the time, I didn’t think about the impact that might have on a student who is already putting themselves out there to seek help. In my later semesters TA-ing, I sometimes felt so far removed from when I was taking the class that it was often difficult for me to put myself in an intro student’s shoes. However, as someone who has struggled with other aspects of CS, I tried to relate that to their struggles in a class that might not have been as difficult to me. As a TA I know that my peers often don’t have the same experience — they might be top-of-the-class students who honestly don’t know how it feels like to grapple with material in the same way, particularly introductory level material. Having to explain concepts to students who didn’t understand it the first time or think differently than me was very rewarding, as I found that each semester I TA’d I’d come away with better knowledge on something that I thought had just clicked when I had taken the class.

None of this is to say that if you didn’t struggle or are not marginalized you cannot be a good educator or TA — my experience with my peers, TAs, and professors has largely been positive and I am thankful for that. We should be mindful of what we say and how we act, even when we feel like it is a joke. To give an example, once a student came to me asking a question about the next homework, when most students I had been helping were still working on the one that was due imminently. I helped them, and then said: “Wow you’re really on [this homework] already? You’re super far ahead!” I had meant it to be a lighthearted compliment, but they were immediately apologetic, afraid that they had done something wrong or should have waited until the homework was due to bring up their questions. Up until recently I thought that maybe they were just being overly sensitive or deferential, even joking about the encounter in front of them a year later, but I honestly should have been more mindful after they seemed uncomfortable.

During my time as a TA I remember undergoing two trainings. One was for first-time TAs, a powerpoint presentation urging us to be respectful of students and outlining our responsibilities. Another was an online webinar about sexual harassment and discrimination that broadly covered things we should not do. But oftentimes situations that are unfair are not overt enough to be read clearly as biased, especially for someone with little experience in being in a position of authority. When I was hired as a TA my involvement with students included tutoring, teaching kids as a volunteer, and working at an educational summer camp. Even with that background I still wish I had more formal guidance starting out, and I had a lot more educational experience than a lot of TAs have. I had to go through far more training to be a tour guide than I ever did as a TA (and had to repeat some degree of training every year) — I don’t think it is an overstep to implement more rigorous and comprehensive trainings for TAs.

It is imperative that TAs are educated about their responsibility to uphold diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many TAs will go on to become professors themselves, so it is imperative that they understand how essential their role is early on. We don’t know the experiences, struggles, and backgrounds of those around us, and it is not our place to judge and assume. When people tell us how they feel, we should listen without preconceived opinions and try to correct our behavior even when we didn’t initially think we did anything wrong. We should always be striving to make the most inclusive environments we can, but it should not be up to the students to advocate for this or the TAs to figure out how — this needs to start from the professors, department, and institution themselves.

Thank you to all the former TAs and friends who gave feedback and edited this piece.

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