YCC to evaluate teaching assistants

The Yale College Council plans to investigate section and teaching assistant quality, starting with a survey of student opinion to be sent out next week.

The YCC began looking into the issue because of a perceived disparity in section quality across departments in Yale College, YCC President Rich Tao ’10 said. YCC members have begun meeting with administrators to gauge faculty opinions on sections and teaching assistants before designing the final survey. Administrators said they will take the YCC’s recommendations into account while they continue conducting a self-study — part of the University’s reaccreditation process — that started this year.

“Personally, I’ve had a wide range of experiences with sections,” Tao said. “I’ve had bad sections. I’ve had phenomenal sections. In an ideal world, all sections should be great, enriching experiences.”

Deputy Provost for Faculty Development Judith Chevalier said a group of faculty and administrators — the Faculty Standards Committee, which she chairs — will conduct a similar investigation of sections and TAs, independent of the YCC initiative.

The committee’s report will not make specific recommendations for changes to Yale College, she said. Instead, it will determine areas the committee thinks merit further research.

The committee was created as part of Yale’s reaccreditation process, which requires an extensive self-study of the University, and sections make up only one topic the Faculty Standards Committee plans to explore. Chevalier said she thinks sections are a useful institution, but that the self-study will allow administrators to step back and examine them.

“I think the question is how to go about it,” she said. “I think that’s where the survey comes in — what’s kind of the best format?”

After meeting with Tao and three other students, Chevalier said she found the YCC’s student perspective helpful, adding that the faculty committee will likely use the survey’s findings in its own evaluation.

Tao identified a disparity in quality between mandatory sections and optional sections, saying that the YCC is most interested in looking at potential improvements for optional sections. He offered as possible solutions the cultivation of a stronger relationship between TAs and professors or professor-led sections.

But, Tao added, he will wait for the survey results before making conclusions.

“A solution presupposes a problem and we want to get our finger really on what the problem is,” Tao said. “[The survey] will make the discussion a lot more pertinent, a lot more relevant and a lot more factual.”

Interviews with students confirmed there is a disparity of opinions on the issue of section quality.

Nick Albino ’10 said he thinks discussion sections are more helpful than lectures because of their reduced size. But he said the quality of the section is dependent on the TA.

A TA’s training is crucial to his or her effectiveness, Khadija Khan ’10 said.

“The more trained they are, the better,” Khan said. “Sometimes students are hired who may be specialists in their own fields but don’t really have much teaching experience. That doesn’t help.””

But other students said they rarely go to discussion sections.

Vivek Raman ’11 said for his economics classes, section is unnecessary as long as he does his reading.

“The vast majority of the students don’t go either,” Raman said.

But the four faculty members interviewed did not seem aware of a pervasive discontent among students or of structural flaws in their sections.

“For my classes it works very well,” said Giuseppe Moscarini, an economics professor whose sections are intended to go over problem sets and review material learned in class. “They’re very well attended.”

Moscarini said he has not heard complaints from students, though he said seminar versions of introductory economics courses have been fairly popular.

Those who have taught in the humanities, such as philosophy professor Kenneth Winkler, said the seminar format of humanities sections works successfully for them. The discussion is crucial to students’ learning, Winkler said.

Florian Ploeckl GRD ’09 said he thinks the standard model of an economics section — similar to what Moscarini described — is close to optimal, though he said the YCC survey may provide useful information. But he cautioned against overgeneralizing.

“There are very different approaches to section in different departments,” he said. “As long as the survey takes that into account, it might be a good thing — but if it’s just general then I don’t think there’s much value added.”

Tao said YCC members plan to meet with Butler early next week, after which he will finalize and send out the survey to the student body.

Sohara Mehroze Shachi contributed reporting.


  • Anonymous

    Yale has teaching fellows, not teaching assistants.

  • Yes!

    This is long overdue! Kudos to Tao and co. for looking into this.

  • Grad alum

    As a former astonomy grad student, I was shocked to find out that there is currently a TA for one of Charles Bailyn's undergrad classes who is NOT a Yale grad student. This TA only recently graduated from her undergraduate program. While I'm not necessarily questioning this woman's competence, undergrads who are paying 50K a year deserve to be taught by YALE grad students, who have been vetted and carefully selected to join the grad program. In addition, was this woman given a spot that could have gone to an astro student who desired the extra experience or funding? I find this situation unacceptable. There are too many Yale grad students who could use the job, and the undergrads deserve TAs who are at least in the grad program.

