Conversations for Change: Higher Ed Insights: How To Best Prepare Teaching Assistants (TA) To Foster Inclusivity in Computer Science Classrooms

This is the first installment of The Meeting of the Minds, a web-based discussion series hosted by the NCWIT Academic Alliance. In this conversation, you will hear from Dr. Colleen Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Dr. Scott Heggen, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Berea College; and Concepta Njolima, a recent Teaching-Assistant at Berea College while pursuing a BA in Computer and Information Systems & Support Services, and current Microsoft Explore Intern. This conversation took place on October 21, 2021.


MATT: Alright, Good morning, good afternoon, welcome everyone to our kickoff Meeting of the Minds discussion on how to prepare teaching assistants to work towards inclusive and broad participation in computer science. I’m Matt Muchna, the membership coordinator for NCWIT’s Academic Alliance, and for accessibility purposes, I’m going to describe myself. I’m a light skinned individual with glasses, short blond hair and facial hair, and I’m in my home office but I have a virtual background, NCWIT virtual background that says “the idea you don’t have is the voice you haven’t heard, inclusive, or inclusion changes what’s possible,” it’s really small on my screen. And I would like to invite our co moderator today, my fellow Academic Alliance team member NCWIT Research Scientist Gretchen Achenbach to introduce themselves as well.

GRETCHEN: I am Gretchen Achenbach, I am a white woman with glasses and longish, blondish hair, also in my home office; I’m a research scientist at NCWIT and also at the University of Virginia in engineering and society.

MATT: Thanks Gretchen. Briefly about the Meeting of the Minds. The Academic Alliance through NCWIT now has over 2600 faculty and staff members from 650 post secondary institutions and the Meeting of the Minds was created as a way to share the rich knowledge and experience that’s held across our higher ed community around pertinent topics such as this one; to further broaden participation in computing. Going to change the slide here, our brief agenda for the day, we’re going to hear from three fantastic speakers, I’m really excited for that portion; we will go to breakout discussions. They’ll be short and sweet but we’d love to hear from you all. Where are you at in your current efforts, what are some of your challenges and success stories, and then we’ll have a brief share back and conclude our time with question and answer. As a community focused event we invite you all to keep your cameras on and mics on mute unless you’re speaking and place your questions in the chat throughout the session. And if we don’t get to them in the initial speaker portion, we will try to address them in the question and answer at the end. So ask your questions early and ask them often.

We are recording the speaker portion of the sessions today and so they will live on our website, as well as our YouTube page and we will be sharing the resources discussed in this recording with the registrant list, after this meeting.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce our speakers today. Starting off we have Dr. Scott Heggen, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Berea College. Dr. Heggen has led the Teaching Assistant Program at Berea for the past eight or so years and has recently co-facilitated a two part workshop that was held at the Tapia diversity conference around teaching assistant inclusion and diversity programming. 

Concepta Njolima, a recent teaching assistant at Berea College, double major in Mathematics and Computer and Information Sciences, and a current Microsoft Explore intern. Concepta was a lead TA at Berea College, working with Dr. Heggen the past two years, and has been truly a leader in developing their peer to peer mentoring program. Concepta was also part of the two part workshop at the Tapia diversity conference, along with other Berea colleagues, really excited to have you both here. 

And last but not least, Dr. Colleen Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Dr. Lewis has published many resources around this topic of teaching assistant inclusion and diversity training and has recently created and implemented a curriculum at the University of Illinois to further teaching assistant inclusion preparedness. And we’re really excited to have you all. I think we have great perspectives, a great variety of perspectives represented. And so thank you all for sharing your time and expertise with us, but to get us rolling today I’d like to pass it to Dr. Heggen: In your experience managing a teaching assistant program the past eight years, what have been some of your lessons learned and the different approaches that you’ve taken?

SCOTT: Sure. I’ll start by describing myself for everyone. So my pronouns are he/him. I am a half white, half Asian male, dark brown hair. Matt described himself as having short hair so I must have really short hair, but I have medium length hair in my opinion. I’m also in a home office. You can see the pictures my kids painted for us in the background behind me. 

So yeah so talking about inclusive TA programs. So a little bit about Berea college is, we have a labor program at Berea college. That means every one of our students is expected to work 10, or more hours a week while they’re taking classes. So we have the you know the big advantage of being able to hire lots of students as teaching assistants, even though everybody’s an undergraduate, just because we have this labor program. It also means our students are all peer mentors, so they’re seniors mentoring other seniors in some cases, or maybe even mentoring upwards in terms of class ranking at the institution. But I think one thing I really want to talk about is, well there’s two, and the first one is, I want to talk about culture; I think culture is what we’re really talking about here when we were saying a TA program.

