The moment I set foot into Ellis Hall for the first session of Human Geography, I was intimidated by the people seated at the front of the classroom.
I spent most of my first year scared of my teaching assistants (TAs).
The moment I set foot in Ellis Hall for the first session of Human Geography, I was intimidated by the people seated at the front of the classroom. While I didn’t count on being especially memorable to my course instructors, I felt enormous pressure to impress the professor-adjacent figures I thought expected brilliance every week in tutorial.
Years later, I now know I had nothing to be afraid of. Now I’m writing my master’s thesis, and don’t think I would’ve made it to where I am without the support of my past TAs.
As someone who has now been on both sides of the student-teaching assistant relationship, I’ve had ample time to re-evaluate the way this relationship should be approached.
For the most part, my time as a TA in the philosophy department has been rewarding. In the last two years, I was assigned to some of my favourite classes from my undergrad and worked under supportive professors.
I watched students get excited about philosophy for the first time—a feeling I remember from my first year.
That said, working in this capacity isn’t without challenges.
As a woman in academia, I’ve had male students question my competence in my role. Though it’s normal for students to come to office hours with questions about their grades, it’s unacceptable for second-year men to berate women in TA positions about their grades when they can’t even bother to spell a philosopher’s name right.
It’s quite invasive when male students overstep the boundaries of student/TA relationships. Though I’m happy to say hello to students if I see them out and about, I have no interest in listening to them trauma dump during my morning visit to a coffee shop.
It’s also true that we’re overworked and underpaid.
Though TA positions are available to upper-year undergrads in some programs, most TAs are students completing master’s or doctoral degrees. These positions are offered to grad students to facilitate access to the full slate of funding promised when we get accepted to Queen’s.
Funding varies by department, but TAs are paid around $1,200 each month. We’re contracted for 120 working hours each semester and balance our teaching duties on top of our course work and research.
It’s ultimately graduate student labour that keeps courses running smoothly. We run labs and tutorials, as well as mark assignments. We’re expected to work approximately 10 hours a week, responding to student emails, holding office hours, revisiting course readings, and grading.
In my most recent contract, I ran tutorials. Though each session was only an hour long, I often spent 12 hours preparing my talking points alone.
During midterm and finals season, we often exceed our allotted working hours marking final assignments. I had to choose between losing sleep and falling behind on my own research during these weeks.
Queen’s is a particularly wealthy institution, and most undergrads will avoid working in the academic year if they can. Unfortunately, this isn’t feasible for many grad students.
We often come to these programs with debt, which usually increases by the time we leave due to our dismal funding packages. I balanced my TA work with not only my academic responsibilities, but another part-time job to supplement the cost of groceries. I know I’m not the only one who’s had to make these choices.
Pursuing a major academic project while facilitating an undergraduate course is demanding enough. Relying on retail work to break even because your employer won’t pay you a livable wage spreads us even more thin.
This past year, I cheered for students who showed a concerted effort to improve with each passing assignment. When the semester ended, I got excited when students told me they wanted to take more philosophy classes in the future. I hope they come to love the discipline as much as I do.
While I hope the class of 2027 arrives on campus excited to start fostering academic relationships with professors and teaching assistants alike, I hope they do so while understanding the strain their TAs are under.
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