Why I’m different, case study 1:
Young-ish grad students (no more than 27yo): “Gee, the lab prof just sent out an email saying we have to turn in our students’ final grades on the same day that final reports are due! We’ll have to grade fast! How sucky!”
UnlikelyGrad (at least 10 years older): reads email, immediately dashes off a reply: “Dear Dr. M, I really don’t think having grades due the same day as final reports is considerate to your graders. Can you please consider giving us at least one extra day?”
Dr. M. replies: “Whoops! Sorry everyone! I meant that grades were due the following week.”
Young grads say: “Thanks, UnlikelyGrad! You really saved our bacon!”
Why I’m different, case study 2:
The young: “Wow. That experiment we TA-ed really sucks, doesn’t it? Too bad we’re not in charge of the experiments.”
I think: Not only does that experiment really suck, the students find it frustrating and it’s all but impossible for my students with disabilities. (I gave a couple of them an “boost” to help them through–considering it an accommodation. One’s learning disability hasn’t been diagnosed, but is similar to one I’ve seen in a couple of prior tutor clients.)
I consider how the experiment might be altered, even marginally, to make it less frustrating and easier for LD students to complete successfully. I come up with four potential procedural changes, which I type up and present to the professor-in-charge. He tells me that some definitely won’t work, but a couple probably will–would I be willing to do a controlled experiment to test them? Of course, I agree.
As you can see, one of the substantial differences between me and my fellow grad students is my complete and utter lack of fear of professors. Don’t get me wrong; I respect them all. (Though, I confess, I respect some more than others.)
To me, professors are my peers. Yes, they’re higher up the hierarchical food chain than I am. Yes, they have more years of experience in chemistry than I do. But still, many of them are approximately my age–and during the last 10 years, I’ve made good friends with people who are considerably older than I am. (I think my oldest friend is 66.)
They may know more chemistry than I do, but I think I’ve had a broader exposure to educational tricks and techniques, and to dealing with learning disabilities, than they have. And my experience in teaching community classes with a group of like-minded individuals has taught me that when several people collaborate on a project (educational or otherwise), each gives according to his/her personal strengths and learns from others’ strengths.
I view my career as a TA accordingly: Yes, the professors have been teaching these classes for years. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to bring to the table.