Thursday, December 07, 2006

On Working in the Academy Part I -- TAing

First, apologies for the extended break. I've been lazy.

I thought I'd start my series by talking about the most common grad student work experience: being a TA (teaching assistant).

The duties of TAs vary widely depending on the university, department, and program a student attends. Science TAs normally lead a lab or tutorial, and are generally overworked and under-appreciated by both students, admin and their "boss," who is usually their supervisor. If you want to read a bit about the joys of being a science TA, explore some of the archives over at Rantastic. Generally, science TAs have it rough, and I don't envy them. Social Science and Education TAs probably fall somewhere in between Science and Humanities TAs. Social Science students generally have better funding that humanities students so may not have to worry as much as Humanities students about where dinner will come from, and they seem to face less direct stress from their bosses that Science students. It's harder to generalize about Humanities TAs, because their duties vary so widely between departments and universities. I'll try to stick to recounting my own experiences as a TA in English, so please don't be offended if I make a statement that utterly does not apply to other programs.

Generally, TAships are part of an English grad student's funding package. Most MA programs have automatic TAships for new students, but some (like my current uni) do not, and instead offer tutoring jobs in, say, a writing help drop-in centre and fellowships specifically for MA students. My first TA position was at Jackass University, where the TAs were not unionized and therefore were not paid by the hour, but rather by stipend. The rest of my funding came in the form of a graduate award distributed by the Faculty of Graduate Studies. I believe TAs at J.U. are now unionized, which is a good thing -- I once sat down and figured out how much I was getting paid per hour based on the amount of work I did, and it was just under $10 an hour. Pretty darn low. Anyway, at the start of the year we were given the option to request to TA for a certain 1st or 2nd year course or leave our assignments in the hands of random matching. I chose to volunteer for a 2nd-year course in my field of interest. Interestingly enough, the second year classes at J.U. were almost double the size of 1st-year classes, so in a way I got a raw deal, as my pay was the same as another TA who was marking fewer papers. But I was okay with that since I was getting experience in my field. Yay me, right? Well, maybe not. Because what I got wasn't really teaching experience. It was marking experience. And we (two TAs were assigned per course) had zero input on the actual assignments. Oh, and the profs didn't actually mark anything but the final exam. So to summarize: prof lectures and devises assignments, we mark and meet with students, and then prof marks final exam. The prof has no clue if students have improved over the year or what their style, voice and interests are. We have no clue if they performed well on the final and thus can't provide a true evaluation of their progress outside of quantitative grading. And while I think that system is a bit wonky, I did come out with a pretty decent sense of how to mark and how to interact with students on a one-to-one basis. In the end, it was probably the undergrad students who got the raw deal.

Still, with all the flaws in that system of TAing, the one for MAs at my current uni may be even stupider. New MA students either get a full MA fellowship or a combination of a fellowship and a job in the writing centre. Don't get all excited by the idea of a writing centre, though: it's really just an office space with a couple desks and some writing handbooks, staffed by one or two students. PhD students don't have to TA, but can teach as sessional (aka slave) lecturers in their 4th and subsequent years -- which is a good thing, because the PhD fellowships dry up after 3 years. The logic of the 4th year teaching stint escapes me, since 4th year is when one should be finishing up the writing of their dissertation, not opening up a whole new can of worms by learning how to teach. But cheap labour has to come from somewhere, and PhD students do need to learn how to teach sometime before they graduate, so I guess the system does, in some weird way, work to our advantage. Oh, and TAships are sometimes available to students, but the majority go to MA students since their fellowship is smaller, and most of the TAships are for distance ed. classes, or are more administrative rather than academic -- assisting a teacher with recording technology for a grad class, for example. I applied for TAships in my department for two years and never got a position. Some MA students who had external funding got positions, which defeats the purpose of a top-up since those students already had more money than PhD students by virtue of getting an MA sshrc that paid much, much more than an internal MA fellowship (that's a whole other rant).

Right now, I'm TAing for a distance ed. class outside of my home department. It's been an interesting experience, and I've certainly learned a lot about the subject, the way distance education works, and the way I evaluate students. My students come from various programs, backgrounds, countries and age groups, and I never came across that kind of diversity at Jackass Uni, or in my teaching work after my MA (which I'll talk about in Part III). As at Jackass Uni, my supervisor is quite cool and appears to have confidence in my marking abilities, and that's nice -- the hubster certainly didn't have a good experience with one of his supervisors at Jackass Uni, and that can really fuck up one's TA experience. I'm also more than fairly compensated for my time, as the union at my uni is quite strong. And I like teaching, even if what I'm doing isn't traditional teaching work.

But that's not to say TAing is all roses and lollipops. Marking kills the soul in so, so many ways. Sometimes it's the isolation; sometimes it's the under-appreciation; sometimes it's just the mind-numbingly horrible work that certain students submit. I understand that undergrads get stressed out. I get it. I was an undergrad not so very long ago, and I had TAs too. But please, if anyone out there reading this is a student, be nice to your TA. Our heads hurt. We make mistakes. Sometimes, we lose our patience. Please don't harass us 5 minutes after we return an assignment -- take a breather, and give us one too. Please don't think that just handing in an assignment will guarantee you a 70. Please read the assignment and ask questions BEFORE it is due. And please, please don't run to the prof before talking to us. Nothing kills the soul more than that.

So, that's a bit about TAing. Any questions?
doctor T 10:25 p.m.


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