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College classes taught by TAs? Enterprise columnist misses the mark

TasTeaching
I normally find that Jennifer Borenstein offers excellent college advice in her “College Corner” column in the Davis Enterprise. Unfortunately, however, her most recent column is misleading, both in its use of terms and in the elephant in the room that it leaves out.

First, do TAs teach college classes?  Occasionally, but not in the way that  Borenstein means.

To be (perhaps excessively) clear, a graduate student is a person who is pursuing a degree beyond the undergraduate (BA, BS) level.  Once someone is a graduate student, they might be a teaching assistant, or TA. Or, they might be assigned to be a primary instructor for a class (sometimes with graduate student TAs!).  Or, they might not teach at all.  Thus, in the usual case, it doesn’t make sense to say that a TA is teaching a class.  If a graduate student is hired as a primary instructor for a class, they are not a TA.  They are the primary instructor.

It might seem like I am being a bit pedantic (and maybe I am), but the difference can matter.  Sometimes, for example, a graduate student might be assigned as a TA for a class, but stand in for the professor for a class or two.  This is fairly common and nothing to worry about.  If, however, a graduate student is assigned as a TA for a course and is regularly doing the teaching for the professor of record, that could be a sign that something has gone wrong somewhere (two possibilities: the professor is ill, or the professor is shirking their duties).

So, the question that Borenstein really meant to ask is, “Does it matter if classes are taught by graduate students?”  Here, I think Borenstein is right: it depends on the undergraduate student and the graduate student.

But to ask the question as though “graduate student” and “tenure-track professor” were only two alternatives leaves out the elephant in the room: the “part-time,” “temporary” lecturer.  There are other categories who may teach classes, too: visiting instructor, postdoc.

Lecturers (also called “adjunct professors”) are typically woefully underpaid, sometimes even less than graduate students.  They may be “part-time” in name only, sometimes working more hours than tenure-track faculty.  And they might be “temporary” in name only, too, with some of them working at the same university (or universities) for many years.  Aside from getting paid less than temporary faculty, they typically do not have the service or research requirements that tenure-track faculty do.  At some schools, they can be fired at will, and they will never be considered for tenure.

So, yes, it is cheaper for universities to hire graduate students to teach than to have tenure-track faculty teach, but many universities also cut costs by hiring an increasingly large number of lecturers.  As with graduate students, some lecturers are nonetheless outstanding teachers, in some cases more devoted to teaching than some tenure-track faculty, despite the fact that they are in precarious, underpaid positions.

Nonetheless, in addition to asking “what percentage of classes are taught by graduate students?” prospective applicants to a university should also ask “what percentage of classes are taught by lecturers?”  Or, maybe the simplest question to ask (since, as I mentioned before, there are also visiting professors and postdocs), is “what percentage of classes are taught by tenure-track faculty?”

The reasons it might matter are that, typically, it is the tenure-track faculty who are doing research and developing the curriculum; typically, it is the tenure-track faculty who will be around for a while if a student is looking for a mentor or a research supervisor; and typically, a letter of recommendation from a tenure-track faculty member (even better: tenured) holds more weight than one from someone who is not on the tenure-track.  But, as my wiggle words indicate, there are exceptions. 

It’s also worth noting that it is tenured faculty who have “academic freedom” not only to have a say in the curriculum but also, in the ideal, the way the department and the university is run.

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