TAs serve valuable roles, faculty teach undergrads


The recent "60 Minutes" segment on the University of Arizona contained serious errors of fact and emphasis that need to be corrected. "60 Minutes" stated a view that has been heard lately within the university itself that graduate assistant teachers are somehow an embarrassment, and included several outright falsehoods that are beginning to be repeated as facts. Without GATs, public universities could not provide high quality and low cost education that meets the needs of diverse students.

The segment opened with two composition classes that Leslie Stahl stated were being taught by graduate students, and a third composition teacher was shown later in the sequence. One of the teachers shown was in fact an adjunct faculty member with a terminal graduate degree. Despite what was said, almost 40 first-year composition classes were being taught by faculty. Stahl also noted that GATs have little or no training in teaching, and this is also incorrect. All of the GATs in the composition program participate in a yearlong training program with weekly meetings, class visits, and assessments of their responses to papers and their students' responses to them. This training program has been recognized in print as among the best in the country.

Such errors are important, but the underlying assumption that GATs are bad teachers is also erroneous. The GATs featured on "60 Minutes" were rated by over 80 percent of their students as being either excellent or very good, evaluations that are outstanding for any 100-level teacher.

Research done here last fall verifies the published finding that there is no significant difference between the student evaluations of GATs and other classes of university teachers. See, for example, Journal of Educational Measurement (1974) and Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education (1987). From a decade spent observing teachers, I know that GATs can be extremely effective if they are properly trained and supported, as could be said of any class of teachers. Many fields do not offer such training as part of their graduate work, and that is a far more serious problem than having graduate students teach introductory courses.

Another serious piece of misinformation publicized by "60 Minutes" is that students at the University of Arizona are not getting their money's worth. Leslie Stahl suggested that for $15,000 or $20,000 dollars in tuition, students deserve to be taught by professors. She was obviously assuming a private liberal arts college sort of experience, which does in fact cost an average of $18,874 (USA Today, Feb. 28). The average tuition for a public college is $8,990, and our in-state students pay about one-quarter of that and about one-tenth of the figure Stahl cited. Because of underfunding, our GATs are grossly underpaid, and their class size has been raised 25 percent in the last three years. In any case, if every section of first-year composition were taught by an assistant professor, the cost would be at least quadrupled.

The "60 Minutes" sequence also erroneously concluded that faculty are not teaching undergraduates. Ninety-seven percent of the faculty in my department who were not on sabbatical or administrative appointments were teaching undergraduates when "60 Minutes" was here. However, the negative press on GATs is particularly serious because such misjudgments are being heard within the university itself. Graduate assistant teachers have been a vital link between the teaching and research missions of universities ever since there have been universities. The very term "bachelor's degree" comes from the custom of requiring graduates to remain unmarried while they taught in order to support themselves while they worked on advanced degrees. GATs make essential contributions to the research work of the university, and they provide supportive and responsive models for the students whom they introduce to academic work. Having read thousands of students' evaluations of GATs, I can assure you that their students appreciate the work that they do for little pay and no benefits.

The least that the university can offer GATs is respect and support, and too often recently we have not given them even that. If we do not respect the contributions of GATs, we cannot expect that the public will.

Thomas Miller

Department of English

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