Some Reflections of a First Time TA

Or, How I Stopped Hating Finance and Learned to Love the Business Major[1]

Branch Bank

Settling in to my first semester as a TA this fall, I was stoked. Yes, stoked. Unbelievably enthusiastic about my teaching assignment: Early American Maritime Culture. I thought about all the port cities we would study, the trade routes we would map, and maybe for good measure we’d throw in an impressment or two. This first-time TA was assigned to a course in her field. Huzzah!

But a week into the semester I received an email stating, “We write to inform you that your teaching assignment has been changed to The History of Finance.”[2]

Away flew my dreams of Jack Tars in the streets and liberty on the waterfront. In their place stood . . . finance. Lecture started in fifteen minutes. After a hasty exchange of introductions with the professor (in which I blurted something to the effect of “Hi, I think I’m your new TA. I have no idea what I’m doing!”), I sat down with my fellow TAs and approximately 80 other students for a lecture on the Dutch Golden Age of Finance.[3]

The first few weeks were terrifying. I spent hours pouring over books about the Dutch “tulip mania,” and the effects of the Glorious Revolution on English fiscal and governmental policies, and countless dictionary entries on stocks, bonds, and dividends—struggling to figure out how the heck these things work now, let alone three hundred years ago.[4] But like any new endeavor, we all eventually settle into a routine. Since section with my students began in September, I have started to realize that this whole history-of-finance gig might actually turn out okay.[5]

For one thing, I get to learn alongside my students. Every Monday and Wednesday we attend lecture to hear stories about bills of exchange, bubbles, banks, and billionaires. We’ve learned how speculation has affected financial systems as far back as people have found ways to promote what others covet (be it tulips, South Sea shares, railroads, or real estate). We’ve been introduced to the role of finance in global development and how panics in one location can have ripple effects the world over (in case you were wondering, the Panic of 1873 was a real doozy). We’ve seen how institutions like the Consolidated Association of the Planters of Louisiana issued slave mortgages that fueled the growth of the Southern cotton economy, while decades later the Freedman’s Bank aimed to lift newly freed and marginalized African Americans out of financial destitution. When my students and I meet for section, it’s often the first time any of us have read the assigned material, so we’re venturing into unfamiliar terrain together. Teasing out the arguments in secondary sources, and gazing with fresh eyes upon the primary.[6]

"Railway Crisis" cartoon from 1844, or a remarkably accurate depiction of how I felt during my first weeks of teaching.

“Railway Crisis” cartoon from the British railway panic of 1844, or a remarkably accurate depiction of how I felt during my first weeks of teaching.

I have also learned that the Business or Economics major is not a History major.[7] It is a continuous game of tug of war from where I sit at the head of the table, calmly beckoning my students to join me in the past. “Come on!” I urge. “You’ll like it back here. Leveraging, margin calls, and data exist here, too—I promise!” My students tug forward to the future, seeking the roots of the next market swing. “What’s the point of learning history,” they imply, “when history will just repeat itself?” With my students eager to know what happens next, and not always interested in what came before, I often feel like a broken record saying over and over, “But what do our sources have to say about this? How would that [insert financial phenomenon here] have affected the lives of individuals living in the [insert century here]?” Context, people. Context!

As I write this, I’m coming off a post-section high in which for the first time I’ve managed to get my students to speak to the perils of presentism in historical texts. We read the first four chapters of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash, originally published in 1954, only twenty-five years after the onset of the Great Depression. It has been reprinted multiple times, typically following yet another boom and bust on Wall Street. When I asked my students, “Are there moments in this text where Galbraith’s own opinions inform his analysis?” One student raised her hand and pointed to a passage in which Galbraith’s ever-present snark towards the Federal Reserve leaped off the page. She eloquently stated how Galbraith, as someone who had lived through the catastrophic economic climate of the 1930s, struggled to separate his personal biases—whether consciously or not—from the historical facts of the event. I nearly leaped out of my chair with glee. My students had a light bulb moment and I was there to see it! For the first time since September, when I believed I’d be teaching Early American Maritime Culture, I was jazzed about teaching.

And this leads me to some thoughts for graduate students questioning the merit (or arbitrariness) of teaching assignments, or wondering whether they could ever teach outside of their field. Over the past year, I have heard more experienced TAs advise that we shouldn’t worry about our teaching assignments because, as PhD students, “we’ll always be smarter than our students.” That, I find, to be an absolutely bogus teaching technique (particularly at places like Columbia where students are exceptionally bright, and in situations like mine, where students actually do know more about how finance works than me).[8]

Hamilton statue at Columbia, an early American rock in the sea of finance.

Alexander Hamilton statue at Columbia: an early American rock in the sea of finance.

