Making a Pedagogy Blog

This post is adapted from an experience report about putting this blog together that I wrote for an education class.

The CS 161 pedagogy blog is a public resource for EECS GSIs (both first-time and returning) containing best practices, how-to guides, and a general knowledge base that often gets lost and re-learned because of GSI turnover across semesters. This resource was created in collaboration with veteran and administrative TAs from CS 161 and CS 61C.

Creating a knowledge base for future semesters has always been difficult to do sustainably. In particular, writing about best practices often gets delayed or never happens because there’s a high barrier to entry for writing a comprehensive guide. I’ve personally written incomplete or partial guides before, but ran out of time or commitment to finish them as managing courses got busier over the course of a semester. One reason why we formatted this site as a blog was to ensure that the barrier to writing down information was low enough that TAs would be encouraged to write more consistently, even if that meant writing in smaller chunks.

Also, even when things are written down, organization is often an issue; documents can get lost in Google Docs, making them difficult to find or inaccessible to new TAs who don’t have specific links. The time spent organizing various pieces of writing can also be a barrier to entry, as it takes time away from writing. A blog format prioritizes getting knowledge down in writing during the semester over the organization of that writing, which can always be done by later TAs or during less busy times (e.g. summer).

Blog posts can be independent and short, which makes it easier for TAs to periodically contribute small tidbits of knowledge to the blog that will hopefully build up over time. Also, the date-based organization of a blog eliminates the immediate need for organization, and tagging and categorizing posts gives us a rough grouping of posts that we can use to organize posts later. As the blog grows to have more than a few dozen posts, periodic reorganization will be needed to make specific resources more findable, but for now, we’ve found that the search and tag features are generally enough to find the relevant information.

If you’re wondering why a few posts on this blog are dated from 2021, before the blog was actually created: these are resources that had previously been posted in less accessible places, such as Google Docs or Slack, but we moved them to the blog for better visibility. One particularly useful knowledge base I’m hoping to transfer to the blog in the future is past Piazza forums (e.g. announcement templates, posting statistics). Finding other buried or lost resources is one of our priorities as the blog continues to grow.

Something nice about this site is that its different posts can have different target audiences. Onboarding and training first-time TAs is part of our job as veteran TAs, and when writing down advice on how to train first-time TAs, I realized that the guide ended up containing the information we would want first-time TAs to read anyway. Also, many of the best practices that work well for our classes are also applicable to other classes, and being able to link blog posts to other classes has been a nice way to share information this semester while keeping that information in an accessible place (as opposed to, say, a Slack DM that would disappear soon). Finally, transparency about our teaching practices is something we value in the classes we teach, and I’ve found that posting about our thinking behind certain policies is a good way to communicate our thought process to curious students. This is especially useful since many of our students are interested in eventually applying to be join course staff.

The essence of knowledge transfer means that this blog will take a few semesters before serving its initial purpose of training the next generation of TAs, but we have some plans for expanding the scope of the blog in the near future. So far, all posts have been written by veteran TAs, but we think posts from first-time TAs about their experiences would be useful for future first-time TAs. Also, it would be helpful to start incorporating posts from other classes to facilitate a two-way knowledge transfer between classes. Also, from talking with educators outside Berkeley, it seems like Berkeley EECS has a lot of teaching practices unique to our extremely large class sizes that other universities are unfamiliar with, so maybe this blog can be a first step to connecting with other schools.