By Professor Greg Frost-Arnold | Philosophy Faculty Liaison
What is the role of the Teaching Fellow Liaison? To begin to answer this question, I should first stress that there are differences between the different liaisons, because of the differences in the subjects TFs cover, and the kinds of assignments students will bring to TFs. For example, helping someone with an organic chemistry problem set is different from helping someone with an essay for their intro to philosophy class. As a result, there can be important differences between the types of interactions a TF can expect with her or his TF liaison. So, if I were a new TF, and was not 100% clear on what the liaison’s role was, then I would ask the professor serving as liaison what he or she thought the liaison’s role is.
With that qualification out of the way, I can describe the aspects of my experience as the TF liaison for philosophy which (I hope) are not completely specific to philosophy alone. I’ll give three main points. I’ll start with one of my favorite quotations. It’s from physicist Niels Bohr: “An expert is someone who has made all the mistakes it is possible to make in a narrow field.” I think this applies to both the students coming in to see TFs and to TFs themselves. We all know that people learn by doing—by trying and failing, over and over, until they get it right—think about trying to ride a bicycle, for example.
So I think the first part of the TF liaison’s role is helping TFs figure out exactly what is the appropriate amount of help for TFs to give to students coming for their help. To continue with the bike metaphor, the question is ‘How much should the TF hold the seat—and how much should the TF let the student go?’ For if someone only learns—becomes an expert, as Bohr put it—by making mistakes, then a TF needs to let students coming in make mistakes, otherwise they won’t learn. But TFs do need to offer some help (a parent who just sat inside watching TV, while little Jamie fell off the bike over and over in the driveway, would not be teaching the child to ride a bike). So there is a very difficult balance to strike in determining how much help should be given to students coming in for TF hours, and the liaison can help TFs navigate that balancing act.
Second, just as one learns to ride a bike by trying and failing, so too one learns to teach by trying and failing. TFs are learning too: they are learning to be teachers, and will encounter challenges and problems with new teaching situations. Every TF liaison was once a new teacher too, and has been through many of the same challenges and problems that you are now facing. So the liaison gives TFs someone to discuss their problems with who has ‘been there and done that.’
Third, the TF liaison can serve as a communication channel between TFs and other faculty members in the department. For example, if there is an assignment, or feedback on an assignment, that students are bringing in to the TFs that the TFs don’t fully understand (even after talking it over with the professor who assigned it), then the liaison can try to help the TFs better understand the professor’s assignment or feedback. The direction of communication goes the other way, too. Sometimes another philosophy professor will give me feedback about what their students are saying about their experiences with the TFs, and I will then discuss that feedback with the TFs.
Again, this is just one liaison’s experience, so make sure you get the perspective of your department’s liaison about his or her role in helping the TFs succeed.