I will say, however, that as PhD students we are equipped to do many things better than our students, regardless of whether we are well versed in a particular subject or a novice.[9] The skills we use every day in our research and writing—critiquing books, analyzing arguments, engaging with primary and secondary sources, using proper citation methods, and explaining these concepts in public—are transferrable. And, I’ll add, you use the same techniques whether you’re discussing 1720 or 1929.[10] We understand that the syllabus, lectures, and course readings are related in some way. We read efficiently for the relevant information. We know how to direct discussion and know how to gauge whether the discussion is going well or falling flat. We understand the elements of writing a research paper and how to conduct research through databases, archives, and other sources. In short, as much as we are striving to be “experts” in our fields, we are also preparing to be teachers and mentors. Doing so requires that we step outside of our comfort zones and take the time to learn with our students, while guiding them in the methods of our chosen profession.

I can also say with excitement that in addition to teaching, this course has had a significant impact on my own research. As a historian of port cities and urban development in the early republic, studying the history of finance has introduced me to entirely new ways of thinking about land use, property, and architectural design. Now the maps, land plats, deeds, and drawings used and generated by the individuals I study have fiscal legs to stand on. These pieces of paper that denote aesthetics, dimensions, and building materials have a monetary foundation that I might not have considered had I not been asked to teach this class.[11]

We are currently in the throes of fall semester, and I’m sure reading over this post in the next few weeks my feelings towards my students and towards the History of Finance will fluctuate just as rapidly as the markets we’re studying. But I will say that teaching outside of my comfort zone has been a much more positive experience than a negative one. I can only hope that my students will go forth into the business world armed with the tools to not only produce thoughtful, well-written work, but also the ability to assess the particular factors that differentiate their contemporary fiscal decisions from those that came before, regardless of whether the financial phenomenon are similar. And aren’t these the sorts of things we strive for in whatever we teach, whether inside or outside of our fields? Students who think about the present through their understanding of the past? Perhaps if I ever do get to teach Early American Maritime Culture, I’ll throw in some bank notes and bubbles for good measure.

[1] Awesome title credit goes to Michael Blaakman. Thank you, Sir!

[2] A whole different post could be written on exactly why students were flocking to History of Finance as opposed to Early American Maritime Culture, thus why my teaching assignment was changed. But this leads us down a path of discussing the supposed “relevance” of some historical subjects over others. We shall leave that for another day.

[3] I excel at first impressions.

[4] A financial bubble caused by speculation on tulips. Lesson: People will speculate on anything. (Never forget.)

[5] I will also say that I lucked out with the professor teaching this course and with my fellow TAs. We meet each week over lunch to plan our discussions and to pose any questions we might have related to teaching, grading, or working with students (and it gives us a chance to nerd out for a while on the topics of interest to us!).

[6] Although, I will admit, I haven’t told them that . . .

[7] But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the chops to become some great history-minded thinkers when all is said and done!

[8] My students can do all sorts of fancy magic with these things called numbers, whereas I like to draw stick figures and dollar signs . . . It’s a collaborative enterprise.

[9] As we should be, by virtue of our standing in our programs.

[10] Subtle finance reference for the win!

[11] Cajoled?

4 responses

  1. As someone hoping to enter into the position of “doctoral student”, I found your experiences both intriguing and helpful. I must say that the thought of teaching (or taking for that matter) a course on Early American Maritime Culture is extremely exciting, so I don’t fault you for all that enthusiasm early on.

    I’m curious about something: What were you hoping to accomplish most upon learning of your new assignment and how did those goals change (if they did)?

    Again, great post, thanks for sharing!
    Bruce Spadaccini

  2. Hi Bruce,

    What a great question! To be totally honest, I’m not sure I really had any goals going into teaching the History of Finance. It took me about a week to settle in to the fact that I was about to spend the next 15 weeks teaching a subject I felt very ill-prepared to teach. So, perhaps an early goal would have been survival? 🙂

    But in all seriousness, I went into TAing — whether it was to be in my field or not — hoping to get a handle on the “basics.” How to keep track of students (attendance, grades, progress) in a systematic way; how to formulate comprehensive discussion questions; how to integrate students’ weekly reading responses into discussion; and how to foster a good student-teacher dynamic that allowed me to get to know my students as people not just beings-in-chairs. So far, I think I have been largely successful on that front.

    But it takes a lot of trial and error to find a system that works for you. For future semesters, I intend to create a spreadsheet that allows me to take attendance and track assignments on one page (rather than my rather haphazard system this go-around of checking names off multiple lists. Lesson learned: Eschew the lists). I think I will also devote more time earlier on to introducing my students to the basics of analyzing secondary and primary sources — skills, methods, ways to hunt for arguments and historiography, etc.

    Thank you again for your question.


    • Glad to hear you pulled out valuable lessons from that situation, not to mention what you learned that will inform your own work.

      All the best!


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