A Tale of Two TAs: A Response to “My TA isn’t from FIMS”


— This article is a response, written by two TAs, to Molly McCracken’s thought-provoking opinion piece for OPENWIDE, “‘My TA Isn’t From FIMS…’ Wait, what!?”

teacher-trainingA Joint Response by Western TAs Siobhan and Atle
Molly McCracken’s provocative opinion piece “‘My MIT TA isn’t from FIMS…’ Wait, what?!” has inspired discussion among and between undergraduates, graduate students and administration, and even outside of FIMS. It is important to address here what is essentially a conflation of issues, which are issues nonetheless. As we often tell our students when it comes to reading texts and events, there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye, or the ear in this case. Nevertheless, the article is timely and presents an opportunity for TAs to respond, and report particularly on what our union is planning to do to address this shared concern of giving undergraduates a better learning experience. Before addressing the broader criticisms of the article here, we must note MIT 2000 is an isolated case of administrative neglect not directly related to the sort of systemic problems raised by Ms. McCracken.

We can all recognize that this particular course has had serious issues when it comes to its administration (e.g. assignment of tutorials) and working conditions for its TAs. This speaks directly to what Molly overheard from “Student 1,” that the TA didn’t go to the lecture or didn’t want to buy the course textbook. TAs are contracted to teach for a specific course; we do not have full-time work contracts. Rather, we sign a new employment contract for each term we work that stipulates how we teach for a total of 140 hours per term. With our work contract comes something called the “duties specification letter,” which specifies the max number of hours a TA should perform on a specific duty, such as instruction, grading, office hours, presence at lectures and so on (and going by our duties specification letter it is quite clear that the university deems assessment much more important than teaching; roughly a third of our 140 hours is typically for marking). If the instructor doesn’t require TAs to attend lectures, they don’t have to. This was indeed the case with MIT 2000.

According to the collective agreement between Western and the Teaching Assistant Union, the course instructor must cover any expenses a TA might have when performing her or his duties. This includes printing, copying, stationary and also the course texts and course pack. If TAs do not have the course text it is because s/he hasn’t been provided one by the course instructor. Asking TAs who are already are living on poverty level wages to acquire expensive textbooks is a non-starter. It is the instructor’s fault if his TAs don’t have access to the correct course material.

Even though we are not lecturers or professors yet, graduate students are responsible for a significant amount of undergraduate education at Western. The number runs at around 50% of the teaching load. The reason for this, sadly, is because we are cheap labour; the fact that Western attracts some of the best and brightest graduate students makes the situation only slightly better. Hiring TAs to teach and grade undergraduates mitigates the effects of increasing enrollment and larger class sizes without hiring more faculty. This wouldn’t be such a problem, except that TAs receive no training prior to entering the classroom.

What training is available is unpaid and general, with no distinction made between teaching in the humanities, the sciences, or engineering. This, more than apathy or unfamiliarity with course content, degrades the student experience. While you certainly may come across an apathetic TA–most graduates must work as TAs to earn a living while studying, not for the sake of experience–it is more likely that they are being faced with teaching duties with little direction as to best practices for leading tutorials and helping with assignments. Also, given the growing numbers of incoming undergraduates, TAs are sometimes given tutorials with 40 and sometimes 60 students. And yet, they are still only contracted to work the same amount of hours per week as a TA who has 20 students. Besides understanding how overwhelmed that graduate student is, you can also imagine how divided that TA’s attention would be in tutorial, and how divided their time would be in grading your work. Thankfully, FIMS is one faculty that tries to maintain an average tutorial size of no more than 25 students (in order to have that decent, but far from ideal, TA-student ratio, FIMS hires graduate students from other faculties and departments; FIMS has a problem of not having enough FIMS graduate students to TA because of the large number of undergraduate admitted every year).

The TA/PD Union addressed both the issues of training and tutorial sizes in their recent contract negotiations with the university. While unsuccessful in securing cap sizes on tutorials, the university did agree to institute a pilot training program that will see experienced TAs receive paid pedagogical training with the Teaching Support Centre. These ‘lead TAs’ would then tailor the information to their home departments’ needs and facilitate department-specific training and workshops for their peers. Graduate students will not only be better equipped to teach in a particular department, they will also be more confident in their abilities.

