Graduate students make shift to teaching assistants

AddThis

As undergraduate students scramble to get spring classes on their schedules, graduate students apply to serve as teaching assistants for those same classes.

Each college and school undergoes a different process to hire teaching assistants, said Terry Kahn, associate dean for student services in the Graduate School. Teaching assistants are responsible for a variety of issues within undergraduate courses, including class grading, monitoring, leading lab or discussion sessions, offering office hours and performing clerical tasks, according to the University’s revised handbook of operating procedures.

Kahn said the only University-wide rule for hiring teaching assistants is that they must maintain a 3.0 GPA or above and must be enrolled for at least nine hours at the University. He said there are about “100 doctoral programs on campus and you’re likely to find 100 different ways for how teaching assistants are chosen.”

In addition, international graduate students must pass an English language assessment.

Chemistry graduate program coordinator Penny Kile said she matches teaching assistants up with the classes based on the TAs’ expertise, but said she is often short on teaching assistants within the graduate program because chemistry is on many degree plans. She said she advertises the need for TAs to other departments.

“At that point, I’ll interview anyone with a bachelor’s in chemistry or biochemistry,” Kile said. “Sometimes there will be someone sitting in pharmacy with a chemistry degree.”

Kile said after graduate students complete her interview process, she passes them on to be interviewed by the professors they will be working with.

Chemistry junior Lindsey Anderson said TAs are important to her understanding of her class curriculum.

“A lot of times you just need a different perspective, so having someone else to go to really helps you get a better grasp on material,” Anderson said.

She said she has had some issues with her TAs’ grading techniques, however once she communicated with the TAs about their techniques, she better understood why they took points off of her assignments.

“It’s all about getting to know the TA and what they value,” Anderson said.

The English department takes about one in 20 teaching assistant applicants, said English graduate adviser Wayne Lesser. He said experiences like Teach for America, tutoring or high school teaching factor into the process.

“We want to know about suitability as a teacher,” Lesser said.

He said TAs attend training that includes orientation before classes begin, weekly meetings with the professor and open communication with the assistant director. Lesser said training includes how to lead discussions, how to make quizzes and proper grading techniques.

“[Their job includes] not only assigning a grade that’s consistent, but also explaining to students their strengths and weaknesses,” Lesser said.

English graduate student Thomas Spitzer-Hanks is a TA for an introductory American literature course of about 200 undergraduate students. He leads two discussion sections for the class that contain approximately 20 students each.

“It really gives you a chance to talk about things that you would never have a chance to talk about in that large group setting,” Spitzer-Hanks said.

He said there is a balance he has had to find between his employment as a TA and his own graduate classes.

“You apply here not thinking ‘I’m applying for a TA position,’” Spitzer-Hanks said. “You’re just sort of thrown into it.”

He said the English department offers support that is easily accessible to TAs, and that working as a TA helps prepare him to teach after he finishes his doctorate.

“Its hard to imagine somebody who doesn’t love to read,” Spitzer-Hanks said. “But the TA process forces you to approach that.”

Printed on Thursday, October 27, 2011 as: Graduate students transition to teaching assistant openings