TAs rank 12th in national survey

Liala Helal

Although University students say teaching assistants teach a large percentage of upper-level courses, many students are having positive experiences with TAs.

The University ranked 12th for “Teaching Assistants Teach Too Many Upper Level Courses” in a survey by The Princeton Review, which surveys students about campus experiences.

In the book “Best 361 Colleges” The Princeton Review chose 361 “academically outstanding” colleges and created ranking lists for each school.

As long as the teaching assistants are knowledgeable about the subject they instruct, many students don’t seem to care.

“I don’t mind at all as long as they’re good at what they do,” said music performance junior Matt Miller, who is taking campus orchestra, an upper-level class taught by a TA.

“The TAs are doing a great job,” he said.

Music performance sophomore Lily Gorman, who is also in the class, did not know the instructor is a teaching assistant.

“They seem perfectly capable,” she said, “I don’t think there’s anything really lacking in their conducting.”

Gorman, who’s “learning just fine,” said the instructor is very good at balancing the ensemble.

Being taught by a TA is better than being taught by a professor, said secondary education sophomore Alex Walter, who is taking the class and has been playing the cello for 11 years.

Most professors have taught courses for many years, but TAs can be “more understanding” because they were in students’ shoes just a few years ago, he said.

Not all students agree.

Sophomore pharmacy student Hend Sonbol said she thinks some TAs don’t have adequate experience or training.

“People who’ve been here longer and who have more experience should teach upper-level courses,” she said.

In recent years University students have actually reported a gradual decrease in the percentage of upper-level courses taught by TAs. The University ranked 11th last year and was eighth in 2003.

Yuri Ivan, the TA who instructs campus orchestra, said that during his first year teaching the class, he thought more faculty should help TAs.

“If you can make things better by involving experienced faculty, why reject it?” he said.

So, he asks professors for advice whenever he needs it.

“If I don’t have the ability, the faculty helps me to acquire it,” he said.

“When I came here four years ago, the orchestra was not at the level it’s at now. I don’t want to say it’s all me, but I was part of the process,” Ivan said.

“I feel we built it together,” he said.

Now in his fourth year of teaching the class, students are happy with Ivan as an instructor.

“I think Yuri does a great job with it,” said University student Blake Bonde, who plays the double bass.

Ivan said the title TA doesn’t tell if a person has had previous experience. It’s not a bad thing to have teaching assistants teach classes, he said.

Brett Bruininks, a doctoral candidate in exercise physiology, is a teaching assistant for a 3000-level kinesiology class.

“I’m gaining valuable experience,” he said.

He is in a fortunate position, he said, because the other two sections of the class are taught by faculty.

“I have someone I can work together with to make it a better experience for the students,” he said.

Nursing student Nicole Bilski is taking Bruininks’ class. She did not know he is a TA.

“I think it all depends on the amount of knowledge an instructor has,” she said, “If they can do what they’re supposed to do, then it’s fine.

Ilene Alexander works with the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning Services, a place that provides training and support for teaching assistants. She said the amount of training varies for each department.

Departments also vary in the type of training they give to TAs before sending them off to teach an upper-level course, she said.

“Some (departments) offer semester-long courses, some offer workshops, and some hand (TAs) the course information and say, ‘Have fun teaching,’ ” she said.

But even with extensive training, many TAs want more.

“They just feel like they could use more support than they’re getting,” Alexander said.

“Teaching is a really hard thing. The first time you walk into the classroom, even with a lot of preparation, it’s a very new thing and a lot of questions arise,” she said.

When departments offer training to teaching assistants who instruct upper-level courses, “it can be a marvelous thing,” she said.

Sometimes teaching an upper-division course is easier than a lower level, she said, because upper-division classes are more focused whereas lower level classes are broad and general.

“So sometimes you actually learn how to do better at 1000- level courses by teaching upper-division courses first,” she said.

Contrary to popular belief, hiring TAs is not always cheaper than hiring other faculty, Alexander said.

“TAs are actually fairly expensive because of the tuition costs associated with it,” she said.

Departments usually pay some, if not all, tuition expenses for their TAs.