With over two-thirds of classes online, teaching assistants have faced major adjustments, confronted with a stark increase in workload, and, for some, an overt lack of University-provided resources.
The semester’s differences have not spared TAs; they have seen their role change in unprecedented ways, primarily in the amount of time and effort needed to dedicate to each class.
Emerson Sirk grad, a lab TA for BIOEE 1540: Introductory Oceanography, explained that, in addition to the increased volume of work he has seen over the last few months, the type of responsibilities he has been allotted are unlike those of previous years.
“The difference between last semester and this semester,” Sirk said, “is [now there’s] 95 percent prep work and 5 percent execution.”
For classes — particularly lab sections –– that are operating in an entirely remote setting, TAs are tasked with developing creative solutions that can replace hands-on learning. Though some experiments can be easily transitioned to an online format, others require much more innovative solutions, Sirk said.
Often, TAs are working from scratch, such as when Sirk designed a lab using NASA’s website, offering an interactive way for students to learn about satellite oceanography.
“That one was more difficult because there wasn’t anything that I was looking at from previous years to guide me,” Sirk said. He explained that it was challenging to come up with questions about it and increasingly hard to engage students.
Matthew Pruden grad, a TA and course coordinator in earth and atmospheric sciences, agreed that this semester has been tough, with many typical staples of the semester — especially office hours — significantly changed.
“Now that we’re having to assist students from Europe and Asia, and different sides of the United States, we’re having to host more frequent office hours at different times in the morning and late in the afternoon or evening,” Pruden said. “It’s a lot harder to plan out our schedule, knowing that we have to keep time slots open at multiple times in a day, just in case a student wants to come to office hours.”
Despite the measures TAs are taking to conduct sessions, Rachel George ’21, a TA for BIOMG 3310: Principles of Biochemistry, explained that many students aren’t taking advantage of these virtual events.
Instead, students are turning to email and other online resources like Piazza to ask questions, making it harder for TAs to respond in a timely fashion.
“There are way fewer students showing up than if we had everything in-person, which is actually quite surprising,” George said. “I would’ve thought that people would take more advantage of office hours, since it’s so much easier to attend.”
Despite these obstacles, Sirk said, for the most part, the online format has not caused too many tribulations for his section.
“Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad,” Sirk said, “We’re giving students resources to explore information on their own, rather than relying on that in-person class to be the communication between us and the students.”
And it appears that the work done to restructure many aspects of their classes may be implemented to better support students in future semesters, even when in-person classes resume.
For Sirk, his lab section, which has heavily favored exams in the past, has traded in its quizzes for more assignments and projects.
“People are getting used to this different type of environment here,” Sirk said. “And those types of stressful assignments and those types of stress-inducing quizzes … don’t do much to help us.”
But in order for these benefits to exist in future years, Pruden said that TAs will need an increase in support from multiple entities of Cornell –– students, professors and the University itself. This could be as simple as providing whiteboards to TAs off-campus. Even from home, Pruden said that it was something he frequently used to help students visualize various concepts.
“I don’t have the same supplies that I would if I was on campus,” Pruden said. “A lot of grad students aren’t allowed to even go to their offices until they get special permission from Cornell, which makes sense given COVID, but it really reduces my ability to effectively teach my students.”
Pruden also called for further standardization across courses in terms of deadlines. Because each professor is accommodating various time zones in different ways, students are missing assignments entirely and finding it more difficult to schedule their work, which can be troubling for TAs on the back-end.
Sirk pointed to the compassion and flexibility of the semester as something positive to take away.
“When we look back on this experience,” Sirk said, “hopefully, there’s things that we can appreciate [after] being thrown into this circumstance and [we can] take away the positives.”