Q&A with Professor Warren’s TA

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Record editors were intrigued when we stumbled upon this job announcement in mid-December:

“Professor Elizabeth Warren needs a student to attend each Bankruptcy class in the spring semester to help her keep track of which students she has called on. Surely no student wants to be left out, so it will be the Teaching Assistant’s role to be sure that Professor Warren spends quality class time with each person. The TA can enjoy the class, knowing he/she will not be called on.”

We have tracked down the person with the power over who gets called on in Bankruptcy. He graciously allowed us to trouble him with what proved to be a quite informative question and answer session (especially for the Record editor in Professor Warren’s bankruptcy class).

Q: What is your name and graduation year?

A: Ben Gould, Class of 2008

Q: How did you find out about the opportunity to TA for Professor Warren?

A: I saw an announcement posted on MyHLS in the middle of finals this past fall.

Q: Why did you apply to be her TA?

A: For starters, I was aware of Professor Warren’s tremendous reputation as a teacher and as an expert in the field of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is also a subject that I was interested in learning more about. I bid on her course all three years I was at HLS, yet found myself literally within the bottom five or seven names of the waitlist all three times. I felt that serving as her TA would be a great opportunity to experience the course and learn about the topic despite my poor luck with the registration lottery. While the position comes with a modest stipend, the money wasn’t even a consideration for me.

Q: What did you have to do to land the job?

A: Within a few hours of seeing the online posting, I sent an e-mail to Professor Warren’s executive assistant explaining how my desire to take the course in years past was frustrated by my bad luck with the lottery and committing in advance to attend every single class session this semester. For about a month, I didn’t hear anything and assumed I had been passed over for the position. Then, in the middle of January, Professor Warren emailed me to ask if I was still interested in being her TA. I promptly responded that I would.

Q: Did you meet any of your competition for the job?

A: I didn’t meet any of the competition. From what I understand, there were approximately a dozen other people who applied. I’m told that she immediately ruled out anyone who was already registered for the class and wanted to give preference to a 3L. I’m also told that my application email was the most enthusiastic of the bunch.

Q: Before TAing for Professor Warren, had you taken any of her classes?

A: I didn’t know Professor Warren in person, nor had I taken any of her other classes. However, I had heard about her reputation and teaching style through the grapevine and had seen her quoted in many articles pertaining to bankruptcy and consumer finance.

Q: What are your main duties?

A: When Professor Warren teaches bankruptcy, she engages in rapid-fire questioning of students in the class. Anybody is liable to be put on the spot at any point. To reward students for participating in such grilling, she extends the possibility of extra credit to anyone who misses no more than three classes during the semester. To earn such extra credit, students must be present and participating. That’s where I come in. My responsibilities are twofold. First, I’m responsible for keeping attendance, which is performed by circulating a sign-in sheet during each class. Second, I’m responsible for keeping track of who Professor Warren questions during each class, then flagging the seating chart to denote who didn’t get a chance to speak that day. During the next class, they are all but assured of being called upon. Professor Warren’s goal is to speak with everyone at least once a week and ideally twice, so if someone has gone two classes in a row without saying a word, I will make sure she doesn’t stay hidden for a third.

Q: Did Professor Warren give you any advice before the first class?

A: She shared with me some of the techniques used by prior TA’s, such as marking index cards with students’ names and pulling them out of a pile once they speak, or tracking participation on a scaled down version of the seating chart. Ultimately, the decision regarding technique was left up to me, as long as the final goal is achieved. I’ve ended up doing my tracking by simple pen and paper on a copy of the class list.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of TAing?

A: I enjoy being able to learn from Professor Warren and experience the class without fear of being called upon at any given moment. I also enjoy being able to develop a relationship with a professor.

Q: Are there any “perks” other than having power over who gets called on?

A: Professor Warren did give me a free copy of the casebook and the supplement. I also get to learn bankruptcy from her without having to thoroughly prepare a bunch of problem set questions every day.

Q: Have any students tried to bribe you to “thwart the system”?

A: No, not yet, at least. While I can make sure people are called upon, I can’t keep Professor Warren from calling on anyone who isn’t flagged. She routinely deviates from the seating chart and definitely has her favorites.

Q: What practical lessons have you learned from Professor Warren?

A: The reason Professor Warren hires a TA in the first place is that despite someone’s attempts to divide their attention equally, subliminal factors end up influencing them to the point where certain people repeatedly receive attention while others are all but ignored. Seeing who Professor Warren tends to call upon when she isn’t using the seating chart confirms this hypothesis. It’s something that will certainly bear in my mind if I need to manage a group of people later in life.

Q: Having observed the class for a couple of weeks, do you think that other classes that are highly Socratic would benefit from having similar TAs? Moderately Socratic classes?

A: It really depends on the professor. I’ve had professors who engage in rapid-fire questioning similar to what Professor Warren does who seem to retain the ability to mentally track which students have spoken. I’ve also had professors who engage in more measured questioning but end up cold-calling the same dozen or so people over and over again. The point of my job is to ensure that everyone is asked to participate, and since extra credit is available for attendance and participation, it is especially important to make sure the professor’s attention gets spread around evenly.

Q: Anything else you think Record readers would like to know?

A: Students in the class should know that raising your hand to ask the professor a preemptive question isn’t enough to get marked down as having spoken that day. However, if Professor Warren turns your question around and starts asking things of you (as she is wont to do), I’ll give you participation credit for that.

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