Thursday, August 18, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 5

The role of graduate students

So far I have deliberately not considered graduate students much if at all in the discussion of inward based serviced learning. I hope to make my reasons for doing so apparent in this post and to discus how I’d like to see graduate students utilized in undergraduate instruction at public research universities.

My direct experience with graduate students is first as an undergrad at MIT and then Cornell, second as a grad student myself at Northwestern where I did my doctorate and then at Illinois where I’ve interacted with initiatives that involved graduate students in a teaching/support role in the Economics department and more broadly across campus as my ed tech unit has supported instruction.

At MIT the intro chemistry course I took, which was somewhere between general chemistry and organic, was taught in lecture/recitation mode. I had a great TA who taught us a lot and if my recollection serves (this was fall 1972) really liked the teaching part. The Physics class relied on faculty to do the TA function and the Calculus class was taught in self-paced mode where I believe they used undergrads as graders of the walk in exams we had to pass to get credit for the course. The other classes I had were small and taught by faculty.

My first semester at Cornell I took a course called Women and Politics taught by Werner Dannhauser. He was an extremely popular professor and the course was offered in the large lecture room in Uris Hall. I don’t believe we had recitation sections but he had several graduate assistants who I believe occasionally lectured, but it is quite possible I’m confusing this with some other large class. The following year I took German taught by a graduate student (I shirked in this class starting around the middle of the term because it was an 8 o’clocker in the morning. I had to take German in summer school to get through their requirement which required a certain score on the achievement test equivalent. But that was my fault not the fault of the grad student.) I also took a topology course which was smallish but had a grad student grader and somehow I got to know him and we talked both about the math and other things. I also took a macroeconomics principles course, again taught in the large auditorium in Uris. The prof was great, he ultimately encouraged me to go to grad school, but I had my first experience with a TA who I thought was not competent. I only learned much later that the Cornell Econ department was having some problems in those days.

At Northwestern, I was on fellowship all four years I attended. Nonetheless, I served as a TA each quarter of my second year. No first year students in the Econ department at Northwestern were allowed to TA and at least at that time the teaching was part of the degree requirement. (Some of this may have been to work around IRS regulations, but I want to get back to the idea of Teaching as part of the education.) I also acted as a grader later on – that was purely on a cash basis and not considered part of the degree. I had no interaction with the students whatsoever in that capacity.

At Illinois, it is a commonplace for first year graduate students in the department to TA, the key is their English speaking ability, not their knowledge of economics. Fellowships, which have been funded by gifts, are typically reserved for students who are further along and have proven their worthiness. Likewise, faculty with grant money who can fund research assistantships, typically hire upper class students and they likely will take on those students as their thesis supervisor. Many graduate students TA for several years and so I think it is reasonable to describe the TA relationship as an employment relationship primarily, rather than as part of their graduate student education.

Thinking of it as an employment relationship there are several factors that tend to alienate the grad students. First, the wages are low. Second, the faculty member they work for as a TA quite likely is not going to be on their dissertation committee nor have they necessarily taken a course from that faculty member. So the TA function is outside their own graduate education and there is little or no attempt to tie the two together. Also, the graduate students don’t have many options about being a TA. They can’t really work at other jobs (for example teach at the local community college) because they need the tuition and fee waiver that is bundled with being a TA. And in some departments (Anthropology is a known example) the time till the dissertation is completed may be 6, 7, or 8 years and until it is done the department can exploit these students as TAs.

It is said the public universities simply can’t afford to use graduate students as TAs in the way private universities do. In other words, the publics knowingly exploit their graduate students to some degree, and offer a somewhat lower caliber of instruction as a consequence, because the cost model of the publics doesn’t allow anything else.

However, if inward based service learning by undergraduates is a viable alternative, perhaps it is then possible to utilize graduates students more in the way the private universities do. This likely means fewer graduate students overall (and some might find that objectionable) but the graduate students we do have would find their involvement with teaching more sensible and more to their liking.

Here are a few more specific points.

(1) It will be difficult if not impossible to find undergraduate peer mentor/teachers for senior level courses. (Those qualified will have graduated already.) It makes sense to use graduate students here, particularly if the faculty member in the senior course also might know the graduate student from other contexts, a course they’ve been in together, a seminar series they both attend, or if the faculty member will be on the student’s dissertation committee.

(2) To the extent that the ability to deliver a coherent lecture is valued in the particular discipline, graduate students should get practice at lecturing. The recitation section is not the place for lecture. Indeed, the point of the recitation is for students to be able to interact with their instructor. So graduate students should be allowed to lecture to the class as a whole.

(3) To the extent that we want to evoke change in the way teaching occurs, from presentation mode to “guide on the side” mode, graduate students need to learn the new modalities. Assigning them as a TA in a large class is not the way to go about achieving this end. Better to have them in a smaller class where they can interact with the students more readily. Most of our smaller class tend to be taught at the upper level.

(4) If graduate students don’t teach the first year they still will have needs for tuition waiver and stipend. This may be less the case for foreign grad students who have home country or home company sponsorship. But it still is something to be considered. I know that many public universities are doing big fund raising efforts to offset declines in public subsidy. In my view of the world funding the first year graduate education out of subsidy or gift fund would be a high priority. But since any set of funds have an alternative use one might reframe this point to say we need to shrink the subsidy that goes to faculty (either pay them less or have fewer of them) so we can have a viable experience for first year graduate students.

(5) In general the size of the graduate programs should be determined first and foremost by the discipline’s need for new members over a certain time span. Undergraduate teaching needs should not be the primary driver of the size of the graduate program.

(6) Most faculty prefer to teach graduate students and the subject matter of graduate student courses, because they can better tie their research to their teaching and because they can occasionally find a student at the dissertation stage that they want to supervise. For this reason, faculty may be instrumental in their other views and consequently want a large graduate student TA pool for their department. Thus a discussion between the Provost and the faculty on the TA issue may very well find them pitted against each other.

In everything I talk about above where I say graduate student one could readily substitute in doctoral student. I am definitely not talking about masters students, for example in the MBA program, who pay big bucks for a professional degree of some sort. Because professional program students are paying tuition, they need not be considered here.

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