TAs deserve undergraduates’ respect

When my older sister started attending the University while I was still in high school, I would grill her about everything she did, hoping to glean some wisdom that would make my own college transition that much easier. Why don’t you have homework assignments to hand in everyday? How do you know what hall to go to? What are professors like?
Two concepts remained entirely foreign to me, however: teaching assistants and recitations. What is the purpose of a recitation? Doesn’t the professor teach everything in class? If all the material is presented in lecture, what do you need a TA for?
Unable to completely understand her explanations, I had to wait until I came to the University myself before I grasped the necessity of teaching assistants and their recitations. During my freshman year I was lucky enough to became acquainted with some of my graduate student TAs and was amazed by what unbelievable people they truly are. In fact, some of my earliest and fondest memories of the University include the philosophy TA lounge and the regular members who would hang out there.
Perched unobtrusively on a chair in a corner of the teaching assistants’ lounge, I often enjoyed the company, conversation and chess competitions of the philosophy department graduate students. Sunlight would stream through the third floor windows, a breeze would cool the hot air produced by frequent debates and a transistor radio would sing a lazy jazz melody, providing relaxing background music during lulls in the conversation. Two TAs would always be battling out a chess game and the latest rankings would be scribbled on the blackboard, next to the remnants of some debate about logical minutiae.
Although few students may have as much time to pester their teaching assistants as I did, many undergraduates do not even take the time to learn the names of their TAs. They may spend 10 to 20 hours with a graduate student each quarter, and yet so many remain oblivious to the treasure that is practically placed in their laps. They take their TAs entirely for granted.
Instead of working the crossword, snickering over Dr. Date or refining their apathetic expressions, students should wake up to the efforts teaching assistants go through for their benefit. If students would only take the time to talk with their TAs, they would understand more about the graduate student lifestyle and their overwhelming workload.
Despite what many students may think, TAs are in no way indifferent to the undergraduate plight. They sincerely do care about their students and want them to do well in the course. Many teaching assistants are only first- or second-year graduate students themselves and acutely understand what kind of hell undergraduates must regularly endure.
Yet most undergraduates fail to sympathize with their TAs as much as their TAs sympathize with them. Instead of realizing that their TAs are actually strong student advocates, undergraduates regularly disregard, abuse or disrespect the privilege of having a TA.
Many undergraduates think their teaching assistants are robots who work only during recitation and have no life outside of the class they teach. They fail to realize how they may have inconvenienced their TA when they missed that appointment they had arranged. Students rarely stop to wonder what kind of worries may stress out their TA. And when students meet their TAs in social settings, a common response is one of shock and disbelief. It is almost akin to reproach, as if they want to say, “You have no right being here or having your own life! You’re supposed to be back at your office studying the class material!” Just a small reminder to these students — TAs are not one-dimensional. They are stress-prone, socializing, companion-craving people just like you and me.
A TA’s life is actually far more hectic than an undergraduate’s. Besides their own classes, exams and reports, they also have to deal with the added responsibility of teaching and grading other students’ assignments while meeting the demands of whatever professor for whom they work.
Teaching assistants are paid for 20 hours a week. But consider the workload of an average TA. A graduate student may teach three recitations with a total of 80 students, and when an assignment is due, that TA must grade 80 six-page papers. If the TA spent a bare minimum of half an hour per paper in order to read, understand and provide valuable remarks to each student, the TA would work a total of 40 hours grading the assignments. This workload does not even include time spent during office hours and recitations. Compound this situation with finals, and you have a TA who must juggle grading 80 papers and 80 finals with his own class work of two 20-page papers and an in-class final. At least the University provides free psychological counseling with the TA medical plan.
But the responsibility of TAs does not merely end at grading and teaching. Many TAs go to great lengths to make themselves available to students as much as possible. One of my TAs scheduled extra unpaid office hours in a local coffee shop every week in order to meet with his students in an intimate, less formal atmosphere. Other TAs meet with students over weekends or give their personal schedules in recitation, while the Internet-savvy graduate students often hold marathon e-mail sessions before tests or reports are due.
Besides providing a strong academic base for their students, many TAs also try to establish a personal rapport with their students. TAs are highly conscious of the atmosphere in recitations, and are almost always striving to improve their teaching styles. Whether they achieve a trusting relationship with the students through humor, sympathy or treatment as equals, they try their best to form rewarding ties. Some TAs will often stop their students in the halls to ask how the assignments are going, and an exceptionally conscientious teaching assistant told me he tries not only to learn all his students’ first names, but even those of students in other recitation sections.
Granted, not all TAs are angels-on-earth. Horror stories of disrespectful, irresponsible and sadistic TAs constantly circulate among undergraduates. A common complaint about TAs is one of chauvinistic, sexist behavior. Depending on his or her gender, a TA might play up to the males or females in the class, leaving the other sex feeling completely ignored and alienated. Other TAs may be harshly unsympathetic to the students’ workloads or may miserably fail at creating a student-TA relationship. Although grading is often a point of debate, the most outrageous story about a TA’s grading policy entailed giving everyone a B on the first assignment. According to this TA’s reasoning, “A” students will work harder, “B” students will be content, and “C” students will be ecstatic. Lesser offenses include missing lectures, skipping out on office hours to watch the movie “Vampires” or forgetting to show up for student appointments.
When the time comes to fill out TA evaluations, students should remember the amount of effort and concern their TAs have given them. They should not just fall prey to the temptation of ripping on a TA simply because of a well-deserved bad grade. Undergraduates must realize what effect their impulsive or thoughtless criticism might have on a TA. Graduate students, although more mature and more self-possessed, are also vulnerable and sensitive to personal attacks on their character or personality.
In general, teaching assistants are not the “enemy” — they most definitely qualify as the “good guys” and stand as some of the very best resources on campus. Not only do TAs act as an essential bridge between the mighty professors and the lowly students, they also represent the best realization of a more personalized education at this huge University. By talking with TAs, students can gain an inside perspective on other classes in a department, as well as learn the scoop about the different teaching styles and abilities of professors.
To support TAs and other graduate students, Gov. Jesse Ventura declared a “Graduate and Professional Student Appreciation Week” this past April. But how many other students actually acknowledged it? Undergraduates can easily show their appreciation to their TAs by actually coming to recitation prepared and actively working toward improving in the class. Not only do the students succeed, but the TA is proud to have been a part of the process.
We should all recognize and applaud the effort given by these hardworking graduate students. Next time you see a TA, smile, say “Hi,” and mean it. When, or if, you ever become a TA yourself, you will fully understand the importance and worth these people contribute to your education.
Samantha Pace’s column appears on alternate Fridays. She welcomes comments to [email protected]