The Teaching Assistant (TA) Concept

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

Education is a part of life in which there are many tides and opposing them is pretty much pointless unless you’re some sort of revolutionary. That’s why I am often frustrated by people who appear in the media offering ‘solutions’ to problems that simply involve little more than seeking more resources. Let’s face it, key parts of the public service, especially Health and Education, will always be short of resources. Without necessarily lying down and taking everything passively, we need to adapt the way we do things. We need to accept Bill Clinton’s favourite word – ‘change’. This is not a question of ‘making do’, it’s a question of trying to do things even better with scarce resources. This is not impossible; it just needs imagination. And it needs a commitment to doing things properly.

Last week I brought up the idea of an American-style TA system where I stressed that this was not intended to be a cheap form of labour but a suggestion that we have to consider seriously. Of course, the idea of introducing Teaching Assistants – postgraduate students in the main – is bound to evoke images of postgrads being exploited, simply thrown to the wolves for no end other than to save the University a bit of money.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s think about how this would work. Before doing that, though, I should say that I’ve been a TA myself when I studied in the US and I found it a very educational experience. I TA’d for Michael Shuler who was one of the founding fathers of the field of biochemical engineering. I learned a lot from Mike who was very supportive to me, and I learned loads about the American student mindset, especially the ambition of it! – very different from the self-effacing Irish one. As a student doing coursework myself, I was lucky to have a number of excellent TAs especially for my molecular thermodynamics module where the lecturer was, shall we say…. shite. Indeed, when I was an undergrad student in UCD, one of our maths lecturers was recognised as being appalling and he always had a TA. The TA in my year, a maths postgrad, was great and got us all through.

Even in DCU, I have used TAs at times (although we have called them ‘demonstrators’) mainly for helping me out during problem solving sessions. One of our current lecturers, a Swiss adjunct, always has a TA and the students always find her to be an excellent source of help.

So, despite the horror stories that might sometimes emanate from the US and elsewhere, and the general sense among Irish postgrads that ‘demonstrating’ is a monumental pain in the backside, I think the TA system can be made to work to the benefit of academics, undergrads and postgrads alike. (It does need to be funded though as I mentioned the last time.)

I see two types of TA. The first kind would be assigned to a lecture module and would do things like give tutorials and feedback on assignments to small groups of students from a large class. I think it is vital that we adopt this approach with first year classes in particular where young students need to be nurtured a bit more and may in fact relate to a postgrad better than they would to an older lecturer. This would be the role that most TAs have in the US. (In Cornell, I remember that first year chemistry was taught by a Nobel Prize winner but he had a small army of TAs.) This type of TA works, or should work, under the guidance of the lecturer – the lecturer should be a mentor in effect. Personally, I think this is the best way to learn how to teach. Sitting in a lecture listening to someone drone on about the constructivism or whatever is completely useless.

The other type of TA would cover laboratory modules. Laboratory demonstrating is, in the sciences at least, postgraduate students’ only exposure to teaching but often it involves little more than hanging around acting as crowd control – postgrads are often deeply cynical about demonstrating and rightly so. This is of no benefit to the undergraduates nor the postgraduates themselves and the only way this problem can be alleviated is if the postgraduate students are given more responsibility. The TA would be a sort of ‘senior demonstrator’ who would essentially be responsible for the actual ‘teaching’ that is done in the lab, for coordinating junior demonstrators perhaps and for assessing the students. An academic would act as a mentor and provide advice as required. It should be stressed that in my own department, we use senior demonstrators already in our final year bioprocessing module where the senior demonstrator takes almost full control of a multi-day laboratory process. Using senior demonstrators is the only way we can run this unique module given our current staff resources and the time commitment that is required to run it.

All of this could be administered under the structured PhD system and maybe it could be optional rather than compulsory. At the moment, structured PhDs are being designed rather haphazardly and without any clear sense of what they are trying to achieve – an apparently random mix of specialist and generic modules with some vague notions of making the PhD graduate more ‘industry ready’ – and while few PhD graduates will end up in academia, I think it is really worthwhile to give them some exposure to teaching. This is not only because some of them will be academics but the experience of (meaningful) teaching translates to many other areas where good communication is essential. It is never a waste of time to have had the experience of standing up in front of 30 students with 30 pairs of eyes pointed right at you and sizing you up.

Of course, everyone is going to say “where’s the time for all this”. Academics will protest that they don’t have time to be mentoring anyone (other than their own postgrads of course); PhD students will complain that the pressure to complete projects on time is already great enough. Perhaps that is the case for some postgrads but is it true for all? And shouldn’t the postgrad experience be a little more holistic?

Anyway, these are some initial thoughts and obviously the devil is in the detail (and there may be serious logistical problems in trying to teach large classes in small groups) but a lot of things are coming together that make it essential that we make some changes to how we do things. Lecturing staff cutbacks, the development of structured PhDs, the inadequate nature of the current demonstrating experience and large undergraduate class sizes all suggest that this is the time to think new thoughts – and act on them. Although they have a role to play, technological solutions like digital learning are not the answer. Young students need to be part of an institution where somebody actually knows their name.

I would welcome a guest post from a PhD student on this issue regardless of how critical it might be. First offer gets the prize but please don’t just make it a diatribe about demonstrating – I know you hate it. We have to assume that whatever we do in the future will be better than what has been done in the past. Otherwise why do anything?


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
This entry was posted in education, structured PhD, teaching assistants. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Teaching Assistant (TA) Concept

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Teaching Assistant (TA) Concept

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