UC TAs Fail to Make the Grade

The growth and prestige of the University of California is unrivaled compared to any other system of public education in the United States. Generating millions of dollars for California’s economy and consistently having eight of its schools place within the top 100 of U.S. News and World Report’s America’s Best Colleges List, the system’s success cannot be understated. However, how relevant is this growth and placement on snooty lists to the UC’s undergraduate community?
Making up the bulk of the UC system, undergraduate students attend these schools for a variety of reasons. Some attend schools such as UCLA for the competitive athletic scene. Others attend college for the social scene. Still other students attend college for career opportunities. However, at the heart of college is the obligation for faculty members to educate paying students. Unfortunately, as the UC system’s growth and prestige have skyrocketed, this aim has not done likewise.
Faculty members appear to emphasize the phrase “publish or perish” above the welfare of their students. Rather than making the time to help troubled students, professors often fall back on teaching assistants and undergraduate readers so that they can concentrate on their research. There is nothing inherently wrong with professors receiving help from accomplished individuals. After all, UC Irvine’s quarter system has only 10 weeks of instruction, and classes can contain as many as a few hundred students. Thus, even if only one examination is used to determine a student’s grade, that is a few hundred – if not thousand – pages to grade.
Instead, the problem is the increasing irrelevance of the professor-teaching assistant relationship. For example, it is common for individuals to get into UCI graduate schools and receive teaching assistant positions as part of their financial aid, helping younger students learn in the process of earning their degrees. In theory, this works out as individuals with good grades, hard work and determination should be motivated to pass down their knowledge to undergraduates.
However, in practice, not every graduate school has a sizable undergraduate population. For instance, though a master’s degree in visual studies is offered at UCI, a far more popular semi-related undergraduate program is the film and media studies major. Thus, rather than having visual studies scholars impart their knowledge to younger visual studies students, the departments are mixed so that some teaching assistants teach classes outside their areas of expertise.
In this example, the fields are somewhat related, but this is not always the case. Suppose there is an influx of highly qualified biological chemistry graduate students at UCI. Where do these teaching assistants go when UCI has no undergraduate biological chemistry program to speak of? Perhaps they could split up the group and send half to TA in the biology department and half to TA in the chemistry department.
The method doesn’t exactly make sense, but at least they sound like related fields, right? However, where will the biology and chemistry TAs go? They’re just as qualified as the biological chemistry TAs, so the university can’t punish them by taking away their TA positions. They need to go somewhere, and perhaps there is a shortage of Latin TAs that quarter. Hey, scientific terms are largely derived from Latin, right? Why don’t we just mix the two!
Admittedly, TAs are rarely – if ever – assigned to classes in quite such an irrational manner. Still, what is common is that TAs are assigned to classes well outside their fields of expertise. However, at least these TAs are – or should be – qualified to teach at least one subject in a school of higher education. The same cannot be said of undergraduate readers, who have no degree to distinguish them from the students whose papers they grade.
Though not as prevalent as TAs, the number of undergraduate readers poses a threat to the legitimacy of the grading system. After all, these undergraduates are still honing their craft, too. It is unrealistic to assume that just because Professor So-and-So gives an undergraduate reader the thumbs-up to grade papers, he or she will be able to extend the same knowledge and insight to his or her students as a qualified professor.
In the 140-plus years since the UC system was established, it has increased dramatically in both size and prestige. However, the UC system should not thrive as a name-brand college at the expense of its undergraduate community.

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