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by Dave Berry

College Profs and TAs

What do you think of when you imagine sitting in a college classroom or lecture hall? Do you see images of a bearded, intellectual-looking man (or woman (without the beard, of course)) leaning on his/her rostrum while pontificating pearls of great wisdom about whatever topic s/he represents? Your daydream may also include deep-toned, richly polished, paneled walls, with perhaps some dazzling stained-glass windows emblazoned with the prestigious crest of your ivy-walled institution. Quite impressive, eh?

Well, that’s the ideal, perhaps stereotypical scenario. The reality, however, may be quite different. The point here is that when the time comes for you high school seniors to make your college enrollment choices this spring (or even sooner), you’ll want to get an idea about the quality and availability of the professors with whom you’ll be studying. It’s not always the way it looks in the colleges’ viewbooks and on their Web sites. For example, consider the prospect of TAs, Teaching Assistants.

Teaching Assistants, as pictured above, are usually graduate students working as faculty assistants to supplement their graduate expenses. Sometimes advanced undergraduates become TAs when their work in a particular area is outstanding and they have gained the confidence of senior faculty.

Sometimes the very mention of TAs can have a negative connotation when it comes to teaching. That’s because at many large universities, especially in introductory courses, TAs sometimes do a significant amount of the teaching. Even if they are not involved directly with the instruction of the class, teaching assistants can be a large part of lab activities and counseling for the students.

The reason for the negative perception has nothing to do with the quality of the TA’s teaching. Some TAs can be genuinely exciting and motivational. The problem comes from students and parents who feel that for the high price of tuition, faculty should be doing the teaching, not a graduate student who is also a teaching assistant.

In large introductory courses, the teaching assistant can also handle the administration of exams and grading. Many first-year students may never know that a graduate student is doing the teaching. The way to tell is to get a listing of courses and then check to see who will be doing the teaching. If the name of the instructor or professor is not on that course’s departmental faculty listing, you may want to do some research. If you find out that you’re dealing with a TA, you might be able to pick the course up later when a member of the faculty will teach it.

There is nothing wrong with Teaching Assistants. They serve a positive and productive function. If I had a choice, though, I’d prefer full-time faculty. If you want to see just how involved TAs can be in undergraduate teaching, take a look at these pages, which explain the extent of TA involvement. Even the overview TA job description gives a hint:

Assist department chairperson, faculty members, or other professional staff members in college or university by performing teaching or teaching-related duties, such as teaching lower level courses, developing teaching materials, preparing and giving examinations, and grading examinations or papers. Graduate assistants must be enrolled in a graduate school program. Graduate assistants who primarily perform non-teaching duties, such as laboratory research, should be reported in the occupational category related to the work performed.

For some great (albeit sometimes highly subjective) insights about professors (not TAs), you won’t want to miss Rate My Professors. Here you will find a treasure trove of comments from former (and even current) students of those professors who do actually appear in the classroom and teach. Here are just a few examples:

- By far the easiest professor I’ve taken! NO EXAMS, NO HOMEWORKS, just daily quizzes after lecture about what he went over. 3 to 6 easy questions like “what was the boys name with the…” I definitely recommend taking this class. It’s an easy A plus he gives you extra credit too. Also he has a curve in his class like 88 and up is an A!

- Class is honestly a joke. She says you need the book, you don’t at all. You have to go to class every day and there are daily quizzes but just kinda pay attention and you can get 100%. I suggest taking with a friend and bringing something to do as class gets boring when she drones on.

- Boring, no exams just daily quizzes. Very nice teacher… but if you miss a class… you have to do extra credit to make it up… even for religious holidays. Don’t get the book, they say you need it but the quizzes cover what you do in the lecture the day of the quiz.

And so on . . .

So what am I driving at here? I guess for lack of a better description it would be: Getting your money’s worth. With the sky-high cost of higher education today, you want to make sure that you’re getting your tuition dollar’s worth. Thus, pay attention to several key criteria when making that all-important enrollment choice:

- How well does the full-time faculty serve the undergraduate population of this school?

- How often are TAs part of the actual classroom experience?

- How accessible are full-time faculty and do TAs actually handle a professor’s office hours?

- What are students saying about certain professors on Rate My Professors? (You may want to check out a few of the profs from the colleges to which you have applied to (or are planning on applying to) before making an application or enrollment decision.)

So there you have it. Professors and Teaching Assistants. Caveat emptor.

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

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