“I’ll try not to eat sushi before lab next week” and other undergrad-isms

As some of you know, I’m TAing a stand-alone introductory geology lab this semester. It’s been a pretty wonderful experience so far, and I’m learning all sorts of glorious things, such as (1) I may be a paleoceanographer and geochemist, but I still know my rocks pretty dang well, and (2) mother nature shares her angst equally with all geology field trips. But perhaps the most hilarious aspect of TAing has to be the plethora of undergrad interactions I’ve had ranging from missed lab excuses to “can’t you just give me the answer?” questions. Now that I’m on the other side of those interactions, I’ve gained a whole new level of respect for my own super-human rockstar TAs (seriously, go you guys), and in order to pass some of that respect on to those of you who have never or will never TA (and to make all you TAers out there giggle a bit), I present a short list of common undergrad-isms from an intro geology lab.

(1) Sorry I can’t/didn’t make it to lab, I have/had….

This is (not surprisingly) a weekly occurrence for all of us 1030 TAs. In recent weeks it’s been the stomach flu–seriously puking students, please stay away from my lab–and I’ve gotten plenty “I hurt myself at practice last night so I can’t come on the field trip.” But my new all time favorite lab miss excuse comes from a fellow TA (thanks Dave) who received an email excuse from a student citing food poisoning as the culprit for missing a lab and ending with “I’ll try not to eat sushi before lab next week.” Made up or not, I have to give this student some mad props for adding some serious laughter to my otherwise Matlab and journal article filled afternoon.

To be fair, I also have to give some serious props to my 8am lab last week when EVERYONE showed up for a field trip… hiking around a mountain… writing while standing up… in the pouring rain. I probably should bake them brownies or something.

(2)…will I/did I miss anything important?

This. So much of this. Of course you will still have to know the material you missed. And yes you will still be tested on the material you missed.

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Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

(3) Is this right?

We’re all guilty of this one, but as a TA I do everything I can to side-step this question. Sure, it’s important to let a student know that they’re on the right track. But it’s more important to get a student to a level in which they can critically evaluate the answers they are producing. I only validate a student’s answer(s) after they’ve proven to me that they understand the process behind the answer, and that usually involves me answering their question with another question attempting to get them to tell me why they think they’re right (or wrong). It frustrates them to no end, but it forces them to actually comprehend what they are learning instead of pulling out their smartphone and googling the answer (not that it actually keeps any of them from doing exactly that).

(4) What’s the answer?

This is literally the worst question to ask in the list of all possible questions. Seriously. I don’t give away answers, and I certainly don’t like to give away answers to students who haven’t done the work for themselves.

(5) [Email 5 minutes before pre-lab is due] I waited until the last minute to start this pre-lab and now I’m having technically difficulties, can you extend my time?

No. Starting a lab five minutes before it’s due, when the pre-lab has been available for review all week, doesn’t warrant extra time. And technical difficulties require an actual computer tech (side note: I am not one) who, no matter how skilled, cannot solve those issues for you in the amount of time you have left before your pre-lab is due. So, no. No extra time for you. (Guys, am I turning into a pre-lab nazi?)

(6) I forgot everything I learned last week…

I’ve totally been here (undergrads are expected to learn a lot during the course of a semester), but a face-palm is always warranted when it’s more than half-way through the semester and students keep forgetting how to identify the three basic rock types.

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Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

(7) But I don’t want to look/touch/walk up to the rock!

This happens every single field trip. Many of my students have a serious aversion to getting all up in an outcrop’s business to do some serious geologizing. It usually takes a serious pep talk, and my stead-fast refusal to allow the students who do look at the rocks to give away any answers (and sometimes literal physical separation of students who’ve looked at the rocks from the students who refuse), to get everyone involved. I do find ways to reward my students who jump at every opportunity to get a little dirty, like the time I gave extra credit to the students who jumped in freezing water to measure flow velocities and creek dimensions, but ultimately I want to get everyone at least a little excited about being in the field (I mean come on, rocks are pretty cool).

(8) What lab are we doing next week? Do you do make-up labs? When is the final? Where is your office? When are your office hours?

It’s in the syllabus. Seriously, no one reads the syllabus. I’ve emailed my classes copies of the syllabus at least three times, and every week there’s still an email or an in-lab question asking a question about something in the syllabus. READ THE SYLLABUS (pretty please).

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Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

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