Commentary | Where the TAs at?

Funding dries up, students hung out to dry

The first week of class after winter break brings undergraduates back to the world of lectures, libraries, and labs. Of course, as astute students, we’ve noticed several changes: snow has finally settled over Lower Field, promising to remain until finals; the construction by Milton Gates has finally resulted in stairs; the kid who needed a shave and haircut at the end of last term appears well-groomed once again. The biggest eye-opener this winter was the discovery that the need for cut-backs in the University, because of the financial crisis, is going to take a tangible toll on students this semester.

The surprise wasn’t the hike up University for an 8:30 a.m. class or the discovery that I had entered by the patients’ door. It was the announcement from the course coordinator that due to cutbacks, the class, formerly supported by two teaching assistants, is for the first time down to one, who, due to budget constraints, would not be attending classes.

To those unfamiliar with upper-level course offerings in the biological sciences, MIMM 314: Immunology has the reputation of a “toughie,”ˮ due to the complex material it covers regarding the intricacies of the human immune system. Throughout my university education so far, TAs have been an invaluable resource: answering questions, providing tutorials, occasionally serving as liaisons between students and professors. Some have been exceptional enough to provide study aids, reorganize course content into a format more easily understood by students, and go out of their way to reply to discussion board questions in the wee hours of the morning.

So in a challenging course like Immunology, with 220 students, a single TA is what I would call “stretching resources.” Besides being essential for undergraduates, TAships serve as important teaching experience for graduate students who may have academic career plans. Furthermore, TAs make life easier for professors by helping with routine tasks – answering questions, helping with the logistics of exams, and correcting assignments, for example.

The announcement shouldn’t have surprised me because I had already read about this cost-cutting measure taken by McGill before the semester began. Nonetheless, as a university recently ranked eighteenth best in the world by Quacquarelli Symonds, McGill would, one should hope, make every effort to maintain quality education alongside excellent research.

While the task of budgeting for an institution of this size is tremendous, teaching assistants should not be an asset that is overlooked. As the professor for one of my courses last fall noted, the midterm and final averages increased by approximately five to 10 per cent after TAs providing weekly tutorials were added to the course. The measurable benefits to students go beyond the grades – from TAs, we gain a deeper and more lasting understanding of course material and additional perspective on the subject besides textbooks or the lecturer. Tutorials give students the opportunity for more discussion, something professors would like to offer but cannot due to time constraints. The TA personalizes the educational process, balancing against large class sizes and the low rate of student/professor interaction.

TA cuts have not been limited to science courses. TAs play equally important roles in most large undergraduate courses. An 11-week strike was needed to bring McGill up to the standard conditions offered to TAs elsewhere in Canada.

It is in no one’s best interest to reduce the number of TAships or decrease the number of hours their contracts traditionally entail. It is my sincere hope that this trend will not be one to continue, and that, if by chance, I choose to venture up University next winter, I’ll walk in to notice two TAs actively preparing review notes in MIMM 314.

Melissa Herman is a U2 Immunology student. Tell her how much you love TAs: