Lowering our Standards? Cross-Faculty TAs Impede Learning
One morning this week, I forgot my earphones for the bus ride. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but listen in on two second-year FIMS students sitting next to me and discussing their courses.
What I heard was disheartening, but not new. It exposed a problem I have seen growing out of control over the time I have gone from a naïve frosh to a slightly more critical, though still naïve, senior.
The students were discussing their final essays for MIT 2000. They began to complain, not about #firstworldproblems, but about a real issue: their Teaching Assistants’ inability to help them.
I am sorry if these students are reading this and feel their privacy has been totally invaded, but I really appreciate them having this discussion in my hearing.
This is my shortened version of the conversation:
Student one: “My TA asked the class to fill him in on the course content because he didn’t want to go to lecture or buy the course text book.”
Student two: “My TA said, ‘Don’t listen to anything the Prof said; this is how I want it done,’ and said we should write a 6 – 12 page paper.”
Student one: “My TA gave us the option to write a ten-page paper OR a fifteen-slide PowerPoint for our final assignment.”
My jaw dropped. I may be in fourth year, but I’m not senile yet. That is not how I remember my MIT 2000 final essay.
As their conversation continued, I was able to determine something I have heard from dozens of other FIMS students as well. We have all heard our TAs say, “This is all new for me, I’m learning it with you,” or even worse, “I am going to need you guys to help me because I don’t get this stuff.” How comforting that our future in this program is reliant on someone who is just as confused, or perhaps more so, than we are. No matter that we’re struggling to keep up; we have a shortage of qualified TAs, so FIMS is bringing in graduate students from other faculties to run course tutorials. One student described having a non-FIMS TA like having a “substitute teacher.”
I want to clarify that I am not intending to put down the faculty or any graduate students. I am extremely grateful for what I have learned from both parties throughout my undergraduate career. I have had some TAs who were truly dedicating to helping me through course content and who inspired me to work hard.
I consider myself lucky, but it has clearly not been so good for all FIMS students.
While discrepancies and misunderstandings among teaching assistants and professors will always be a concern in education, I stress that the conversation I overheard on the bus does not refer to an isolated incident. It is merely one recent example out of countless complaints I have heard from my peers and criticisms I have made myself. It’s a known issue in FIMS.
I cringe at the thought of what these students are going through in first and second year, as they try to justify not only to their friends and family, but to themselves, that they are getting a worthwhile degree and a meaningful education. These are teenagers with minimal exposure to the university who wallow in self-pity about being placed in a tutorial section that does not benefit them.
When I can say I know students who have walked in to a TA’s office with an exam grade of 60 and walked out with an 80, I get upset. Oh well, that’s life. But when I hear that a student in one section of the same lecture is being given the option to make a PowerPoint instead of an essay, I say: FIMS, you’re doing it wrong. Where are our standards? Why aren’t they being enforced?
I have often wondered how it is possible that students who excel in a media studies program are ignorant of their contemporary media landscape.My lack of realization reveals my naïveté. FIMS as a faculty is laden with apathy, it seems. When students find more inspiration inside the classroom, they get more inspired outside of it. If the administration as a whole were truly determined to provide the best for students, they would work to ensure consistency in classrooms and to provide an equal opportunity learning environment. Given we don’t have the resources to teach our students adequately, why are we admitting so many? When our university promises us “The Best Student Experience,” it should not be providing us with instructors who do not seem half as invested in educating us as we are invested in being educated.
Our first- and second-year courses are built around the additional aid of tutorials, an extra buffer to help students work through complex concepts and challenging essays. It’s a magnificent idea in theory. But for many FIMS students it seems this structure is becoming more of a barrier to learning than it is a gateway.
Molly McCracken is a fourth-year Hon. Spec. MIT student who crushes on robots harder than she should and wishes she could rely on GIFs to communicate her emotions.