Most graduate students choose to be teaching assistants as a way of making ends meet, but for many the load is not always an easy one to haul. Teaching assistants said that they have to straddle the fence between being faculty and students, adding that they often have to work long hours -- teaching classes and grading papers -- while working towards a graduate degree. · TA responsibilities differ from department to department, and sometimes even within the same department. These responsibilities may vary depending on the course and the number of students enrolled in the course and range from writing and grading exams to leading recitation sections. In the English and foreign language departments, for example, TAs run their own classes. Before classes start, TAs go through training programs to help them prepare for what they may encounter in the classroom during the semester. According to School of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Donald Fitts, TAs in SAS are trained in a one-day program before classes start. The program, led by other TAs, introduces different methods of how to retain students' attention and get points across to them. Randy Seeley, a TA in the Psychology Department, said that the program is more about ethics than actual "pedagogy." "It tells more what to do about situations like cheating, or when a TA is attracted to a student," Seeley said. To supplement the day-long training, many departments offer their own training programs. The Biology Department has set up a program to teach its assistants how to teach in a laboratory. According to Leslie Holden, graduate group coordinator for the Biology Department, the training program teaches the TAs how to run a laboratory section and about laboratory supplies and safety. The Wharton School requires its doctoral students, whether or not they are TAs, to take an eight-week long non-credit Wharton Teaching Development Program. The program, which meets once a week, teaches students how to give oral presentations, to use visual aids, and to set guidelines. International students in SAS are also required to participate in a summer training program, as well as pass a test of spoken English. Without participating in these programs, international students cannot be TAs, Fitts said. At the beginning of the semester, TAs receive a letter from their department with their teaching assignment. After that, it is up to the TA and professor to work out the details. Biology graduate coordinator Holden said that in addition to the letter, Biology professors rely on frequent conversations with the teaching assistants about their responsibilities. Wharton Management TA Richard Makadok, who teaches Business Policy in the Wharton Evening Program, said that he is entirely on his own. Although he has sought advice from professors, he said that as far as he can tell, he is not accountable to anyone. Most TAs are expected to spend at least 15 to 20 hours per week on work for the classes they run, but many TAs said that they are forced to take on many more hours of work. For that reason, graduate students have formed a graduate school compact, which outlines the duties expected of them by their professors, according to graduate student leaders. Some TAs said sometimes professors' demands could be simply unreasonable. "If a professor assigns five papers for 150 students and expects the TA to grade them all, it can be a problem," Seeley said. "If the chairman or [graduate group] director is sympathetic, you aren't in such bad shape. If not, you're at the mercy of the professor." Graduate Student Associations Council President Michael Polgar said that, on the whole, the job is often more difficult for international students. "It is especially hard for international students, because they are stigmatized," Polgar said. "The problem isn't so much them speaking English, but that their legitimacy is questioned since students are used to older and white male professors." · In addition to feeling inundated by their work from time to time, TAs said that their major complaint with their job is the pay. Stipends are too small for them to even live above poverty level, according to most TAs. Fitts said that the approximately 400 teaching assistants in SAS receive a base stipend of $8200 a year, in addition to getting their tuition paid for. But he added that different departments may choose to supplement the stipend with their own available funds. The extra funds tend to be concentrated in the science departments because they receive more research funding. Biology Department teaching assistants, for instance, receive a stipend of $12,500, according to Holden. In addition, stipends in the Engineering School are also higher than in SAS. Psychology Department TAs, on the other hand, receive a stipend of approximately $9000 for the school year. Psychology TA Kimberly Cassidy said she finds the low level of financial support given by the University disturbing. "There's no way that I can figure out how to live for a year on that amount of money," Cassidy said. Anthropology TA Julie Pearce had the same complaint. Since she is only a teaching assistant for the spring semester this year, she said she will receive only $4100. Pearce said that she will only get financial aid from the University for half of the year, so she has been forced to look elsewhere to make ends meet. She said that she takes out loans and works outside of her department to pay her bills. According to Wharton Vice Dean Franklin Allen, director of the Wharton Doctoral Program, Wharton stipends are set on a department by department basis. "Everything is so diverse, so different in each department, that anything I say about one wouldn't be true about another," Allen said. Michael Austin, dean of the School of Social Work, said that there are no set programs for the three or four TAs in the school either. He said that the money TAs receive varies by departments, class size and their responsibilities. Some graduate students said that they are able to supplement their stipends with outside fellowships and grants. Makadok said he received the $13,000 Wharton Deans for Distinguished Merit Fellowship upon admission. He said that the award goes a long way in supplementing the $2800 he receives from teaching in the Wharton Evening Program. Polgar, who is also a teaching assistant in the Sociology Department, said that by living in Van Pelt College House, he is able to reduce his cost of living. "I've taken work as a Graduate Fellow and that gives me a room and some board," Polgar said. But other graduate students said that living on campus is often more expensive than living off campus. Pearce, who now lives off campus, commented that for the $340 per month she previously paid for a double in Graduate Towers, she now lives in a three-story apartment. Last year TA's dissatisfaction led to two Graduate Teaching Awareness Days, in which TAs were encouraged to bring their classes onto College Green to show their solidarity. Although there were many reasons for the demonstration, stipends and the administration's "disregard" for graduate student needs were the main factors. Graduate student leaders said last week that they will be holding a second annual Graduate Teaching Awareness Days this April.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.