We want to build a culture that values and respects all people, and values, students where they’re at in their educational experience, and that values people from different, from diverse backgrounds, because we know we know we don’t all learn the same, we don’t all have the same backgrounds and in history where we come from. So we want to be respectful of that even if we don’t understand it or know it ahead of time. And so one of the things that we’ve done at Berea College that I think has been kind of the the cornerstone of making this TA program work is, is we really leverage our students to be the leaders that we want them to be and we don’t, we don’t interject ourselves as faculty as much as, maybe we think we need to sometimes. But we definitely let the TAs, we empower our lead TAs to really kind of own the program, build out and understand and learn from the students that are in the program what they need at that moment in time. So it’s a constantly shifting program for us, but we think it’s a good thing, we think it’s really letting the students drive where the program goes, and we as the faculty and as the supervisors for the students, our job now is mostly to empower them to be able to do the things they think the students need. Turns out they know it a lot better than we do. Or, at least in my experience, that’s what we found.

Yeah, so I think, so my big to keep-aways are, what is the culture that you’re building at your institution? Is it a culture that you are proud of or is it a culture that you want to see change. And the best way I think to kind of push that culture in the direction that you want it, is to empower your TAs to, find TAs who can accomplish that work, and to help them and push them to do things at their institution that, you know, drives that culture in the direction that you want it. So I’ll leave it at that.

MATT: Thanks, Dr. Heggen. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of questions around that. And I’d like to pass it over to Concepta, your experience as a student and as a lead TA in this peer to peer mentoring position, what were some of your experiences and what did you take away from your work in that role?

CONCEPTA: Thank you. My name is Concepta. So I’ll also describe myself. I am an African female. So my pronouns are she/her. I have long dreads, but I think on the screen, they can’t be seen. Yeah, and I’m glad to be here today. So, for me, what I specifically wanted to share about is in two parts. So one is, why did I become a TA and also why am I still a TA, because, as Dr.

Scott just said, like, everyone at school one. So I have options of like switching up jobs after a year and I’ve been a TA for two years. I had the option but I didn’t take it. I still love my job, so I’m going to kind of talk through my experience of why I first in the first place I chose to become a TA, and then why I’m still a TA.

So, when I came in, into Berea College in my first year, I kind of like really utilized the TA program that was in place. Like I went, so we have mean club. So by evening lab, it’s like there is a place and then you can go in as a student and TAs are holding their office hours in there and like they are available to help with anything you need help with. I used to go in so much that kind of like, I just had a specific spot where I would sit, even if I don’t need help, I’m just sitting there and doing my homework. And whenever I need help I call out for help when someone is there to help. So from utilizing the TAs I kind of like felt. Okay, now I’ve taken a couple of computer science classes in my sophomore year, maybe I can help out other students.

And since I was already in like the office hours, it wasn’t going to be any different for me. I was still going to be in the same place either way, but this day was going to be in the place, kind of like helping other students. And, yeah, getting paid from the laor program.

That was my first reason, though that’s one reason I became a TA. It also found it very helpful like whenever I went to TA hours, so I am an international student, there things that may seem really like easy for maybe someone who was like, who has, who has English as their first language, or even who went through like an American high school, that are not so obvious for me. So sometimes I’ll just go to like the TAs and I’m asking about very obvious things, and I just, I never felt like they were obvious because the TAs never made me feel like, oh, why are you asking about that, like, that’s so easy to understand; they always met me where I was and tried to explain something from like ground up, and then I would catch up with everyone and like I’m able to work on the assignments. So, kind of like having, having the TAs like available for me who needs explanations about basic things and even for students who might need maybe explanations for other things is, I found it really helpful, and I kind of like also wanted to be that, like, I meet the students where they are so when students come to TA hours. I kind of like just sit and try to first listen in, How far have you gone with assignment you’re working on, and what is challenging you, What have you thought of as a possible solution to whatever challenge you have, and then it’s at that point that I can start like leading the conversation towards maybe a probable solution or kind of like, prompting them towards what they can get started on. The last reason, I just have three. So the last one is the way TAs were empowered. I just felt like in those classes, I could feel the presence of that TA, so I have not experienced how other TA programs are but just like when I don’t know when a decision is being made, the professor will consult with a TA, or when something like a professor needs advice on something, they will consult with the TA, so I just feel like, well that was something that was good because it means that they are directly involved with things that affect the students, it’s not like it’s a professor decision. So that means also since TAs really related with us in some way we had, like, a hand in the decisions that were made because the professors consulted the TAs. So that got me to become a TA and. Now why am I still a TA.

