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UCLA deliberates undergraduate teacher assistant positions

By Janet Nguyen

May 21, 2014 12:44 a.m.

UCLA faculty members are considering a proposal that would allow certain undergraduate students to work as teaching assistants, though some students have expressed concerns about the initiative’s effect on graduate student employment.

Faculty members introduced a formal proposal to UCLA’s Academic Senate early last month to allow students from the Departmental Scholar Program in UCLA’s College of Letters and Science to obtain teaching assistant positions.

Under the current proposal, undergraduate students would work a maximum of 10 hours a week, and graduate student TAs would have priority in the TA selection process, said Joseph Rudnick, the senior dean of the UCLA College of Letters and Science and dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences.

The majority of graduate student TAs work about 20 hours a week and make roughly $2,000 a month.

As TAs, undergraduates who work 10 hours a week would earn the same amount as first-year graduate students who work the same amount of time, said Rudnick, who helped draft the proposal.

Through the Departmental Scholar Program, undergraduate students can pursue bachelors and masters degrees at the same time. Different academic departments currently house the Departmental Scholar Program, including the economics, linguistics and mathematics departments.

To become a department scholar, students must fulfill a series of requirements, which include completing all the preparatory courses for their major and maintaining a 3.5 overall GPA.

The number of students within the Departmental Scholar Program has ranged from 14 to 25 students each year within the past decade. Twenty-five students participated in the program in the 2011-2012 academic year, the most current data available.

As the proposal stands, the undergraduate students chosen as assistants would assume the typical duties of graduate student TAs, such as leading discussion sessions and grading exams, Rudnick said. He added, however, that the undergraduate TAs would be limited to teaching introductory courses, according to the proposal.

Rudnick also said that the proposal allows for the possibility of undergraduate students to teach fewer than 10 hours a week.

TAs have to work at least 10 hours a week to be entitled to certain benefits, including tuition remission and subsidies for childcare, as outlined by a contract for UC student workers.

Though some students said they think the change would give select undergraduate students valuable experience teaching, others have voiced concerns about the proposal’s possible effect on graduate student employment.

Because some graduate students have problems securing jobs as TAs already, they worry that increased focus on employing undergraduate students takes away attention from other pressing issues graduate students face.

In 2010, about 21 percent of UCLA graduate students found teaching work at a university after graduating – down from about 36 percent in 2001, according to reports from graduate programs.

“There’s a crisis in the academic labor market in terms of the number of people with Ph.D.s who are unemployed,” said Cody Trojan, the Graduate Students Association vice president of academic affairs, who sits on the Graduate Council.

But one of the motivations behind the proposal includes helping departments with the Departmental Scholar Program where there are limited graduate students to fill TA jobs, Rudnick said.

Some graduate students said they think the university should focus on improving financial resources for graduate students and increasing full-time faculty instead of spending time on this proposal.

“(They’re) basically gaining access to affordable labor – whether it’s undergraduates in the Departmental Scholars Program, or whether it’s graduate students,” said Chris Rea, a graduate student in sociology.

The Undergraduate and Graduate Councils – committees within the Academic Senate that include student representatives – still need to approve the proposal for it to go into effect, said Jan Reiff, the chair of the Academic Senate.

Both councils have seen the proposal and are currently in discussions with Rudnick to address concerns graduate students may have about the proposal, including compensation for undergraduate students under existing union contracts, Reiff added.

Other University of California campuses, such as UC Berkeley, currently let undergraduate students work as TAs and entitle them to fee remissions.

Some students said they are skeptical of the proposal and view it as a cost-cutting measure, while UCLA faculty members maintain that any savings would be negligible.

“I can’t see where there would be any savings,” Rudnick said. “It would just be like a few more entering graduate students (who would be) paid at a certain scale.”

Undergraduate students currently have the opportunity to undertake some of the same duties as graduate TAs, though in a limited capacity. UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Initiated Education, or USIE, is a program in which students can lead their own seminar classes.

Anna Galachyan, a second-year English and psychology student and a USIE instructor for a course on time travel and fiction, said she thinks undergraduate students can be effective teachers.

“It’s been weird to be on the other side of the classroom, but because I’m in a room full of peers, it also feels like I’m taking a class and I’m learning from them,” Galachyan said.

But some graduate students have expressed doubt about whether undergraduate students are qualified to instruct other students around the same class level as them.

“I definitely think there are very bright undergraduate students that can help their peers,” said Mauricio Velasquez, a graduate student in political science. “What I wonder is that to what extent they can replace the mentorship and teaching that undergraduate students are currently getting from graduate students.”

Hana Cohn, a fourth-year fine arts student and a course reader for the class Modernism 31C said that, while she thinks she has a strong grasp of the material she grades, she’s unsure if undergraduate students would be able to teach subject material at the level of graduate students.

“I’ve been really fortunate and the majority of TAs I’ve had have been marvelous,” said Cohn. “I don’t know if I’d get the same insight from undergraduate students.”

Rudnick said he is currently getting input from members of other UC schools, such as UC Berkeley, on how they run TA programs for their undergraduate students. He aims to have the proposal approved either this spring or next fall.

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