Teaching fellowships in the ring

Cost effectiveness and experience for future professors make Teaching Fellows an attractive alternative

Queen’s has 250 lecturing Teaching Fellows, primarily in Arts and Science courses.
Queen’s has 250 lecturing Teaching Fellows, primarily in Arts and Science courses.
Teaching Fellow Paul Saunders lectures to his ENGL 260, Modern British Literature course last Wednesday.
Teaching Fellow Paul Saunders lectures to his ENGL 260, Modern British Literature course last Wednesday.

Queen’s students are experiencing an evolving mix of intructors at the front of their classroms.

According to a Maclean’s campus assessment, the average tenured Canadian professor makes between $100-110,000 each year while a teaching fellow is given $7,000 per course per semester, making teaching fellows a prudent financial decision.

Tim MacIntrye, the interim executive at the local chapter of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), will teach as a fellow at Queen’s in the English department next semester.

“We’re a cheap alternative,” he said, adding that while applying to graduate schools, Queen’s was the only one he was aware of where he could get a fellowship as a PhD student.

He said some professors request fellows to teach their class so that they can concentrate on the other aspects of their job.

“Graduate students see it as a great opportunity, but it’s a big commitment,” he said. “We often have to put our own research on hold in order to successfully teach.”

A Teaching Fellow is a fourth or fifth year PhD student. Queen’s now has 250 TFs, primarily teaching in arts courses.

While the intention of giving graduate students a much needed leg-up in an increasingly difficult job market is certainly a facet of the policy, the truth is in the money.

The rise in dependence on teaching fellows is a trend throughout Canadian universities, said Queen’s Vice President of Graduate Studies Daniel Moore.

From 1997 to 2002 the number of full-time teaching staff increased in Ontario by nine per cent, whereas the number of Teaching Fellows grew by 25 per cent, Moore told the Journal via e-mail.

He said the number reflects well on Queen’s graduate program.

“In graduate programs where a university teaching career is the traditional goal, a Teaching Fellowship is highly desirable,” he said. “In some programs it’s expected to hold a fellowship at some point in your graduate education.” Teaching Fellow positions have also been affected by budget cuts, Moore said. In the past, some programs guaranteed fellowship for Ph. D. students who wanted to participate. Some programs have since had to sacrifice these class sizes.

Paul Saunders, an ENGL 260 TF, said he was excited at the chance to independently teach a class.

“TFs are typically on the cutting edge of their research,” he said. “TFs are given classes pertaining to what it is they specialize in … they’ve done six years of graduate student study—they know their stuff.”

Saunders had to submit a proposal about how he thought the course should be taught to the english department before he was given the position.

Even with the application process, Saunders said some students aren’t very open to being taught by a Fellow.

“Some people see that you’re young and just don’t like it,” he said, adding that others see it as a benefit to be taught by someone closer to their own age.

“If a student isn’t comfortable being taught by a fellow, they should probably pick another class.” Saunders said the current University practice of hiring adjunct professors is threatening the quality of learning at Queen’s.

Adjuncts are contracted teachers, also referred to as sessionsals, Saunders said. The motivation for Teaching Fellow and Adjunct hiring isn’t just one of financial parsimony, but also the selectiveness that departments exercise when picking instructors.

With approximately 40 per cent of teaching jobs going to contracted workers, it’s becoming more and more difficult for PhDs to get a tenured professorship, Robin Hartley, a staff member at the local PSAC, said.

The local PSAC chapter serves as the Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow union for Queen’s. Hartley said the PSAC sees the growing number of TFs as a good thing because it saves the University money and gives graduate students a chance to get valuable work experience. Marisha Caswell, a fifth-year PhD student and Teaching Fellow for an upper-year history seminar, said there are pros and cons to being taught by a TF.

On the one hand, she said student evaluations hold more currency for Teaching Fellows because they’re essential to land a professorship.

“It helps you with your teaching applications,” she said.

However, a recommendation from a TF doesn’t mean much for a student applying to graduate school.

“It’s a matter of seniority,” Caswell said. “Generally, if you’re applying for a grad school, it’s recommended that a full professor do the letter.” Funding packages for graduate students have an average minimum of $18,000, which includes compensation for teaching obligations.

Stephanie Sankovic, ArtSci ’13 said she’s had two classes with TF instructors. “I don’t particularly like it ... having a professor as an instructor just seems to result in a better lesson,” she said, adding that she felt her two TF-taught classes were disorganized.

“One put too much text on the slides he showed ... while the other talked far too much,” she said.

Sankovic said there needs to be more effort to incorporate varying learning styles if they want to maximize the effectiveness of their lectures.

“It’s never their knowledge in question, only their teaching style,” she said. “They haven’t had the chance to teach for tens of years [like most professors], they haven’t had a chance to get the experience to develop what style best suits them.”

Sankovic said that the only way for Teaching Fellows to improve is to do more teaching.

“I don’t think TFs are bad, they just need to acquire some experience to become truly effective.”

Caleb Mitchell, Sci ’13 said the quality of a class isn’t dependant on the lecturer’s classification.

“I’ve heard about TFs being less than satisfying,” he said. “But the same can be said about some professors I’ve had.

“If their heart isn’t in the teaching, I won’t be in class.”

—With files from Jake Edmiston

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