Obermark, Lauren, Elizabeth Brewer, and Kay Halasek. “Moving from the One and Done to a Culture of Collaboration: Revising Professional Development for TAs.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 39.1 (2015): 32-53. Print.
Lauren Obermark, Elizabeth Brewer, and Kay Halasek detail a professional development model for graduate teaching assistants (TAs) that was established at their institution to better meet the needs of both beginning and continuing TAs. Their model responded to the call from E. Shelley Reid, Heidi Estrem, and Marcia Belcheir to “[g]o gather data—not just impressions—from your own TAs” in order to understand and foreground local conditions (qtd. in Obermark et al. 33).
To examine and revise their professional development process beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2013, Obermark et al. conducted a survey of current TAs, held focus groups, and surveyed “alumni” TAs to determine TAs’ needs and their reactions to the support provided by the program (35-36).
An exigency for Obermark et al. was the tendency they found in the literature to concentrate TA training on the first semester of teaching. They cite Beth Brunk-Chavez to note that this tendency gives short shrift to the continuing concerns and professional growth of TAs as they advance from their early experiences in first-year writing to more complex teaching assignments (33). As a result of their research, Obermark et al. advocate for professional development that is “collaborative,” “ongoing,” and “distributed across departmental and institutional locations” (34).
The TA program in place at the authors’ institution prior to the assessment included a week-long orientation, a semester’s teaching practicum, a WPA class observation, and a syllabus built around a required textbook (34). After their first-year, TAs were able to move on to other classes, particularly the advanced writing class, which fulfills a general education requirement across the university and is expected to provide a more challenging writing experience, including a “scaffolded research project” (35). Obermark et al. found that while students with broader teaching backgrounds were often comfortable with designing their own syllabus to meet more complex pedagogical requirements, many TAs who had moved from the well-supported first-year course to the second wished for more guidance than they had received (35).
Consulting further scholarship by Estrem and Reid led Obermark et al. to act on “a common error” in professional development: failing to conduct a “needs assessment” by directly asking questions designed to determine, in the words of Kathleen Blake Yancey, “the characteristics of the TAs for whom the program is designed” (qtd. in Obermark et al. 36-37). The use of interview methodology through focus groups not only instilled a collaborative ethos, it also permitted the authors to plan “developmentally appropriate PD” and provided TAs with what the authors see as a rare opportunity to reflect on their experiences as teachers. Obermark et al. stress that this fresh focus on what Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher call a “participatory model of research” (37) allowed the researchers to demonstrate their perceptions of the TAs as professional colleagues, leading the TAs themselves “to identify more readily as professionals” (37).
TAs’ sense of themselves as professionals was further strengthened by the provision of “ongoing” support to move beyond what Obermark et al. call “the one and done” model (39). Through the university teaching center, they encountered Jody Nyquist and Jo Sprague’s theory of three stages of TA development: “senior learners” who “still identify strongly with students”; “colleagues in training” who have begun to recognize themselves as teachers; and “junior colleagues” who have assimilated their professional identities to the point that they “may lack only the formal credentials” (qtd. in Obermark et al. 39). Obermark et al. note that their surveys revealed, as Nyquist and Sprague predicted, that their population comprised TAs at all three levels as they moved through these stages at different rates (39-40).
The researchers learned that even experienced TAs still often had what might have been considered basic questions about the goals of the more advanced course and how to integrate the writing process into the course’s general education outcomes (40). The research revealed that as TAs moved past what Nyquist and Sprague denoted the “survival” mode that tends to characterize a first year of teaching, they began to recognize the value of composition theory and became more invested in applying theory to their teaching (39). That 75% of the alumni surveyed were teaching writing in their institutions regardless of their actual departmental positions reinforced the researchers’ certainty and the TAs’ awareness that composition theory and practice would be central to their ongoing academic careers (40).
Refinements included a more extensive schedule of optional workshops and a “peer-to-peer” program that responded to TA requests for more opportunities to observe and interact with each other. Participating TAs received guidance on effective observation processes and feedback; subsequent expansion of this program offered TAs opportunities to share designing assigning assignments and grading as well (42).
The final component of the new professional-development model focused on expanding the process of TA support across both the English department and the wider university. Obermark et al. indicate that many of the concerns expressed by TAs addressed not just teaching writing with a composition-studies emphasis but also teaching more broadly in areas that “did not fall neatly under our domain as WPAs and specialists in rhetoric and composition” (43). For example, TAs asked for more guidance in working with students’ varied learning styles and, in particular, in meeting the requirement for “social diversity” expressed in the general-education outcomes for the more advance course (44). Some alumni TAs reported wishing for more help teaching in other areas within English, such as in literature courses (45).
The authors designed programs featuring faculty and specialists in different pedagogical areas, such as diversity, as well as workshops and break-outs in which TAs could explore kinds of teaching that would apply across the many different environments in which they found themselves as professionals (45). Obermark et al. note especially the relationship they established with the university teaching center, a collaboration that allowed them to integrate expertise in composition with other philosophies of teaching and that provided “allies in both collecting data and administering workshops for which we needed additional expertise” (45). Two other specific benefits from this partnership were the enhanced “institutional memory” that resulted from inclusion of a wider range of faculty and staff and increased sustainability for the program as a larger university population became invested in the effort (45-46).
Obermark et al. provide their surveys and focus-group questions, urging other WPAs to engage TAs in their own development and to relate to them “as colleagues in the field rather than novices in need of training, inoculation, or the one and done approach” (47).