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Has The TA Run Its Course?

Like most doctoral students, I served as a TA (teaching assistant) during my time in graduate school. The experience was important, not only for financial reasons, but it gave me the opportunity to apply five years of teaching experience and pedagogical strategy in a university setting and that was exciting for me. I was fortunate to collaborate with a mathematician committed to teaching and curriculum development. He wrote the textbook for the class and his background and interests in teaching made the opportunity rewarding. Our professor engaged the group of TAs on matters of curriculum design, assessment and classroom instructional practices. In many respects, our interactions evolved into a class within the class. In essence, I was mentored, and that experience shaped how I view the pedagogical preparation of PhD students today. If we value teaching as a central part of the learning process in Ph.D. education, then we should eliminate the TA as traditionally implemented and refocus the experience to a mentored experience. Graduate students today are often expected to teach classes, without the benefit of being mentored.

Dr. William F. TateDr. William F. Tate

Mentoring graduate students during the Ph.D. process represents a primary role for faculty members. Numerous studies describe the impactful role of mentoring in graduate education. Excellent mentoring is positively associated with the mentee’s subsequent self-efficacy and productivity. Typically, mentoring in the context of Ph.D. education involves the research and discovery aims of the program of study. In addition, we expect advisers and department faculty members to mentor Ph.D. students in the area of career development. However, teaching represents an area where many Ph.D. programs and faculty members can strengthen their mentoring. The opportunity to grow and to develop as excellent teachers and communicators in our respective disciplines and fields should be a foundational learning objective of doctoral education. To achieve this aim requires a concentrated effort in mentoring.

Like most universities in the country, the TA role has a long history at Washington University in St. Louis. As an institution, we recently made the decision to transition from TAs to a Mentored Teaching Experience (MTE). Analogous to the clinical mentoring program offered in other professional settings, the MTE represents a collaborative mentoring process between graduate students and faculty members to reflect on and interpret disciplinary knowledge; to find multiple ways to represent disciplinary content; to adapt content to students’ abilities and prior knowledge; and to develop methods to assess and improve the teaching and learning process in a discipline. Our restructuring allowed each department to implement a unique MTE plan. The department plans included the rationale for graduate student placement in mentored experiences (e.g., specific courses, labs and grand rounds) and additional professional development components (e.g., Teaching Center workshops and department-based programs). Graduate students enrolled in the MTE course have a faculty mentor supporting their development as a professional seeking to communicate or evaluate disciplinary knowledge in the context of a discipline specific course — a course within a course. Successful completion of the MTE program is a degree requirement. For students seeking careers as academics or citizen scholars, this approach represents an opportunity to articulate disciplinary knowledge as part of an instructional feedback system.

The move to MTEs represented more than a change in nomenclature; we shifted away from a long-standing paradigm. Changes aligned with the MTE included supporting doctoral students without using a TA funding model. For example, in Arts & Sciences, we guarantee admitted students a University Fellowship (UF) or support through external grants as research assistants for the stated program length of study (5 or 6 academic years). We hypothesized this change would result in many departments lowering the teaching requirements associated with Ph.D. education. Two drivers informed our hypothesis. The first driver relates to time to discovery during the doctoral program. University Fellowships decoupled from the TA role provided departments an opportunity to rethink the student experience. The feasibility of more time spent on research emerges with reductions in doctoral student teaching requirements. As dean, I learned many departments desired reductions but did not believe it was feasible in light of the TA funding model. The second driver involves a department’s instructional capacity. Too often doctoral students are perceived to contribute to a department’s instructional capacity without a clear understanding of the mentoring costs associated with their experience as maturing communicators and teachers. The MTE process highlighted the need to assign faculty mentors as supporters of doctoral students. By formally incorporating mentorship into the graduate student teaching experiences, department chairs and directors of graduate study gained a better estimate of faculty workload in the area of mentoring doctoral students.

Where are we now? The Graduate Council’s Teaching and Professional Development (T & PD) committee embarked on a yearlong evaluation to better understand the state of MTE implementation. It is important to note, many departments at Washington University offered thoughtful mentoring as part of their TA models. These departments transitioned well to MTE. However, heterogeneity on the mentoring front suggested reductions in teaching requirements were forthcoming. Indeed comparing the Arts & Sciences departments’ required TA semesters relative to MTE course requirements affirmed our hypothesis. Significantly, we learned that future MTE plans include student placement opportunities outside of Washington University at local public universities. In these cases, our faculty sought to provide mentored experiences at institutions that align with their mentee’s professional aspirations. Many students desire experience teaching in public and private universities. With the UF decoupled from the TA funding model, we can accommodate these requests for external learning opportunities.

More recently, students petitioned to complete their MTE’s in public intellectual forums such as museums and art galleries. These requests opened up a new type of opportunity, mentored professional experience (MPE). Some departments have substituted the MPE for MTEs. This change adds value to the student experience in the area of career development. The MPE provides students with opportunities to communicate disciplinary ideas in the public sphere. Moreover, the students gain valuable experience in non-academic settings.

Though the TA served an important role in graduate education, it has run its course. New possibilities await, and the mentored teaching experience is one of them.

Dr. William F. Tate IV is the dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for Graduate Education at Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @DeanWFTate.

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