Students at the University of Vermont  are discovering that the junior sitting next to them in American Lit could be the same person grading their quiz in American Political Systems. In response to growing class sizes, the UVM College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) is supplying beleaguered professors with undergraduate teaching assistants (UTA).
Individual departments have offered students pedagogical opportunities in the past, but the new initiative is larger and less structured. Critics of the program say undergraduates aren’t up to the task; supporters claim teaching is the best way to learn. Either way, it looks like students at UVM will have to get used to the idea of their classmates assessing their academic performance.
Last April, amid budget-cut backlashes and heated debates about increased enrollment, the CAS announced a new initiative called “The Undergraduate Teaching Fellows.” With an approximately $80,000 budget, the program pays for about 50 TAs who earn between $10 and $12 an hour. Eight departments with class sizes in the 100- to 250-student range have used these funds to employ UTAs. Traditionally, graduate TAs are employed to do similar work.
The presence of UTAs is “going to become a routine part of how business is done here,” said George Moyser , chair of the political science department. He noted that the department was initially concerned about having undergraduates take on responsibilities that typically fall to graduate students. “That is why we approached it cautiously and conservatively,” he said. According to Moyser, who is generally enthusiastic about the program, the TAs in political science are mainly responsible for administrative duties and some grading. Exactly what that entails is left to the discretion of the professor.
Academically prestigious universities such as Brown, Wesleyan, and Cornell all have some form of undergraduate teaching program. These colleges also have set concrete parameters and guidelines for how the young teachers are selected, trained, supervised and used in the classroom setting. At Cornell, for example, students are required to take a semester-long course before they can become physics TAs. The course admits students with an interest in teaching physics as a future career and focuses on pedagogy and teaching philosophy; the program also offers peer and faculty support to students currently employed as TAs.
At UVM, basic guidelines are still in the works. They’re in draft form, actually. The preliminary document recommends that students have the necessary academic background in the subjects they teach and that instructors hold regular meeting with TAs outside class. It also suggests appropriate tasks for undergrads: proctoring exams, assisting in grading papers, leading small weekly discussion groups and helping write exam questions.
“I think what we need to figure out is the variety of ways people are using TAs … Once we get a handle on what faculty and students need to make the program the most beneficial … we will come up with some workshops,” said CAS Dean Eleanor Miller . She said she doesn’t expect the program to grow beyond its current $80,000-a-year budget.
In the meantime, though, most of the TAs interviewed for this story said they got their jobs without speaking to anyone face to face. What about supervision? While Dean Miller expressed that “it would be unusual for a faculty member not to check over things” such as quiz and test grades, there are no rules in place to ensure that happens.
One currently employed TA, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted, “Being an undergrad, I feel a bit underqualified for the position and am hoping that these students don’t get gypped out of a meaningful class.”
Zoe Chapman is a UVM senior and was a TA last semester in a section of “Introduction to Religion: Comparative” — a class that more than tripled in size between 2008 and 2009. Mainly, she graded quizzes.
“The quizzes were short answer, occasionally fill-in-the-blanks, so a fair amount of judgment was involved … There were some judgment calls, definitely,” she said. Although Chapman found the position personally rewarding, she thought the relationship between students and professor was lost in the larger section.
In the past year, UVM’s religion department lost two of its eight tenure-track positions. “Intro” sections that were traditionally capped at 43 students are now capped at 130. Each of these three sections has been paired with an undergraduate teaching assistant.
“This is a challenging time for the religion department as it attempts to address increasing demand for religion classes. The department is in a process of evaluating the relationship between their aims and the reality of the much larger teaching environments,” said Kevin Trainor , religion department chair.
Other departments are trying to invent new ways to accommodate the highest enrollment rates in university history without hiring more faculty. There’s a risk involved: student dissatisfaction.
Juliet Critsimilios, a sophomore at UVM who took a political philosophy course in the political science department last semester, wasn’t impressed with her TA. “He had to grade our homework, send us emails and actually write the exams … When we all had questions about our poor performance on the first exam, our professor basically blamed the TA,” she said. “The majority of responsibility was entrusted to him, and that was, in my eyes, unfair both to him and to the students.”
Lea McLellan is an intern at Seven Days, a UVM senior, and editor of the university’s weekly newspaper The Water Tower.