The Cavalier Daily
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Underpaid TAs inspire lifetime learning

IF WE'VE heard it once, we've heard it a thousand times -- as undergraduates at Mr. Jefferson's University, we should be scholars, rather than just students. The "intellectual community" asserts that students should strive to develop a philosophy of learning rather than viewing college simply as career preparation or a four-year, parentally-subsidized party. Contrary to popular belief, it's not an unworthy or meaningless goal. But it's time for the administration to put its money where its mouth is.

Last week, The Cavalier Daily reported that graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences earn lower wages than those in other University schools. Overall, graduate students in all schools of the University have expressed discontent with their salaries. Salaries based on a 20-hour work week vary from $11,866 to $25,710 for students with a master's degree to the even bleaker $10,666 to $22,620 range for students still trying to earn their master's degree. No subsidized health insurance is provided for any University graduate students.

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    It is disturbing that the University fails to realize the contributions of its graduate students, not only in terms of lightening the teaching load or conducting important research, but also in perpetuating a philosophy of lifetime learning.

    In many lower-level classes -- like 200-level English literature seminars, or introductory foreign language classes -- TAs are the sole instructors. In fact, it's not unusual for a first-year student to have no professors during his or her first or second semester. In these cases, TAs function in the same capacity as professors. They design the syllabus, grade all the materials for the course, and make themselves available regularly outside of class for help. Beyond these responsibilities, they also teach the class -- whether by lecturing or facilitating discussion -- for the full three to four hours per week. While their salaries should reflect to some extent the level of their education, their pay also should account for the time and energy devoted to single-handedly conducting a course along with taking courses themselves.

    In addition, the impact of TAs in an upper-level, professor-taught course should not be overlooked. Almost every University student can attest to the fact that a TA can make or break a course. An inspired, energetic TA can compensate for dry or esoteric lectures. Similarly, an unenthusiastic, apathetic TA can dampen the spirit of an otherwise engaging course.

    Practical matters aside, graduate students at the University deserve better pay and benefits -- if only for the lessons they teach through setting an example. They have chosen to seek higher learning after graduation, rather than six figures and a corner office. Through their research and their work in the classroom, these students embody the principles of intellectualism. If the University wishes to construct an intellectual community, it should reward those who demonstrate its principles by making a career of learning.

    Not only that, but teaching assistants, in particular, have a unique opportunity to encourage the undergraduate population to strive to learn. They often can reach students in a way that the University higher-ups cannot.

    Most TAs aptly are able to straddle the line between superior and peer. They are old enough to speak with authority on college life and academics, but young enough that 18- to 21-year-olds don't find them intimidating or out of touch. Because their own college experience is less removed -- even still in progress -- students often perceive them as more approachable outside of class, and more understanding of the pressures of college life.

    The best TAs, like the best professors, have so much enthusiasm for a subject that it's contagious. Couple that with the added advantage of a more informal, less authoritative relationship, and a TA possibly could influence the way a student approaches other classes and activities at the University.

    The philosophy of lifetime learning is an expensive one -- nowhere is that more evident than here, where our graduate students barely can subsist on meager salaries. They have chosen to live as true intellectuals, and they are in a position to demonstrate and teach that mindset to other students. If the University ultimately wishes to develop a pervasive academic culture, it should respect those who set an example for the rest of us. And maybe someday that intellectual community won't seem like such an impossible dream.

    (Katie Dodd's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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