With the shift to online classes, the role of teaching assistants as intermediaries between students and professors is more important than ever. Some TAs say they are overwhelmed with work and frustrated with the lack of support from the University amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the move to remote teaching, some TAs said they are dedicating significantly more time to teaching and struggling to balance their work as both a teacher and student. These TAs demand more University guidelines for professors to adhere to when managing their TAs. Other TAs, however, said the transition to online classes has been smooth, with less assignments to grade and more flexibility and time to help students.
Some TAs said they were left with little guidance after Penn announced in mid-March classes would be remote for the rest of the semester. Fallon Parfaite, a first-year Annenberg School for Communication Ph.D. student and COMM 130: Media Industries and Society TA, described communication from the professor as “radio silence” as students flooded her email inbox with questions she could not answer.
Parfaite said since classes have moved online, she has had to dedicate more time communicating with students over email and helping the professor transition materials and exams to a remote platform. Parfaite said she receives approximately three to four times more emails than when classes were in person. As a result, Parfaite said she will have to take all her graduate courses pass/fail to keep up with the increased amount of work as a TA.
“At first, I didn’t think I was going to switch to pass/fail," Parfaite said. "But now that I have to grade this exam and keep TA-ing virtually and we have another exam I am going to have to grade, I think I am just going to take my own classes pass/fail and just put that in the back seat."
Parfaite said she feels the sacrifice is worth keeping up the responsibility she has to her undergraduate students.
In large lecture classes, professors are aided by TAs, usually grad students, who hold recitation classes and office hours for undergraduate students.
Fourth-year chemistry Ph.D. student Connor Woods, the only TA for a CHEM 102: General Chemistry II section with 48 students, echoed Parfaite’s sentiments about the stresses of being both a student and teacher during the pandemic.
“A lot of the times, we are the natural go-between for students and the professors, but we’re also living in this traumatic moment ourselves and technically we are also considered students,” Woods said.
Woods and Parfaite said that the University should impose guidelines for professors to better structure the TA experience during this unprecedented time.
“Our professors are really our bosses, and so with no University guidelines or overarching communication, you’re down to the whims of what your professors want," Woods said. "And they’re the ones that are deciding if you are ultimately doing a good job."
Parfaite added that professors have “a little too much” free will with how classes are now being conducted online, leaving her and her fellow TA unable to answer questions about grading and how exams will be conducted mere days before the exam date.
“I get that it's different for every professor, because every class is different but to have a set of guidelines where [professors] have to give the TAs certain information from the beginning would be helpful," Parfaite said.
Other TAs said they are satisfied with their TA workload and how the University and professors have handled the transition to remote learning.
Second-year math Ph.D. student and MATH 170: Ideas in Mathematics TA Connor Cassady said although communication between the TAs and professor is slower, the transition to online teaching has been relatively smooth.
Cassady said he and the other TA in the class alternate grading assignments, so he never feels that the work is too much of a burden.
Third-year chemistry Ph.D. student and CHEM 245: Experimental Organic Chemistry TA Borna Saeednia added that TAs in CHEM 245 also help alleviate each other’s workload when a TA feels overwhelmed with other work required for their graduate school classes.
“We have to look out for one another, " Saeednia said.
Fourth-year applied economics Wharton Ph.D. student and BEPP 250: Managerial Economics TA Felipe Flores-Golfin said his professor was “very clear and communicative” with the restructuring of the class after Penn announced the move to online classes and felt like the transition was “easy to handle.”
Flores-Golfin said he holds office hours via video conferencing service BlueJeans four hours a week over the span of three days. He said that he has no problems with the TA workload, adding that he is no longer required to grade exams, because the exams are now multiple-choice automatically graded by Canvas.
Saeednia added that now that CHEM 245 TAs are not in lab eight hours a week since students are watching videos of TAs performing the labs, he has more time to individually interact with students and ensure they are keeping up with the material.
Woods, however, described being the sole TA and grading all exams remotely as a “nightmare.”
He said his professor gave an exam on March 25, the first Wednesday students returned from spring break, with the same length and content as if conducted in-person. Students were required to write down their answers, scan the pages, and send it to him, Woods said.
Woods said grading exams remotely requires more time, as answers sometimes do not appear clearly on the computer screen and he now must give feedback through the Canvas comment box feature instead of directly marking up a physical copy of the students’ answer sheet.
“Answers might not be clear and it’s hard enough to follow a students’ work when you can flip through their pages let alone doing it on the computer screen,” Woods said.
Woods added that his home environment is also not conducive to a convenient learning or teaching experience, featuring inconsistent Wi-Fi and no white board.
Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Beth Wenger sent an email to all School of Arts and Sciences graduate students on April 3 announcing an opportunity for graduate students to apply for grants related to technology needs such as hardware and internet service to conduct research, take courses, or teach course.
Woods said, however, this email was the only communication he has gotten from the University lending support for graduate students who are also responsible for teaching.
“Because TAs are the intermediates between students and professors, I think it’s easy for TAs to slip through the cracks,” Woods said.