Graduate Student Teaching Assistants Need More Consistency

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Graduate students are great. The fact that they can come back to school and endure the horrors of midterms and finals once again is truly amazing. But, when it comes to teaching lower division classes, are they viable candidates? The answer is two-sided — the first being yes, graduate students are great teachers if they are passionate about the subject they teach, and the second being no, they are not necessarily great teachers because they do not have enough experience teaching. I have had both exceptional and disheartening experiences with graduate teachers. There have been times when graduate students were so relatable and likable that anything they taught seemed to stick with me, and, unfortunately, there were also times where it was obvious the graduate student did not know how to relate the material he or she was teaching.

Considering that most graduate students are closer in age to undergraduates than professors are, it is certainly easier to connect with them. As an undergraduate student myself, there have been instances where I was too intimidated, or even afraid, to ask a professor a question relating to class because I thought I would seem like a naive novice. However, talking to a graduate student, someone I could possibly be friends with and talk to about current millennial issues like being “triggered” or “woke,” always seemed consoling. In fact, in numerous psychology and computer sciences classes, I found myself connecting to the graduate teaching assistants or teachers on a level that allowed me to do better in my courses. They were always so helpful and willing to take extra time to explain difficult concepts—they certainly seem less burned out and more energetic than some professors. To be more specific about my experience, I found going to computer science labs much more bearable because there was always a talkative graduate student nearby helping their students. I was able to socialize with the graduate student to learn valuable material for class. Whenever I would approach the graduate students with seemingly mundane topics, they were always able to liken the subject matter to contemporary events and make the material much more interesting.

However, this being said, I have had some awful graduate student teachers. In numerous psychology classes, I would see a graduate student scurrying in through the front doors and frantically taking out seemingly informative papers. But, as they present a powerpoint or lecture to the class, it becomes obvious that they do not understand the subject matter they are teaching. Surprisingly, once I had a graduate teacher tell me something along the lines of “I just read about the topic yesterday and can’t answer your questions” or “Oh! I just read the paper and know nothing about the topic the professor wanted me to talk about.” Hearing statements like these were always scary and made me wonder why UCI could not just hire more professors to prevent situations like this.

This being said, many graduate students are looking to increase their teaching experience, pay their bills, and possibly enter academia, so opportunities like teaching a lower division class is important to them. Although a few bad apples ruin the other graduate students’ opportunities, I believe it is important to avoid punishing the good individuals and determine rigid vetting processes that protect their rights.

All in all, having graduate students teach is hit or miss. If UCI spent money on establishing more rigorous teaching workshops for graduate students maybe…just maybe… there would be fewer bad apples.

Sharmin Shanur is a second-year cognitive sciences major. She can be reached at sshanur@uci.edu.

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