Recently, a graduate student at my university asked me what advice I would give to new TAs. Wow, I thought, I have totally neglected this essential group of people on the higher ed landscape.
TAs are really, really important. They teach well over 50% of classes on most campuses. They are also attending their own classes, doing research, and writing a thesis or a dissertation. They are seriously busy people. And miserably underpaid.
Colleges and universities rely on them to teach the so-called service courses, such as first-year writing, elementary and intermediate languages, and popular core classes. They also facilitate discussion in the recitation or discussion sections that accompany many lectures, making up the third hour of a three-credit course, for example. Some very advanced graduate students may eventually get their own seminar in their field, but this is the exception, not the rule.
TAs are not adjuncts. TAs are still pursuing a degree and so are enrolled as full-time students. Adjuncts have their degree in hand and are either looking for full-time work or teaching for a bit of extra cash while doing something else entirely. Both are severely undercompensated, usually earning about $2,500-3,000 for a 12-15-week class that they have to prepare for, lead, and grade papers. It takes hours a week to do it well. Both of these groups make up the inexpensive labor force campuses rely on. Without them, the complexion of course offerings would have to change dramatically. I can’t even imagine what it would look like.
So, if you are about to start teaching for the first very time as a TA, like my new friend who posed the question to me this week, here’s some advice I would offer:
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.