Grad School: Burnout begets burnout?

It is common knowledge that graduate teaching requirements are more often a bane than a benefit. It is easy to see why graduate students dread it. First of all, the responsibility of being a TA is usually tacked onto an already packed schedule as if it were as easy as picking up milk on the way home. It ends up being a gigantic time-sink that has almost no bearing whatsoever on a grad student’s status. If you teach well, great; if you are mediocre, no big deal. It is simply a requirement. Add on the fact that students often serve as glorified graders or babysitters and angst seems like a reasonable response. I feel that it is these bad experiences that are the beginning of a much more vicious cycle.

A portion of these disillusioned graduate students will continue on in academia to become professors. Professors who now have an even longer to-do list and more teaching requirements. As with graduate school, the quality of their teaching seems to have very little effect on their career path and upward mobility (1). As a result, a small but noticeable portion will do the bare minimum to make that requirement, thus creating bad teaching experiences for their graduate students.

Personally, I love to teach, but I had a very different introduction than most of my graduate counterparts. My undergraduate institution currently sports about 45,000 undergraduate students on their main campus. As a result, most introductory courses are taught in the lecture-recitation format. You attend a 500 person lecture and then go to a 20-30 person recitation session for more individualized attention. Due to the sheer numbers of undergrads, there are simply not enough graduate students to fill all of the recitation slots. To fill the empty slots, some departments, such as Math, hire undergraduate upperclassmen as teaching assistants. Since I finished all of my engineering math requirements in my freshman year, I applied for one of these teaching assistant positions.

Note the word “applied”. These positions were not just given out on a first-come-first-serve basis. I had to apply and interview. Once selected, I was actually taught how to teach and as result, given much more responsibility. My duties included teaching class, holding office hours, staffing the tutoring room, writing and grading all assignments, and maintaining a gradebook for 60+ students. I met with the main professor at the end of the quarter to discuss the final grades, because I was the one who actually knew my students. I essentially functioned as an assistant professor. The only aspects I did not have control over were the overall structure of the course and the exams (even though I graded all of them). On top of that, I was paid pretty well and my students’ evaluations of me determined whether or not I’d be asked to teach again the following quarter. Like all jobs, it had its good parts and bad parts, but ultimately it was my job and I had to do well in order to eat.

Compare that experience with the average graduate teaching requirement. The system we have setup basically breeds teaching burnout in our higher education institutions. In order to break this cycle, I propose that we as a culture start treating teaching as an actual ability – not a requirement – by giving graduate students a) a choice in the matter, b) the time and training needed to succeed, and c) responsibility appropriate of their level. It seems a bit incongruent that we have dedicated educational staff from kindergarden through high school, but take an entirely different approach when it comes to higher education.

1. “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” D. Figlio, M. Schapiro, and K. Soter. Sept 2013.