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Teaching assistants lend classroom support

Ken Walsh | Wednesday, September 1, 2004

While classes utilizing teaching assistants and graduate assistants have earned a negative reputation on other campuses, several Notre Dame students and faculty members disagree with this stereotype.

Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Letters Dottie Pratt praised small class sizes and one-on-one teacher-student interaction as benefits of the TA system.

“It allows people to have more sections, so you are not in those huge, anonymous classes,” she said. According to Pratt, the presence of teaching assistants allows professors to spread large classes into smaller, more personal, discussion groups.

Although many classes utilize TAs, the majority of the schools at Notre Dame do not actually rely on teaching assistants to instruct undergraduates, but rather to aide the professor in running the class said representatives from the Colleges of Arts and Letters, Business and Architecture.

“They assist the faculty member in the administration of the class,” said assistant dean of the Mendoza College of Business Sam Gaglio. “They might grade papers, they might sit there for an exam, help grade exams.”

Teaching assistant involvement in class is not only supported by busy faculty members looking for assistance in administering a class, but also by students. Students find they often relate better to teaching assistants, as they are closer in age, sophomore Tim Haren said.

“I think they are very helpful to every class, especially if it is in a language requirement,” senior Maria Garrido added.

One of the greatest benefits of the presence of TAs is the real-life classroom experience that the graduate teaching assistants receive, said chemistry professor Xavier Creary.

“All professors, at least in our department, at one time were TAs. That’s one of the ways in which they learned how to get in front of a class and give a presentation and how to organize,” he said. “They learned the types of questions that students are going to ask by being TAs in a smaller setting.”

Acting as a teaching assistant gives graduate students the chance to become more comfortable interacting with students, leading discussions and becoming aware of the needs of students, philosophy TA Jennifer Jensen said.

Fellow teaching assistant Angela Smith agreed. “Since you are working so closely with the students you are able to see very clearly what works and what doesn’t work, and what would work for you as a teacher,” Smith said.

According to Pratt, this preparation is important for molding the teachers and professors of the future.

Despite the benefits presented to students, professors and TAs, there are still those who are skeptical about the use of teaching assistants.

“[Teaching assistants] can help you prepare for tests, and they can help you in specific things,” senior Claire Hagan said, “but professors are definitely better prepped.”

Regardless of any criticism, it appears as though the use of TAs will persist.

“We really appreciate the teaching assistants and the job that the students do,” Gaglio said. “I think it would be very difficult to teach the amount of classes we do without the great support of the students.”