Need help catching up after a few missed classes? Want to talk about that bad paper grade? Having trouble with class concepts? Often, it’s not your professor who will help with these problems, it’s your TA.
“Having the crutch of a support figure in a class where you don’t really know anyone and are too intimidated to go to a professor is great,” says Clio Sun (W '21). “But it really depends on how much the TA is willing to help and how good the TA is at explaining.”
Undergraduate students know firsthand how central teaching assistants are in teaching classes. TAs are often an undergraduate’s lifeline in the classroom. They can make or break their experience or their decision to keep or drop a class. And even though they are key to the success of many students, most teaching assistants did not choose their job, nor is it their primary focus.
“As grad students, we are supposed to be doing research. That is our main goal,” says fifth–year mathematics PhD student Marcus Michelen. “Being a TA is a job. What TAs do is labor, and it’s ostensibly not the main reasons TAs are at Penn.”
In addition to the hours of preparation and time–consuming grunt work necessary to run a class—like grading and holding office hours—TAs have to contend with “all of the emotional labor of getting to know people, being accommodating and figuring out who people are often gets put on our shoulders,” explains third–year Anthropology PhD student Mariana Irby.
Still, many TAs express a genuine interest in the lives of the undergraduates in their classes. Sixth–year Clinical Psychology PhD student Lauren Danzi Brumley had one–hundred students total in Introduction to Experimental Psychology. She made a huge effort to know all of their names and get to know a little about each person. "I tried to be that sounding board to help students chew through the material,” Lauren explained.
“Learning eighty people's names every semester is a challenge,” says Marcus. “I always recommend to do that and I always do that, but that's something that takes a lot of energy.”
In addition to learning everyone’s names, TAs incorporate outside readings, hold additional review sessions and extra office hours all while striving to be caring and approachable to undergraduates. And because they're more accessible than professors, TAs are often the first people that students will reach out to with personal issues and grading disagreements.
“We are also at the first line of defense for if something goes really wrong with a student,” says Marcus. “We’ll be the first to notice if a student is having a problem, whether that be physically, emotionally, or mentally. We’ll be the people who have to feel out for that. That is something that takes a toll, that is kind of exhausting and that is labor.”
Some students, like fourth–year political science PhD student Zach Smith, want to see Penn take more concrete steps to acknowledge the unseen work that being a TA requires.
“Myself and many of my colleagues have had to deal with students crying in our offices, particular familial challenges or personal challenges,” says Zach. “There’s a lot of work that goes into TAs supporting students that goes unacknowledged and uncompensated.”
Many graduate students like Zach take issue with this lack of acknowledgement because being a TA is not a choice for most of the graduate students that do it. They receive full tuition scholarships, stipends, and health insurance through the five–year–long Benjamin Franklin Fellowships program, and serve as teaching assistants as part of their funding package.
“We don’t have a choice, but I think it’s a really important component of graduate education,” says Mariana.
Exact TA assignments depend on the discipline as well as the specific professor. For many PhD students, the classes they’re assigned to teach don’t always align with their academic training or interests. TAs often have to learn the material and figure out how to teach it.
Before the semester begins, TAs rank classes in order of preference, but they don’t always get their top choice. Zach, for example, received teaching assignments outside of his wheelhouse. Though he concentrates on politics in the Middle East, he has taught classes ranging from Russian Politics to Sex and Power.
“Undergrads sometimes think that their TAs are experts in what they are teaching,” says Zach. “What I’m telling you, is that we are absolutely not in many cases [...] Your TAs are not experts in what they teach always, but they are experts in learning really quickly.”
Marcus says that teaching assistants are often seen as “surrogates for the professor.”
“The way the professors view us is probably in line with the expectations of being a TA.” Marcus explains. “However, what happens in practice is that TAs get a little more involved with the learning that their students do.”
Fourth–year Philosophy PhD candidate Max Lewis also testifies to the intermediary position that TAs occupy. He describes his role as “being a voice to the students” while serving the professor. “You’re sort of in a middle place where you’re trying to do what the professor wants you to do [...] but you’re also there to support the undergrads to make sure they get what they deserve,” says Max.
Zach is one of many graduate students who see unionization as a possible solution to this issue, and is a member of Graduate Employees Together—University of Pennsylvania (GET–UP), a group that has been campaigning for graduate student unionization for several years.
Mariana sees the power differential between professors and their TAs as “one of the main reasons” driving unionization efforts.
“A lot of whether you have a positive experience as a TA depends on the professor,” says Mariana. “Whether or not you happen to get a professor who is understanding and sets reasonable expectations for you and for their students. If you have a professor who is not like that, unfortunately there is not much you can do about it at all.”
While the teaching requirement can be a burden for many graduate students, some undergraduates adopt the position voluntarily.
Ivan Li (W, C ‘19) is in his third year as a TA for Math 240. While pursuing a triple major in mathematics, economics, and statistics, Ivan chooses to TA because he enjoys the job. Over the summer, Ivan spent months making 25 hours' worth of Khan Academy–inspired videos as supplementary aid for his students.
“Being a TA is definitely my favorite thing that I’ve done on campus,” Ivan says. “Grading is a grind. It’s like having continual homework, and I have to do it weekly. But it's definitely worth it. It is a lot of fun. I’m just doing it because I love teaching.”
Many graduate students also agree with Ivan and understand how valuable TAs are for undergraduates who are struggling in class or just looking for someone to talk to about their courses.
“Some—but certainly not all—faculty members value all the work that TAs do as much as they should,” Marcus says. “One way you can look at how important a job is is by imagining the world without it. If you imagine what would happen if we had no TAs, a lot of learning would stop happening immediately.”
Paige Fishman is a sophomore in the College from Chicago, Illinois. She is a features staff writer for 34th Street.