An Interview with Michael Black,
Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Teaching Assistant and UTLP Certificate Holder

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with exemplary graduate student teachers at the University of Maryland. We hope to recognize and celebrate the significant contributions to undergraduate education made by our graduate students.

Teaching & Learning News: Tell us a little about your teaching experience. What sorts of courses have you taught? Have you worked as a professor’s T.A. or as an autonomous instructor? Both?

Michael Black: I have been a teaching assistant for ten semesters in the Electrical Engineering department at Maryland, and an instructor for three semesters in the Computer Science department at American University. Roughly half of the courses I have taught as a TA have been 200- and 300-level lecture/discussion courses, for which I have been responsible for a weekly discussion session. The other half have been 200- and 300-level laboratory courses. In these I help students build and troubleshoot electronic circuits. As an instructor I have been teaching 500-level computer science courses on subjects close to my field of study. Instructing courses takes a lot more time than TAing them, as I have to develop lesson plans, assignments, and tests; it is also much more rewarding.

TLN: What sorts of relationships exist between your research and the courses you have taught? Do you look for connections between your work as a graduate student and your work as a classroom teacher?

MB: Many of the courses I have instructed   and  TA’d  have  been  fairly

close to my research area. Nevertheless, I don’t usually make any special effort to bring my research into the classroom; I believe it is largely too advanced for the classes I am teaching and would probably bewilder most of the students more than educate them. However, sometimes I use insights that I gain from research to explain course material better. For example, my research occasionally gives me practical examples for abstract concepts that I am teaching. I try to share some of these practical uses with my class. My students may not understand all of them, but I feel that it makes the material more tangible.

TLN: How do you plan for a class meeting?

MB: It depends on the class. There is a course on computer organization that I have TA’d six times. When I first taught the class I would spend a couple hours drafting notes for my discussion period, listing all the topics that I would cover, and even scripting what I would say. By the third or fourth time, I found that I really did not have to actually draft out lecture notes at all, since I pretty much had them memorized. Instead I spent some time before recitation brainstorming twists to put on the material. For example, I tried to find demonstration pieces of 70s or 80s computers to bring into class, and I came up with problems and activities for the students to try.

As an instructor, I tend to spend at least 3-4 hours per class period (and sometimes double that) preparing lecture notes, projects, and homework assignments.    Typically    I   read   the

textbook sections on the subject I am teaching and make an outline of them as my lecture notes. I often then go online or to other books to try to fill out the notes a bit. Sometimes course preparation goes fairly quickly because I am teaching material that I have used extensively before in research or hobby work. There are other times that preparation goes slowly because, I hate to admit, I have to learn the material myself before teaching it.

TLN: Could you articulate some major principles that shape your teaching?

MB: As a teaching assistant, my job is much more focused. I am not generally responsible for introducing course material for the first time, designing exams, or assigning final grades. My main responsibility instead is to supply some much needed redundancy to the course. Specifically, I fill in gaps in student understanding, and I help out students who are struggling. Two of my principles as a TA are to be patient and helpful. It is too easy to be impatient. Sometimes after explaining a topic in four or five different ways, some students will ask me to explain it again. Often times a student will raise his or her hand and ask me to repeat everything I have been saying. My impulse is to reprimand those students for not paying attention and move along to another topic. I have received emails from students less than two hours before a major project is due asking me for help starting it. My gut reaction is to not respond, or even to respond sarcastically. Instead I try to suppress   these   impulses,   patiently

 "Interview.." continued on page 11

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