April 25, 2020

Online TAing Presents New Challenges

An empty Kent lecture hall.

Jeremy Lindenfeld / The Chicago Maroon

For the past three weeks, students have been attending class by watching prerecorded lectures and getting to know their class in gallery view. With classes online, the job of teaching assistants (TAs) has changed, presenting new challenges as the University adjusts to the remote situation.

Some academic departments have made adjustments to their TA policies. In an email sent to its math tutors, including course assistants (referred to as “VCA”s), junior tutors, and readers on March 26, the math department announced that the new TA roles require holding six informal virtual office hours each week and that they do not need to stick with one particular course throughout the spring quarter. Normally, math tutors need to attend class meetings, grade homework, and hold informal office hours for the class they are assigned to.

Career Advancement has also offered additional TA positions through the Micro-Metcalf Program. Danika Kmetz, a member of the College Communications Team, said in an email to The Maroon that 450 Micro-Metcalf opportunities were available, including 45 TA positions. The TA positions will include tasks such as “coding a grading script for programming assignments, allowing students to receive quick feedback on assignments in a quantitative biology course; designing exercises for a computer science course; and supporting the Neighborhood Schools Program’s Maroon Tutor Match program.”

In response to concerns that TA assignments had not been released two weeks into the quarter, Kmetz replied on April 17 that they would be in touch soon. Later that day, Career Advancement sent an email to applicants saying that they had received everyone’s applications and that they were in the process of matching students with remote positions for the spring quarter.

For some TAs, virtual classrooms and real classrooms have not resulted in a drastic difference in responsibilities. Grace Croley, a fourth-year in the College, is a lab TA for the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division. Her job is to answer questions about coding in R.

“How this lab normally works is that everyone shows up in a computer lab, and if anyone has any questions on whatever they are working on, I am there to help out. Now we’re just doing the same thing on Zoom,” Croley said.

However, TAs in other departments do face difficulties under the online format. Andrew Bacotti, a second-year in the College, is the TA for a public speaking class offered by the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse.

“It’s very difficult to teach public speaking courses online because a large part of public speaking is in-person experience. It can be very difficult to engage with students via Zoom, but as good as it can be done, I think it’s been going pretty well with my professor,” Bacotti said.

However, he also thinks that the online public speaking course has its own significance when everything is virtual. “A lot of public speaking will be done via the Internet in the future, so doing the class that way will be helpful for that purpose,” he said. “There’s not gonna be a hundred-person gathering for another year, so people are gonna have to do stuff over the Internet.”

One of the common concerns among TAs is difficulty in building relationships with students. Anastasia Weger, a fourth year in the College, is a TA for a biology topics class. “I definitely feel less connected to students, since you can't really put a face to a name,” Weger said. “We also haven't started doing office hours yet, so hopefully, that'll help; but it definitely feels like there's less connection between the TAs and the students.”

Fourth-year Ph.D. student Karlyn Gorski is TAing a research methods class in the Department of Comparative Human Development. Gorski’s dissertation is about how relationships influence learning environments. Since the start of the quarter, she said that her relationships are not just different, but that “it just feels like I have no real relationship with them at all.”

“TAs often serve as a bridge between these groups. Now that everything's online, picking up on these gaps in communication is difficult, if not impossible, so I think they’re more likely to go unaddressed,” Gorski said.

For Gorski, it is stressful to keep being told that TAs need to be supportive of students. “I want to support my students. I want to talk to them, hear about their problems, offer some advice, modify course requirements or schedules—whatever I can do,” she said. “But I don’t know how I can do any of those things without really knowing who’s on the other side of the screen.”

Gorski also said that she really misses having informal interactions with students. “That's when we learn the most about each other,” she said.

Another concern that TAs have is the lack of strong models for ideal online instruction. “Should attendance be required? How do we evaluate discussion board posts? Should we ask students to have cameras on? Can we enforce this? Should we? These are all tough questions, and ones that have serious consequences for the learning environment,” Gorski said. “If you’re a TA, and you fundamentally disagree with an instructor’s approaches to these issues, what can you do?”

According to Emily Smith, a member of the communications team of Graduate Students United (GSU), many graduate TAs have expressed concerns about their lack of training for online teaching. “Very few instructors or TAs have been trained in online pedagogy, and it takes significantly more time than a few weeks to adequately develop a course for online instruction,” Smith said in an email to The Maroon.

Online teaching training is important because online teaching is a fundamentally different kind of teaching. “Online teaching,” Smith said, “requires different skills for communicating, classroom management, giving and grading assignments and exams—everything about the way we do our jobs has changed.”

As a result of this inexperience, the workloads for some TAs have increased.

“Discussion online takes up more time, which can mean that not all material is covered in class, which can, in turn, lead to using asynchronous methods like discussion boards, which are also quite time-consuming,” Smith said.

She also said that although the TAs are not particularly familiar with online teaching technology, some have found themselves taking up the tech-support role for the instructors, which further adds to their working time.

As new problems with online teaching emerge, existing problems with TAing, especially for graduate TAs, have not disappeared either.

Although the number of TA positions offered is contingent on the department and course enrollment, some say that the opportunities have been generally decreasing as well. Brandon Sward, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the sociology department, said, “The number of TA positions and teaching opportunities has been vanishing. My stipend goes down after my third year here because the university assumes that graduate students will start TAing, while the competition for TA positions and other teaching opportunities is fiercer than ever.”