ND classes find a shortage of TA's
By ERIN LaRUFFA
Associate News Editor
Whether there are 50 or 250 students in a lecture class, large courses can seem impersonal.
Professors in these classes may give interesting and insightful lectures, but it is difficult if not impossible for one person to answer every question and grade every paper of all the students crammed into a lecture hall.
That's where teaching assistants better known as Tas come in.
"From a student's perspective, [TAs] can add a personal dimension to a course that is a large one," said Dian Murray, associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters.
A graduate student can become a TA for a course related to his or her field of study. Among other things, TAs commonly grade papers, answer questions and lead small discussion groups, particularly in classes too large for professors to handle the workload on their own.
Despite the importance graduate TAs are to undergraduate education, academic departments sometimes have a difficult time finding enough of them.
The government department, for example, has been challenged by a small pool of potential TAs.
In recent years, as the number of undergraduate government majors has increased, the number of graduate TAs shrank, according to Michael Coppedge. As the department's director if graduate studies, Coppedge is responsible for assigning TAs to undergraduate government courses.
The number of students enrolled in a class is the biggest factor the government department uses to determine whether a class has a TA and how many TAs each class has, according to Coppedge. When determining TA assignments, he said he tries to equalize the student to teacher ratio among the different courses.
However, that ratio can vary from year to year depending on the number of TAs available, Coppedge said.
The reason for the recent shortage in government TAs has to do with the fact that the number of students starting the graduate program in 1997 and 1998 was relatively small. In both years, several students who had committed to Notre Dame changed their minds before enrolling.
As a result, the government department cannot assign a TA to every course the department would like to assign one to. "A class has to have a higher enrollment to get a TA," Coppedge said.
Although there is no set rule, the department tries to assign a TA to each class with 35 students or more, he explained. However, for the past few years, a class has needed 40 or 45 students before the department would assign a TA.
The government department is not alone. An insufficient supply of graduate students has challenged the chemistry and biochemistry department, according to department chair Alexander Lappin.
The currently strong economy makes attracting graduate students difficult for chemistry and biochemistry departments at universities nationwide, Lappin said. Because chemists with a master's degree in the discipline are able to earn good salaries working for corporations, students are less likely to spend the time required to earn a Ph.D.
"We could probably support 20 or 30 more graduate students in the department right now, but [recruiting graduate students] is a very competitive business," Lappin said. "We have pretty high [admission] standards
We don't take anyone off the street."
However, recruiting difficulties mean fewer graduate students are studying chemistry, and therefore there are less students available to become TAs.
Furthermore, graduate students might receive another source of funding, such as a fellowship, meaning they would no longer need to take a TA position, Murray said. Such opportunities for graduate students could further contribute to a department's TA shortage.
Not having enough TAs can be a problem because assistants are important figures in undergraduate courses.
"They're very important in terms of transferring knowledge on how to do the labs," Lappin said. "[TAs are] vital to the safety aspect."
Although the chemistry department has been experiencing this problem, it has been able to cover its needs, according to Lappin. Indeed, the chemistry and government departments as well as other departments have come up with ways to work around the small pool of graduate students.
Part of the chemistry department's solution has been to have undergraduate majors in their junior and senior years serve as TAs, Lappin said. Currently, about half of the TAs for freshman-level general chemistry are undergraduates.
The government department, on the other hand, has looked beyond its own discipline. Each semester, it hires four to six law students, most of whom majored in political science as undergraduates, to be TAs, according to Coppedge.
"There's been a lot of competition among law students for these positions, so we've been able to be selective," he said.
Although law students have not completely made up for the TA shortage, they have helped, Coppedge said. He added that the shortage is becoming less significant because a full class of students entered the graduate program in 1999.
If some departments with graduate programs are having difficulties because of TA shortages, the problem is even more pronounced in undergraduate departments that do not have a corresponding graduate program.
"In some departments, there is no opportunity to have TAs at all, and they have to figure out how to deal with large classes without that luxury," Murray said.
For example, the anthropology department offers only an undergraduate degree, and therefore there are no qualified graduate students to become assistants.
"It restricts our efforts at expansion," said department chair Patrick Gaffney.
Lack of graduate students to serve as TAs is a major reason why the department is unlikely to offer another large class again.
"With that big of a class, it's hard to keep in touch with the student component," Gaffney said. "That's where a TA comes in."
For its mega-class last semester, the anthropology department hired an anthropologist, who happened to be the spouse of a faculty member, to serve as a TA. She worked about 20 hours a week, on tasks such as grading papers. However, hiring non-student outside help is rare, according to Gaffney.
Although the anthropology department shies away from classes with high enrollment, professors in the department still have a need for TAs. Therefore, Gaffney said, the department hires undergraduate upperclassmen to help professors with tasks such as research.
"We call them teaching assistants, but they don't do the work graduate teaching assistants do. We'd love to have graduate TAs," Gaffney explained.
Of course, many graduate students love to be TAs.
"I love to teach," said Nadine Dacanay, who is in the second year of the College of Architecture's masters' degree program. "It takes a lot of energy, but when you see your students progress
it's really satisfying."
Before beginning her masters' degree work, Dacanay said she was interested only in establishing a private architecture practice. However, her experience as a TA has been so positive, she said, that she now wants to incorporate teaching into her career.
All News Stories for Wednesday, September 20, 2000