When I became a TA so I became a TA during the covid lockdown and like school was on zoom and, yeah, that’s when I became a TA, but it was very challenging because I didn’t know what to expect. Since everyone like it was a new world and everyone was trying to like understand how can we best reach out to the students. And I remember like the lead TAs then were trying to like, how can we really get to help the students when they’re just sharing their screen and now we’re not like sitting next to each other and talking and everything. So I kind of like, never felt that I was figuring this out alone in that state, which has changed since we came back to campus, and now I was the lead TA and I’m trying to figure out okay now people are like their students who have actually not been on campus since they joined college, how are we going to help them be able to like know we are no longer operating on zoom and they know how to come to like physical office hours, kind of like, all that has been a lot of like, it has required a lot of support from like the professors who knew how the evening lab operated before covid and also kind of like putting in other, like getting input from other people even like changing up the system; it’s still not the same. So I’m kind of like being mentored throughout the process. When I became a TA, the first time I received mentorship from the senior TAs then, but also now that I am the lead TA, I kind of like try to offer the mentorship, but I’m also still receiving mentorship from professors and from my fellow teachers who are equally senior TAs.

Another thing that has kept me as a TA is. So I really didn’t feel comfortable like taking on a leadership role I’m like, I don’t think I can handle that. I mean how am I going to stand in front of 22 TAs and tell them I don’t know, do this or don’t do that. But with time, I felt like taking one that leadership role is actually proving like a motivation for me to like keep as a TA, because they are new challenges that I’m handling like every time and like things keep changing, nothing is the same, I don’t know. Today you’ll be handling people who are like TAs who are coming to lab late, and I don’t know they’re not telling you that they’re coming late. And then the next day you’re handling a TA who is having an issue with a student in the class, so like those changing challenges that come with, like the responsibility of being a lead TA have turned out to be like a motivation for me to keep as a TA at Berea. Lastly, is another decision. I mean, another reason that I kept a TA is kind of like ties back to why I became a TA, so getting involved in the decisions, and now it’s taken on like a whole new level since I am a lead TA, I kind of like now have to listen in. Okay, what are the students saying about this and then how can we like make a decision to help them out, which I find very interesting because, like, that means students also have to, to have like a space around me that makes the students comfortable to come and like, talk to me about certain things. And I think these are skills that I don’t think I would have gotten from merely attending my math and computer science classes, if that’s a way to summarize it.

So all this that I am learning as I am a TA has, like, I see the difference between freshman me and junior me right now. Yeah.

MATT: Thank you Concepta, really awesome insights and and just kudos to the work you’ve done, you know, starting online and bringing students back in person it’s such a unique and interesting experience so great job with the work you’ve done. Last but certainly not least, I’d like to pass it over to Dr. Colleen Lewis, and Dr. Lewis, what’s your philosophy around student learning, and I know you recently initiated and created a, a teaching assistants and inclusivity curriculum. Could you tell us a little bit about that and I believe you have some resources for us as well. 

COLLEEN: Yeah, that’s great so Hi my name is Colleen Lewis, I’m an Associate Professor of Computer Science at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign I’m a white woman with long brown hair and glasses sitting in front of a very blank background. Okay so, and you might, I used to be at Harvey Mudd College for eight years but I moved to the University of Illinois for a two body problem, and very happy here, so I got to the University of Illinois and they were like Colleen, we have hundreds of undergraduate TAs, we don’t call them that, we call them course assistants, but whatever they’re undergraduate TAs, that do a range of things from tutoring to somewhat leading sections to running to grading, and they are seen as sometimes, causing micro aggressions within our community, and like, maybe because students are interacting with them maybe more likely to micro aggress our students than others. And so they’re like oh we really need to double down on providing training and support for our undergraduate TAs.

And so my, my sort of goal about it I think really perfectly aligns with Scott and Concepta is, I think we need to need to help these undergraduate TAs see themselves as leaders in the community. There’s some research around in industry, one of the things that predicts a diverse workforce is the extent to which recruiters see themselves as champions for diversity. And so I want all of my undergraduate TAs to come to see themselves as champions for diversity and see it as their responsibility and role in creating an inclusive classroom. How I get there is, I start by talking to people about “hidden curriculum,” so this idea that in some contexts there’s like some unwritten rules, and we don’t know what they are, and the extent to which, as undergraduate TAs they need to help the students feel comfortable so that they can learn the content because if they don’t feel comfortable asking for help, then there’s no way they’re going to learn; so building on the fact that all of my TAs care deeply about their peers learning, trying to help them see how that is interconnected with their peers feeling comfortable within the classroom. Okay so that sort of is my hook into it. 

