Publication Date

November 1, 1997

Recent "labor" unrest at Yale and other universities by teaching assistants (TAs) has illuminated problems of communication between administration, faculty, and graduate students. Considerable confusion over the purposes of teaching assistantships persists, and debates over TA salaries, work loads, and benefits have polarized interests at America's research universities. At Yale, for example, TAs organized a strike and demanded better pay and benefits, and the university administration countered by arguing that TAs were not employees but students receiving financial aid.1 In a sense, both sides are correct. The beauty of teaching assistantships is their flexibility within the multifaceted university system. Teaching assistantships are financial aid, cheap labor, and professional training rolled into one. Unfortunately, few historians have recognized and embraced these multiple purposes and maximized the benefits of having TAs. To reduce this confusion and discord, we need to work to improve communication between administrators, faculty members, and graduate students so that each group can express their expectations and needs.

One of the purposes of teaching assistantships is to provide financial assistance for graduate students. When administrators and faculty view the teaching assistantships strictly or primarily as financial aid, however, several problems can arise. First, teaching itself can become a secondary consideration if accountability is subordinated to performance in graduate-level work. Departments that routinely include teaching assistantships as part of their financial aid structure can become blasé about teaching performance of TAs and their development as teachers. The end result is usually graduate students who focus almost exclusively on their research, and undergraduates who become bitter and cynical about their education. Second, teaching assistantships rarely defray all the costs of graduate education. For example, a graduate student in the English department at the University of Florida recently complained that it was impossible to stretch her $8,000 stipend to meet all of her expenses, and she took out loans in excess of $11,000 during her graduate career.2 The burden is even greater for “nontraditional” graduate students with families because few history departments offer medical insurance plans as part of the TA aid package. Clearly, many graduate students are left frustrated and constantly worrying about their own shrinking budgets, which makes it difficult to concentrate on teaching or research.

Despite their limitations, however, teaching assistantships do defray much of the cost of professional study. Carrying a heavy debt is simply unrealistic for most historians because salaries at many public and private institutions have failed to keep pace with inflation over the past several years.3 Providing stipends and tuition waivers for teaching assistants allows many people to afford graduate education who might otherwise be locked out of the academy. Teaching assistantships also provide history departments with opportunities to attract qualified candidates to their universities. Aid packages that include fellowships, teaching and research assistantships, and tuition scholarships can be important bargaining chips for scholars who are trying to lure new graduate students to their program.

Another purpose of teaching assistantships is to help universities stretch their teaching budgets further. Many critics, however, see this "corporate attitude" and emphasis on the bottom line as a frightening parallel to the downsizing trend in American businesses. TAs are often left feeling like "cogs" in the larger university machine and morale suffers. As a result, divisions between graduate students, administrators, and faculty deepen and sour the atmosphere of cooperation and trust. TAs who feel exploited form unions while administrators close ranks and issue official memoranda. The end result is a breakdown in communication, which limits the effectiveness of the history department as a teaching unit.

When they operate correctly, teaching assistantships are a cost-effective way for universities to maximize the contact between instructors and students. Undergraduates at large research universities often feel isolated and alienated in the sometimes impersonal environment. TAs who lead discussion sections help to break down large lecture classes into more active learning units. Interaction between graduate and undergraduate students is important for the education of both, and teaching assistantships allow for such contact. Many graduate students are enthusiastic and motivated teachers with innovative and creative ideas, and they add an important dimension to large undergraduate classes.4

A final purpose for teaching assistantships is professional training for graduate students. Many history departments, however, do not have a coordinated approach to mentoring TAs. Too often, professors allow their TAs a "free hand" in the classroom without providing enough structure or guidance to help them run their classes effectively. Professors with TAs need to recognize their responsibility not only to undergraduates in their classes but also to the graduate students that they are teaching to teach. Too many first year faculty members complain of how difficult and time consuming preparing for classes can be. Teaching assistants should learn how to write lectures, exams, lesson plans and paper assignments under the direction of their faculty mentors, and they should be well prepared to teach as soon as they are hired. Some universities have implemented TA training programs to remedy this deficiency and prepare TAs to do well in the classroom.5 Unfortunately, these university-wide programs are not geared to discipline-specific problems and approaches. Even though these attempts are laudable, they are ultimately just a Band-Aid to mend the larger problem of training graduate students to teach in their discipline.

When TAs and professors effectively coordinate their efforts, the teaching assistantship is a valuable part of graduate education. Periodic meetings in which faculty and TAs discuss not only class content but also teaching techniques should be supplemented by frank conversations about what they hope to accomplish in the class and how teaching philosophies are developed. Professors can pass on the skills they have learned through a career of teaching and provide a safety net for younger historians struggling to master the art of instruction. Both professors and TAs can benefit from sharing their ideas and enthusiasm for teaching undergraduates. Teaching can be a way to build collegiality among established faculty and junior historians. If this is accomplished, everyone learns and research universities can become a source for teaching innovation and a model of teaching excellence.

It is time for a bit of reflection and some frank discussion about what TAs are. The conflicts in many universities result from a blurred vision of the purposes of teaching assistantships. When they work well, teaching assistantships provide financial assistance, cost-effective labor, and valuable training. When communication breaks down, however, the resulting conflicts threaten the environment of cooperation and collegiality. Focusing on one particular aspect of teaching assistantships distorts their value as a whole. They were not designed solely for graduate students, faculty, or administrators, but for the complex university system. Ultimately, teaching assistantships should be an asset for all involved.


1. Thomas Appelquist, “Graduate Students Are Not Employees,” Chronicle of Higher Education 43 (April 18, 1997), B6.

2. Veronica’ Cruz, “Tips on Paying Back Student Loans,” Lexington Herald-Leader (September 1, 1997), D6.

3. Robert B. Townsend, “Mixed News for History in Latest Academic Salary Surveys: History Falls Below Salary Average, but Hiring Is Up,” Perspectives 35 (September 1997), 1, 17-18.

4. Steven Barthelme, “Just ‘Some T.A.'” Chronicle of Higher Education 42 (March 1, 1996), B3.

5. Katherine S. Mangan, “Colleges Expand Efforts to Help Teaching Assistants Learn to Teach,” Chronicle of Higher Education 38 (March 4, 1992), A17-18.

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