April 23, 2003

Departments Lacking T.A.s

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The last weeks of the semester are often the most trying time for Teaching Assistants (T.A.s). Grading assignments, holding extra office hours for exam-antsy students, and completing their own studies can be difficult, according to Joan Moriarty grad, currently an instructor of ILRLE 240: Economics of Wages and Employment.

But for T.A.s across the University and in the College of Arts and Sciences in particular, the pressure seems even more intense because of a shortage of assistants.

According to Philip E. Lewis, the Harold A. Tanner dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the problem is fairly widespread.

“There are seven or eight departments legitimately lacking in T.A.s,” Lewis said in an interview on March 25. “Students see that pressure more in large courses, in departments like economics and psychology,” he added.

Moriarty, the current president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, stated the shortage has deeply impacted graduate students.

A T.A. for five semesters herself, Moriarty feels that large lecture courses and large sections are taxing to graduate students.

“Graduate students must weigh being the T.A. they want to be” – devoting extensive time to preparing for sections and holding office hours, for example – “and completing their own work in the time they have,” Moriarty said.

Often times, in this tradeoff, graduate students find they simply cannot devote as much time to teaching as they would like. According to Moriarty, T.A.s sincerely “want to be good teachers,” but when large class sizes lead to hours of grading, the result is less attention and face-time for individual students.

Moriarty added succinctly, “graduate students are definitely working more than they’re paid for.”

The immediate solution is to add more T.A.s.

According to Dean Lewis, the arts college is committed to providing more resources for graduate student teaching assistantships.

By creating additional endowed T.A. positions, and postdoctoral teaching fellowships, the arts college hopes to add somewhere between 30 to 40 additional T.A.s over the current level of approximately 560.

The efforts in this area will have to be undertaken by the incoming dean of the arts college. Dean Lewis’ term ends July 1.

Moriarty welcomed this effort, arguing that spreading the workload among additional T.A.s would serve the University’s interests.

Not only will undergraduates receive more personal attention, a crucial element in enhancing their education, but graduate students could devote more energy toward completing their Ph.D.s on time, she said.

However, in the long run, simply increasing the number of T.A.s may not be enough.

Prof. Uri Possen, chair of the economics department, noted that while the arts college did increase the allotment of T.A.s to economics courses in response to swelling student enrollment, there is a better solution.

“Some of the overcrowding can be alleviated with the help of T.A.s,” Possen said. “However, we would prefer to solve this problem by offering more courses rather than relying on more and more T.A.s.”

By hiring several new assistant professors, Possen noted that the department could accomplish two goals at once: it could add additional courses and reduce class size, thereby decreasing the reliance on T.A.s.

In the past year, the economics department managed to hire several new faculty members. Whether this hiring can continue depends on the arts college’s budget and funding constraints.

Prof. Peter Dear, director of graduate studies in the field of history, suggested that the difficulty in allocating T.A.s is structural.

“The graduate school admits graduate students who need to be supported by TAships,” Dear stated. “While, in history’s case, it’s the College of Arts and Sciences that provides the TAships to assist in teaching. There’s no adequate coordination between those two things.”

Whatever the cause, Lewis stressed that the question of T.A. allocation will “remain something that the College will have to work on in the future.” He stated that although the various departments can function in the current state, “professors can really do more in a course with additional T.A.s.”

Archived article by Michael Dickstein