How teaching assistantships help graduate students, universities and university faculty members

The headline caught my attention — “The Essential T.A.

I’d agree with that. As a faculty member of a large introductory writing course, I consider teaching assistants to be an essential part of effective learning for the 250+ students in the course every semester. Each teaching assistant teaches two labs — a three-hour, once-a-week writing session with 20 students in each lab.

The story, by Ann Carrns, was part of  the New York Times Education Life section (July 24, 2011) entitled “Grad School.” The article on teaching assistants had a page header of Resources/Financial Aid.

Carrns explained in her story that graduate students find that teaching assistantships are one of the few sources of income for them — beyond scholarships and fellowships. Carrns cites a study by Mark Kantrowitz (finaid.org) that found nationally 25 percent of doctoral students and five percent of all master’s students receive teaching assistantships.

Carrns’ interviews were with TAs in California and Kansas, but her info sounds much like the situation for the teaching assistants I’m familiar with.

Teaching assistants are becoming more essential, as university budgets are cut, and hiring teaching assistants and adjuncts is much less expensive than hiring faculty members. Carrns reports that nationally TAs are paid $12,000 on the average. In addition, TAs typically have all or a portion of their tuition paid. (That’s why adjuncts are seen as more cost effective, as the salary is about the same but no tuition payments are required.)

The teaching assistants she interviewed were working (officially) about 20 hours a week — teaching class, grading student work and holding office hours. The schedule is intense, with the TAs also taking their own courses and working on their own research.

I’d make two additions to Carrns’ story.

The story headline has a double meaning — with TAs being essential for universities to maintain their teaching load and with graduate students needing teaching assistantships to help finance their graduate work.

The other way that the teaching assistantships are essential is that they provide the teaching preparation for the many TAs who go on to become university faculty members. For most TAs, that on-the-job training is THE teacher training they receive. So the teaching assistantship is essential for helping prepare future faculty members for the teaching part of their job.

Some TAs participate in an orientation on teaching prior to the start of the semester. (I’ll be part of the TA orientation at UF next month with more than 350 new teaching assistants.)

Some TAs and other graduate students attend workshops on teaching issues (from handling discipline problems to using course management systems) during the semester. Some take a course on pedagogy.

But for many TAs, the assistantship is their teaching instruction. Other graduate students may be hired for university faculty positions without ever having a course on teaching or having had a teaching assistantship.

The second addition is the role TAs can play in helping course instruction evolve. I’ve found my teaching assistants receptive to my guidance about their teaching and the course content. But I’ve also found that many of them have excellent ideas about how the course could be improved, and we work together on making those improvements, from developing rubrics for evaluating student work to developing new writing assignments. The teaching assistants help me be a better teacher.

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