Queen’s needs to amend its graduate teaching assistant policies to better invest in and support its students.
The inclusion of teaching assistants (TAs) in the learning process is to provide much-needed support for students. In theory, TAs allow students to extend their learning beyond lecture halls and develop a deeper understanding of course material.
Instead, an out-of-date TA policy prevents TAs from successfully helping students in the classroom.
Last updated in January 2009, the Queen’s Teaching Assistant Policy’s (TAP) guidelines are too modest and fail in their pedagogical practices.
Section nine of the TAP, titled “Training and Evaluation,” states new TAs must participate in a mandatory three-hour training session. Within these sessions, focus is directed on the provisions of the Queen’s TAP and the responsibility and role of being a TA in terms of assessing students’ work.
Some of the language used in the TAP suggests need for better policy updates, namely where the policy stipulates attention should be directed to increasing TAs’ sensitivity to issues pertaining to gender and race relations, as well as accessibility and accommodation for disability in classroom and lab settings.
Instead offering explicit terms of how to promote equal and safe learning environments, this policy point is written as a suggestion.
An important part of fostering a positive learning experience is the classroom environment itself. TAs aren’t trained to focus on the importance of such an environment, and this leaves many tutorial and lab sessions awkward and uncomfortable to be in.
Queen’s states departments are encouraged to offer initial sessions exceeding the three-hour minimum. Further training isn’t a requirement, but it should be.
The underdevelopment of the TAP at Queen’s becomes most evident when compared to other Canadian universities, who take training TAs more seriously.
For instance, the University of Toronto (U of T) Teaching Assistant Training Program (TATP) has a TA Week each summer before the fall semester begins. This week provides over 13 hours of mandatory training sessions which cover tips on how to teach well and promote inclusive classroom environments.
Queen’s rival, Western University, is surpassing us in a modern and inclusive TATP. With a minimum of 20 hours of training, Western teaches their TAs fair grading practices, how to promote diversity in the classroom, lesson planning, and ways to give students feedback on written work.
If Queen’s wants to rival leaders like U of T and Western, it’s time for the University to re-examine the foundation required for enhanced learning.
Beyond TA training, there also lacks consistency and accountability in the process of TA assessment.
The biggest concern for a student to read is that “there is currently no formal standardized system for assessing TAs,” stated under the Evaluation section of part nine: Training and Evaluation.
Undergraduate students can provide their TAs with mid-term or end-of-term feedback. However, providing only end-of-term feedback leaves minimal opportunity for change in classrooms and improving TA performance. It shouldn’t be left to undergraduate students to play such a large hand in evaluating their TAs’ performance.
The TAP states “TAs should be evaluated on their performance in each course by their course supervisors. Course supervisors should attend at least one session during a term.”
Now in my second year at Queen’s, I’ve never experienced a professor coming to evaluate a TA during a tutorial or lab session. Yet, there’s nothing explicit in the policy holding professors accountable to doing so. There’s a mere stipulation that TAs should be evaluated, leaving room for professors to be complacent in letting their TAs go astray.
The relationship between TAs and professors can be unsupportive and interdependent. Many students can agree that sometimes it feels like TAs are learning course material with us rather than teaching it to us—which could be rectified if Queen’s had a standardized system to test each TA’s knowledge of course material.
TAs themselves are still learning the ropes and benefit from feedback. Evaluation is in everyone’s benefit–students, TAs, and professors alike. Unfortunately, the formalized assessment is missing from TA policies at universities nationwide.
One support TAs do have is the Consultative Committee on Teaching Assistants, which aims to keep TA policy current and relevant.
The role of this group is to examine adjustments to the minimum graduate and undergraduate TA rates and any other issues.
Yet for a group that reviews this policy every two years, it’s almost shameful how no change or effort to better adjust the TA policy has been accomplished since 2009.
It’s up to the Consultative Committee to provide a forum for discussion for any issues related to TAs at Queen’s. It’s time Queen’s students and faculty members get more involved in advocating for a better TAP.
Many Queen’s students can state they feel unsupported and frustrated by the complacency displayed by their teaching assistants who are pursuing their Master’s or PhD.
This isn’t the fault of TAs in their personal capacity, but is rather the result of a system that fails to properly prepare them for a teaching position.
The lack of accountability in evaluation of TAs contributes to an environment which doesn’t foster self-improvement—a process vital for those striving to teach in higher academia.
Further, the lack of any required Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Indigeneity (EDII) training for TAs renders Queen’s outdated when supporting prevalent systematic issues many students face.
The most useful training Queen’s TAs could use would focus on cultivating the necessary skills to ensure their classroom is productive through diversity, inclusivity, and equality: basically, ensuring all students feel supported and welcome. The only current display of EDII in the classroom is making sure everyone knows how to put their pronouns on SOLUS. This simply isn’t enough effort towards EDII practices.
A foundational start to improving Queen’s Graduate Teaching Assistant Program would begin with Consultative Committee on Teaching Assistants being aware of the very issues associated with the policy.
The ultimate mark of change would come from the Teaching Assistant Policy being updated. This would include increasing required basic training hours, the mandatory provision of a formal standardized system for assessing TAs, and adding a required EDII training session for all TAs.
In retrospect, these changes feel like a basic ask, if not a ridiculous one in that they haven’t already been made.
It’s time to update the TAP. There’s no doubt all facets of Queen’s will benefit from these changes.
Sarah Adams is a second-year political studies and philosophy student.
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