Mary Bates GS: Have you hugged your TA today?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One of the goals of graduate education is to transform the student from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge. A major aspect of this training involves developing one’s own line of independent research.

But another integral part of this transition, one that is often overlooked, is learning how to impart that knowledge to others. The glamorous side of this involves traveling to conferences, hobnobbing with the big dogs in your discipline and publishing your results.

But there is another, more pedestrian facet of this training – TAing undergraduate classes.

Serving as a TA while in grad school is virtually inevitable. Most graduate students wind up teaching before receiving their degree, although the amount of work varies across departments. Neuroscience falls on the lighter side, with only one semester of teaching required, while other programs, such as English, require four semesters.

Many grad students find themselves teaching more than the minimum amount to earn their stipend, in lieu of external support or an advisor’s grant. In the fall of 2007, 30 percent of Brown grad students were supported by a teaching assistantship. But how do graduate students really feel about their positions as TAs?

The answer, according to a recent survey of teaching assistants at Brown, is, on average, pretty positive. A large majority of grad students – 77 percent of those responding – reported that they were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their TA position.

Surprisingly, there was no significant correlation between job satisfaction and any of the following factors: number of hours worked, number of students taught, prior teaching experience or the professor leading the course. Variables that did affect job satisfaction included being female, being assigned to a course in line with one’s own interests and feeling that one is a valued member of the teaching team.

Although more than 90 percent of grad students surveyed agreed that TAing was “a valuable part” of their professional training at Brown, the position has its drawbacks. A major concern for graduate students is the amount of time that teaching duties take away from time spent on their own classes and research. The survey found substantial variation in the workload (due to differences in the number of students, sections and assignments) among TAs, with those in the social sciences reporting the heaviest and those in the life and medical sciences the lightest.

All that work can take its toll: A full 43 percent of TAs reported that their TA responsibilities frequently caused them to fall behind in their own work, and about a third of all TAs said their responsibilities frequently or very frequently caused them emotional stress.

While the TA experience isn’t perfect, the Graduate School is committed to making it more than just a means to a paycheck. For grad students who are interested in going on to careers in academia, either at research institutions or smaller liberal arts colleges, teaching will be an essential skill for them to develop.

Fortunately, the University offers numerous opportunities for gaining valuable teaching experiences. The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning provides seminars, consultations and other resources for grad students looking to improve their teaching skills and to build up their CVs.

Brown summer programs offer another avenue for gaining a more varied teaching experience. Grad students have the opportunity to design and implement their own courses, which may last from one to several weeks and include students from many age ranges. Having taught a group of middle school students last summer, I can say that they were some of the most self-motivated and intellectually curious students I have ever had, and their enthusiasm was both endearing and infectious.

For those graduate students seeking a more demanding teaching experience, there is the Brown/Wheaton Faculty Fellows Program, which allows advanced graduate students at Brown to teach their own course at nearby Wheaton College. For students thinking about a career at a small liberal arts college, where undergraduate teaching is a priority, this can be both a unique opportunity to try it out first-hand and gain experience that could give them an edge in the job market.

Ultimately, the teaching experience for grad students at Brown is what they make it – the opportunities to stand out and develop their skills as an instructor are there, if they seek them out.

While many graduate student TAs (myself included) bemoan the time lost and the stress gained from our positions, most of us understand the value of the teaching assistantship. We are giving back to our department and nurturing skills that will help us in our future careers. So please, undergraduate students, go easy on your TAs. We’re students, too, and we’re learning right along with you.

Mary Bates GS is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology. She can be reached at Mary_Bates(at)