Some classes facing TA shortages

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Erin Curtis GS stood at the front of Foxboro Auditorium with a stack of index cards in her hand. “Could I get someone to help me?” she asked the students as she began to distribute them.

Curtis was using the cards to help determine which of the students would be allowed to register for AMCV 1612F: “Female Maladies: Women and Mental Illness.” The course had been capped, said Professor of American Civilization and History Mari Jo Buhle, because Curtis is its only teaching assistant.

“As soon as registration figures came out in November,” Buhle said, she and her colleagues in the Department of American Civilization “knew that we didn’t have enough” teaching assistants. She pointed to the popularity of Associate Professor of American Civilization Ralph Rodriguez’s course AMCV 1611V: “Color Me Cool: A Survey of Contemporary Graphic Novels,” which was assigned four TAs, and Senior Lecturer in American Civilization Paul Buhle’s course AMCV 1611L: “The Sixties Without Apology,” which was assigned two.

Her course, with roughly 70 preregistered students, was assigned only one TA. It was the first time in her career – and the last, since she is retiring at the end of this semester- she ever had to limit a course’s enrollment, she said.

With the souring economy and the diminished endowment, which is estimated to lose approximately $800 million by June, problems like this are unlikely to go away. Expansion of the Graduate School, a key initiative of the Plan for Academic Enrichment, has been postponed indefinitely due to lack of funds, President Ruth Simmons wrote in a campus-wide e-mail on Tuesday.

Professors are already feeling the effects of the TA shortage. “By capping the courses, we all got our courses down to manage the TA situation,” Buhle said. Because many of the preregistered students never showed up on the first day of class, Buhle said that all students who had shopped the course would be allowed to register. However, by that time she said she had already told several students who contacted her by e-mail that the course was closed.

Overall, Buhle said, “potentially 200 students” were turned away from the three classes.

Graduate students in American Civilization often serve as TAs in other undergraduate departments, including Africana Studies, which does not have a corresponding graduate program, Buhle said. Because of American Civilization’s significant need for TAs in its own courses, “we can’t be as generous as in years past,” Buhle said. “I don’t know what those departments are doing now.”

However, Dean of the Graduate School Sheila Bonde said, “There is no overall shortage” of TAs. Last fall, the Graduate School funded 369 TAs, which has been the average over the past six years, Bonde said. “In these extraordinary (economic) times, I think that it is remarkable that we are able to maintain that status quo,” she added.

The ability of individual undergraduate departments to meet their own need for TAs “depends on availability and expertise,” Bonde said. “A spare student in Philosophy doesn’t help us out in Physics … it’s not a failure necessarily of funding.”

Smaller graduate programs like American Civilization are particularly vulnerable to these problems, Bonde said. “If three people go out and win great grants, that can put pressure on the number of available TAs.”

Buhle said a recent change in the way graduate students are funded was partly to blame for her department’s shortage. The policy, which went into effect in 2006, guarantees five years of funding to each graduate student. Before that time, Bonde wrote in an e-mail to The Herald, each graduate program received “a certain number of fellowships and teaching assistantships,” but graduate students could not depend on institutional support.

The policy put the Graduate School in line with the other Ivy League schools, Bonde said, all of which offer five years of guaranteed funding, and helps Brown’s graduate programs attract stronger candidates.

Guaranteed funding is a blessing for graduate students, Buhle said, who depend on it as they research and write their dissertations. However, she said, “in the humanities, very few students actually finish [a Ph.D.] in five years.” She said that in history, her field, students typically require seven to eight years to complete their degree.

While the Graduate School may still fund students after the fifth year, such funding is not guaranteed. Buhle said some graduate students in the humanities had to find jobs in order to support themselves, making their own research more difficult and making them unavailable for teaching.

Buhle worries that “the undergraduates are getting shortchanged” by the policy. Without increasing the size of the graduate school, humanities courses will not have enough TAs, she said.

Interdisciplinary programs have already reported problems finding TAs since they depend on other departments’ graduate students for assistance, The Herald reported in September.

In the past, some courses, including CHEM 0330: “Equilibrium, Rate, and Structure,” have had to limit class sizes due to a lack of TAs. But, “as the present semester starts, the number of available TAs is only one of several restrictions” on class sizes in the chemistry department, Professor of Chemistry Peter Weber, who chairs the department, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “Others are the size of classrooms, the number of labs available for different courses and the specialization of graduate TAs,” he wrote.

Other departments said that, though they also had trouble getting enough TAs for their courses, they were able to meet their teaching needs.

Professor of History Joan Richards, director of graduate study for the department, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that the history department has experienced a “TA crunch” due to high enrollment in certain courses. Nevertheless, she said she expected teaching needs to be met by recent graduates who have been hired to serve as TAs.

Professor of English Philip Gould, the department’s acting chair, said that a smaller class of graduate students matriculated a few years ago, which meant that this year, the English department had fewer potential TAs than usual.

Still, the department has “sufficient teaching” in large classes like ENGL 0400A: “Introduction to Shakespeare” that break into sections, he added.

“I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t challenges,” Bonde said. Though the number of TAs has remained stable in the recent past, during these past six years the faculty has grown, and with it the need for research assistants and TAs, she said.

The Graduate School is committed to using “creative” solutions to meet teaching needs, Bonde said, including transferring money from the Graduate School budget to hire recently graduated Ph.D.s as adjuncts. As the economy improves, the Graduate School will move forward with its expansion plans, she said.