As it is, we are overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated, we do the majority of the teaching on campus while representing just a fraction of total labour costs. We do not decide what to teach, and must often teach basic reading and writing skills even in second year courses since the fifth year of high school was axed by the provincial government. To make matters worse, FIMS does not require students to take a writing course in the first year/term of their degree. As a result, TAs are forced to assess students on things they haven’t learned yet (such as correct citation styles, evaluation and use of evidence, paraphrasing versus block quotes, how to write a thesis statement and structure an essay, how to not write a 5-paragraph essay and so on).

The non-FIMS TA: Siobhan
Atle has provided most of the insight here as to the structure and politics of FIMS, since–brace yourself–I am not a “FIMS TA.” I belong to a small, interdisciplinary graduate program called Theory and Criticism. Our program is limited to Masters and PhD degrees, so there is no opportunity to TA for a department-specific undergraduate class. Theory and Criticism students must necessarily be contracted out to other departments. That being said, the administration does its best to find suitable homes for us, based on our background and research interests. Our very interdisciplinarity tends to makes us a decent fit for FIMS. But it is also the interdisciplinarity of FIMS, as well as the singular nature of the faculty, that almost makes the “FIMS TA” desired and described in the article a mythical creature. As one of the anonymous commenters to the article highlighted, even graduates who are in FIMS programs come from diverse backgrounds, as do the faculty. FIMS itself is a unique faculty, for which there may be analogous programs at other universities, but doubtful any with the exact same requirements and content.

Despite the shortcomings of my non-FIMS education, I have had very positive feedback from my students in the two MIT classes I TAed this year and last. And this is despite the fact that I’ve said the very words, “I’m learning this with you.” The truth is, even FIMS graduate students are still encountering new material as content changes over time, or with changes in faculty, or again, because they do not have a media studies background.  And when we say “we are learning with you” it is not just because we might be new to the course material, but also because teaching is the best way to learn. Sometimes a concept or theory has to be explained several times, in several different ways and with different examples; you end up knowing what you teach intimately. Educational background aside, graduate students do know how to do a few things–like reading and writing critically–and that’s what they are there to help undergraduates in the humanities do. In student evaluations, your peers have said that they like the outside perspective that I bring to course content, have mistaken me for the mythical FIMS TA, but more importantly, thank me for being engaged and helpful. This more than anything is the experience undergraduates should be given, and it is of personal concern to me that this isn’t always the case.

The FIMS TA: Atle
Are non-FIMS TAs really an issue? Not at all. I’m a third year PhD student; prior to that, I did a two-year MA in FIMS, and have TAed all the core second year courses. Before coming to FIMS, my background was in the social sciences, focusing on international development and conflict studies. I had to learn really fast that first term of TAing. What horrified me about starting to TA, however, was not the content. What freaked me out (yes I did freak out!) was that I was responsible for 41 students: teaching, grading, counselling, and deciding their future lives in FIMS and in university because I was responsible for assigning all grades. I had never taught, never marked, never had a TA that I could mimic and I was completely new to the humanities. I thought it was irresponsible of the university to give me complete control considering there was little oversight (I did consult the instructor throughout the term) and no training, which would have alleviated my fears and taught me how to make lesson plans, facilitate tutorials, mark assignments, etc.

This fall term I TAed MIT 2500 for the fourth time (it’s an excellent course and I really like TAing for it). Professor Steele had chosen to change the course content, which meant that quite a bit of the course material was not familiar. Although I was somewhat familiar with Heidegger’s view on technology and Debord on the Spectacle, I had to do extra preparation and reading for these tutorials (and others) because being familiar doesn’t mean I could teach that content (in fact Siobhan helped me a lot with understanding Heidegger; I helped her with anything reeking of Marx). It wouldn’t have mattered if I were a non-FIMS TA, a new TA or the first time TAing the course. Being faced with new content to teach is just par for the course, and indeed this is something desirable.

…………………

The original piece to which this article is a response did not have all the facts, but hopefully our contribution to the discussion has alleviated some of the confusion. A favourite saying among educators continues to ring true in this context: our working conditions are your learning conditions. The TA Union are doing their best to address those conditions to benefit everyone involved, but there must be understanding about the greater issues at play. We hope the conversation continues.

~~~

Siobhan Watters is a second year MA student at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, sits on the TA Union’s Bargaining Mobilization Assembly and on the Union and  USC’s Undergraduate-TA Caucus.

Atle Mikkola Kjøsen is a third year media studies PhD in FIMS, sits on the Bargaining Mobilization Assembly in the TA Union and is a union steward in FIMS.

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