And then if I could have one outcome. It’s that all of my undergrad TAs, if they heard someone say “Asian people are just naturally good at computer science,” that they would intervene. Just like targeting a specific micro aggression, and in particular I want them to be able to identify how that reinforces a fixed mindset, puts undue pressure on Asian students, discounts the hard work of Asian students and creates a racial hierarchy. And so, like, I use hidden curriculum as like my kind of hook to get in, have people reflect on how they have had experiences where they felt like they didn’t know belong where they felt like they didn’t know the unwritten rules and help them see themselves as agents within this space that they’re the leaders that we have picked to create an inclusive community within our department. 

Okay, then I have a bunch of resources, can you go to the next slide Matt? team. I was like oh I need to design a TA training course, cool, I TA’d the TA training class (very meta) at Berkeley as a grad student, but we didn’t have much at Harvey Mudd; I typically ran like a one hour undergrad TA training. So a little underwhelming. And so I needed to figure out where to start from. Luckily Luther Tychonievich at UVA has an undergrad to a training course. I’ll paste all this stuff to the chat. Yeah. Okay. Um, it is awesome, totally, totally awesome so like actually a bunch of my stuff I stole from Luther, I use a format in my course, students can typically, two to 300 students take a semester, they can participate asynchronously or synchronously. And I have it structured within each week, based upon a NCWIT resource that I helped co-develop called Videos that Spark Discussion – that might be what it’s called, that might not be what is called – but the basic structure that we use is five to 10 minutes, sorry ten to fifteen minutes of videos and then some discussion questions, students who participate asynchronously complete those scenarios and write up answers to the discussion questions, So you can see a Google Doc that links, week by week all the videos that I have students watch, all the learning goals that I have for each of those weeks, and then all the discussion questions.

Actually, I’ll turn on Google comment feature so if you have feedback or ideas of how they could be improved as you’re perusin’, and I’m ready to get improvements.

I have some other resources. UW, so University of Washington Access Computing, if you don’t know them they’re awesome, sort of your go-to place for how to support — Gretchen posted the NCWIT resource, thank you — UW’s Access Computing is your go-to spot for any resources for thinking about how to support students with disabilities in your classroom. And what’s actually rad is they have a resource that specific for supporting TAs in making their classrooms accessible. And so that’s the second link on the slide, and actually I figure you can find Access Computing yourself given the link to the TA Resource. One more thing I will point out is, I have a project, where I’ve developed a bunch of workshop materials; one of the workshops is a scenario based game where you know we have something like Oh your colleagues want set your, what would you say if your colleague says we want diversity, but we don’t want to water down the content. Oh snap. And I think sometimes we hear things like that and we’re not sure how to respond. And so I have developed two sets of, um now the form factor is a card rather than this like earlier thing that I would put with the paper cutter.

And each of the cards has kind of one of these micro aggressions so that people can practice responding to those, and in the link. I bought a bunch of sets of these, 3000 decks at the beginning of the pandemic or like a few months before the pandemic. So I can ship you copies of these, I have two versions. One is a micro aggressions game or scenario game where it has 52 micro aggressions. And then one that has a subset of the micro aggressions, and then something like 26 scenarios about inclusive teaching so you know, what would you do if students seem embarrassed to ask for help.

So people use those in their TA training sessions and things like that, sort of as an on an ongoing basis, so feel free to click to request some of those. I’m happy to mail them to you.

And I think that’s it for me.

MATT: Awesome. Thank you, Colleen, thanks for all the resources as well, super helpful.

We’d like to move into a short breakout discussion portion of this event, really the whole Meeting of the Minds theme is to bring the community together, so we really want it to be a discussion-heavy event. And so, as we head into the breakout rooms carry these three questions with you. What are your current efforts, what’s working well, and what are those hurdles and barriers? And will work in these rooms that the share some of that collective of knowledge and effort so we asked everyone to help us in creating a shared safe space, one that’s inclusive in these breakout rooms and shares the mic. Since we don’t have a ton of time, and one that invites everyone to take notes, we weren’t gonna have set note taker. So, we will have a Google document where you’ll find the slide with your breakout group number, and under there, there’ll be bullet points to enter any notes or thoughts or or take notes of the conversation. So we empower you all to be note takers. We also invite you all to self assign someone to share back; we’re gonna have a really brief share back, any highlights or interesting points that were made in your group at the end of the session. So I think I have the breakout rooms, all set up here. And let me make sure I have everyone. Perfect. So we’ll have five rooms. And I will open them now and I’ll let you know I’ll give you a minute warning before we come back so enjoy the rooms, and we’ll see you all in about 10 minutes.

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