Don't get me wrong, Matt Spooner is a really nice guy. I just don't think he deserves a silver nugget. He must've thought he was doing us a favor by being a "challenging" TA but there is a difference between being challenging in a good way and down right nitpicking. He didn't challenge me to improve my writing or my understanding of history and I don't think anyone else thought he did either, which is why I'm pretty sure the last review was written by Matt Spooner himself. He was very harsh at grading the papers and exams. On the midterm he took off lots of points for tiny unimportant details, although he was open to the idea of looking over your work if you disagreed with your grade, which was nice.
I also have never felt the urge to write a CULPA review before, but after reading the previous unnecessarily harsh and WAY too personal review of Matt's section I felt the need to respond. Too many Columbia students feel as though if they did not receive the grade to which they are "entitled" it was the fault of someone else: the professor, the TA, etc. As someone who also did not feel like they received as strong a grade as they might have liked, I will agree that Matt is a hard grader, especially compared to so many other TAs who give away As too easily. I will also agree that it was clear he was having a rough semester and perhaps brought that into the classroom a bit too frequently. But to say that he is unnecessarily harsh, or that he was taking out bitterness on his students, is totally ridiculous. He is very interested in working hard with those students who approach him, and when I met with him in office hours I found his comments very insightful and useful, and he took the time to comment on and read three drafts of my final paper. So if you want to get an easy A, the reviewer is right -- there are other TAs out there who are easier graders for sure and Matt seems to have very high standards. But if you want to be challenged to improve your writing and your understanding of history, and if you are willing to work hard to get a grade you deserve rather than one you are "entitled" to, you could hardly do better than Matt's section.
First, I want to say that this is the only time I've felt compelled to write a CULPA review. I based my decision to stay in Matt's section in part based on his glowing review on this site, and while I'm certain he used to be very good... unfortunately that was not the case this past semester. He didn't seem qualified to TA this class on English history, but I won't go into that because it wasn't his specialty and I doubt he'll be assigned to this class in the future. Matt is very, very friendly and always made himself extremely available, by email, office hours and otherwise. He seems to enjoy leading discussion (which is unusual) and he also seemed to like us a lot. At the end of the semester he tried to take us on a walking tour of lower Manhattan (he leads tours on the side) but the class didn't care to go. Why not, you might ask? Very simple: Matt was a needlessly harsh grader. Everyone I talked to thought he was a complete dick by the end of the semester. He was happy to read drafts and would return them with comments, but it didn't matter. While he had some helpful things to say, in general his "standards" were kind of ridiculous. Even if you had a complex, stellar thesis and wrote well he would find SOMETHING, such as a minor stylistic thing, to critique. If you're happy with an A- you'll manage with a lot of work, but if you want a solid A ...seriously, find another TA. Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who loved University Writing (and writing in general) and did relatively well on these assignments. Matt mentioned that he's going to TA History of the City of New York in Fall 2009. This is supposed to be an easy class, but believe me, Matt will make it hard and you will be frustrated. Do yourself a favor and avoid his section.
I had the amazing luck to have Matt as my TA this semester. The course itself is really good--Professor Brown is incredibly smart and a great lecturer (if at times unprepared)--but Matt made it a really great class. He made it clear from the start that he did not know very much about the subject, but he could have fooled me! He is really really smart, and he managed to make discussion totally relaxed and open while still bringing out the best in the material. Most importantly, he is an incredibly nice and approachable guy who really cares about his students. Even though he was studying for his orals he ALWAYS responded to emails and made time for me, and he was always incredibly helpful. If you have the chance, take Matt as your TA!
I found my immense satisfaction with History of the South due as much to the work of TA Matthew Spooner as Professor Fields. Donâ€™t be intimidated by his fast speechâ€”he is incredibly approachable and responsive, both before and after class, in discussion section, and by email. It pays to be prepared and engaged in discussion because Matt can pull out the best of the readings if youâ€™ve made a valid attempt to understand the material, even if you didnâ€™t read every page (which is the norm, given the classâ€™ ridiculously heavy reading load). He requires weekly response pages and in turn provides insightful comments on each. He also required a rough draft of the term paper then returned an entire page of incredibly helpful commentsâ€”an impressive feat considering the class had at least 30 undergraduates. He clarified what can be difficult subject matter while keeping the topic interesting, revealing his own nuanced understanding of Southern history. In contrast to the fairly serious classroom setting, his discussion sections were not overly intense and included the occasional pop culture reference, sound/movie clips, and admonitions that yes, it is midterms/finals/etc. and we are all stressed students, but we can still make use of the fascinating material.