Preparing for Your Semester Teaching Assistantship

The posts over at Prof Hacker on creating a checklist for the semester and organizing teaching material got me thinking about my process of preparing for the semester, organizing and archiving my material, and keeping my sanity.  So, consider this post a ProfHacker / Lifehacker-esque contribution.

My Semester Checklist

  1. Purchase binders and label them for each course.  I do this for both my TA positions and my seminar classes.  These binders collect everything related to my assistantship: syllabus, printed course readings, grading and exam resources, exam questions, notes, and anything else I find useful for organizing and archiving.  Much of this will be digitized at the end of the semester, but I find it useful to keep the physical archive in one place.
  2. Create computer directories for the course.  I create a folder for each semester (Fall 2010, Spring 2009, etc.) and within each of these are folders for each course.  Within each course folder I have another series of folders to organize possible course resources: "Assignments," "Clips," "Notes," "PDF," and "Syllabus."
  3. Clean and organize my office.  For this semester, this shouldn't be a big issue for me because as a research assistant I did not have an office on campus.  I tend to keep my office neat because I don't want to be distracted by looking for stuff.  I keep my supplies organize, book straight, and computer desktop clean.
  4. Related, stock up on office supplies: stapler, legal pads, pens and pencils, scissors, tape, binder clips, paper clips, and personal items.
  5. Also related, I clean and organize my messenger bag.  At the end of the semester I purge my back of unnecessary items.  Papers, folders, and books are either trashed, filed, archived, or recycled.  Items always include are: Macbook Pro, computer power cord, phone charger, pens and pencils, highlighter, Sharpie, small stapler, Moleskine, granola bar, umbrella, legal pad, USB flash drive, mints, cologne, office keys, aspirin, gum, office keys, hand sanitizer, and facial tissue.
  6. Add important academic dates to my calendar.  I use iCal / Google Calendar to keep track of scheduled happenings in my life.  In addition to important dates, I also add the blocks of time when classes are so I always know when I'm free or busy.
  7. Let the professor know my office number and office hours.  Usually listed on the syllabus, I try and know this as soon as I can so my professor doesn't have to give it any thought.
  8. Heather Whitney writes of plugging holes from summer research.  This isn't something I've done before, but it's now part of my pre-semester routine.  The last thing I need is open research projects cluttering my already-busy semester.
  9. Meet with the professor and make sure all responsibilities are clear.  Be sure you know your role in the classroom and behind the scenes.  The last thing you or your professor wants is an unexpected oversight that leads to stress, frustration, or animosity.  Know what's expected of you and what you can expect from your professor.
  10. Check your wardrobe.  I tend to dress nicer than the students, professional but causal, but also make sure I'm not outshining my professor.
Organizing Files

I mentioned above my technique for organizing my course files.  I use my method for both assistantships and seminars.  Digitally, courses are filed chronologically.  For example, my Spring 2010 folder includes subfolders for my seminars on Mythic West, Latin America, and U.S. before 1877, and each class folder contains my “Assignments,” “Clips,” “Notes,” “PDF,” and “Syllabus” structure.

Course readings and notes are also organized in Zotero under a similar system.  The nice thing about digital files is its ease of accessibility and searchability.  Additionally, digital files only take up as much space as your hard drive allows.  Shelves and banker boxes full of course materials are not necessary when course material is organized on a hard drive.  Combined with Mac’s fantastic Spotlight search, locating the exact file you need is a keyword search away.

Despite how digital I try and make my semesters, I inevitably will acquire paper from classes.  For this, I purchase three ring binders to collect physical course material.  The binding of each binder is labeled with the course number, course name, and professor’s name so I can easily glance at my shelf to find what I’m after.  I don’t make the binder system complicated: the syllabus is always the first document in the binder, followed by assignment handouts, exam questions, then notes.  Consistency is your best friend when organizing the mass of material you collect over the course of a semester.

Organizing Life

Just as important to organizing physical course material is the non-physical: the to-do list, the brainstorms, the inspirations, the ideas.  As a soft adherent of GTD, I believe in the principle of ubiquitous capture.  Any thought that enters my mind that I cannot act on the moment I think of it gets written down somewhere.  For this, I have several tools at my disposal.  The first is my trusty Moleskin, which always lives in a pocket inside my messenger bag, set up as an academic Moleskine PDA.  If I have my Blackberry handy, my inbox becomes Evernote.  In other cases (where I have wifi access) I’ll use Evernote or Things on my iPod Touch.  In the case of scheduled events, iCal / Google Calendar sync so I always have some way to access my schedule.

Manage Your Stress, a.k.a, Keep Your Sanity

When the semester begins, your stress level will likely increase, to put it mildly.  To avoid frustration or feeling completely overwhelmed, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Learn the power of a firm but polite "no."  Colleagues will ask you to serve on committees, students will ask for favors, family members will wonder why you can't make it home over that three day weekend.  You cannot be all and do everything, and your attempts to do so will burn you out very quickly.  I have my own rule of doing no more than three extra projects in a given semester so I can focus hard rather than lose focus.  This fall, for example, will include my three classes, my TA position and its responsibilities, and co-chairing a graduate student-run conference held in the spring.  My summer research projects or any other tasks that come my way during the academic year, unless very small and requiring minimal energy and time, will be met with a polite "no."
  2. If you accept projects or a favor, be ultra clear about when to expect results.  Let them know it may not be soon and deliver on that deadline.  If your queue is too big, decline the project.  If the project becomes overwhelming, quit the project unless it's important.  The large-scale accomplishments are more important than the small ones.  And you'll be expected to have a quick turn-around in your assistantship in terms of grading or delivering material to students.  Don't let small projects distract you from your responsibilities.
  3. Sleep.  You cannot function well by sleeping a few hours per night.  Make due with the time you have or find ways to free up time.
  4. Exercise.  Go for a walk, get a dog, join a gym.  Do anything you can to get some activity in your life.  Academics tend to have relatively sedentary work lifestyles, so find some physical activity to be healthier and release stress.
  5. Eat.  Coffee is not one of the five food groups.  You'll feel better if you fill yourself with healthy options.
  6. Don't forget about life.  Don't let your assistantship -- or grad school in general -- dissolve your relationship with family and friends.  Get out and enjoy a park, see a movie, play video games, practice guitar, read a non-school book, whatever distraction you like to do to burn off stress.
  7. Laugh at perfection.  It's boring.
How do you organize and prepare for your semester assistantships? Share your thoughts in the comments!