  • Charles Bailyn

    The previous post is misleading. There are too few graduate students in our department for the available TF positions, NOT the other way around - it is simply not true that there is a pool of graduate students who are being prevented from being TFs - rather it is the case that we often struggle to fill the TF slots for our courses. This semester is a particularly tough situation, since we have only one first year grad student in Astronomy this year, so the pool of available Yale grad students for TFs is unusually low.

    In fact, we frequently ask our graduate students to do more teaching than they are required to do - sometimes they sign up to do this, sometimes not, it is their choice. When there aren't enough grad students to go around, then we have to look elsewhere. In this particular case, I can personally vouch for this TF, who has worked in the department as a research assistant before - it's ultimately my responsibility to make sure that my course is properly staffed, and right now I believe that our TFs for this course, grad students and otherwise, are doing OK.

    Let me point out that graduate students can also be described as "recently graduated from [their] undergraduate program". There is essentially no difference in preparation between this TF and a first year graduate student TF. And in any case, while teaching in a science course for non-majors can certainly be a challenge, the difficulties do not tend to arise from a lack of scientific knowledge on the part of the TF.

    - Charles Bailyn

  • yalie

    With the last two posts in mind…Yale grad students have met the graduate school's stringent standards, and not merely the approval of the dept or specific faculty members. That factor is important in considering who should be teaching us. Why should individual faculty get to circumvent that process and simply appoint outside people who they feel are appropriate? Sure, it's their course (and maybe their judgement is correct…but what if it's not?), but the university has an overall obligation to its students.

  • Anonymous

    Yale grad students get into Yale grad school because they have the approval of the department/specific faculty. It's not like undergraduate admissions.

  • Charles Bailyn

    The grad school admission process is indeed stringent, but it has almost nothing to do with potential teaching ability. From that point of view, non-grad TFs are more carefully vetted.

    There's a potentially fascinating discussion of the what/who/why of TFs, but this isn't the best place for it.


  • To #6

    Actually, you only have it half correct. The dept first approves the applicant, and THEN, the application is sent to the grad school for final approval. I have seen several cases where my advisor has wanted a specific student, and the dept has approved the application, but the grad school ultimately determined that the person was not quite up to Yale's standards. The dept and faculty member were angry about this, but nothing they could do to override the grad school's decision.

  • Pierson '02

    This comes up in some form or another pretty much every year. Good luck this time, guys -- as #2 said, it's long overdue.

    I look forward to the usual argument from Mr. Bailyn that evaluation will be difficult to analyze and make the TAs feel bad. Boo hoo.

  • Anonymous

    The article mentions that they are going to focus on non-mandatory sections. However, I have an absolutely abysmal TF for a required section, which I wasn't able to switch out of due to lack of room in other sections. Her incompetence genuinely impairs my learning experience, particularly due to her lack of knowledge about the material and her unwillingness/inability to lead an in depth discussion. My questions about the material are frequently termed "interesting" but rarely addressed, answered, or even discussed, despite the fact that she often has little planned for the discussion herself. It makes me pretty angry. I have other friends who have complained of TFs who don't finish the reading, and who have considered dropping courses that they otherwise love due to the poor quality of the TF.

    So, I really hope that the YCC's project addresses the quality of TFs for required sections as well.

  • Dan

    This issue is complicated by the fact that the Graduate School considers the task of serving as a TF "training" -- not work. If it is indeed training (a rather dubious claim), then it ought to be the faculty's job to offer any evaluation of the TF's performance, just as is the case for other aspects of grad student training (courses, qualifying exams, dissertations, etc.). It's patently absurd to have undergrads be "grading" grad students on their required "training" in the classroom, especially since there is no standard system in place to actually train any of them to teach. If, on the other hand, we can all finally acknowledge that what TFs do is TEACH (i.e. WORK), then instituting a real system of student evaluations makes good sense.

  • Anonymous

    Oh excellent, now people with zero pedagogical training can be put in charge of evaluating people doing the brunt of the university's teaching work with what little they themselves have managed to amass.

  • Parent 09

    Quite frankly I'm more than a little unnerved by the practice that outside TFs who are not Yale grad students (who ONE faculty member thinks are "doing OK") are responsible for evaluating and grading my son's work. How pervasive is this practice?

  • History Grad Student

    @ #12:

    Bitter much?

    Even as a graduate student, I can see the value of undergraduates gauging the opinions of their peers on TA's. I don't view it as them evaluating us, as much as them evaluating their peer's opinions on us - an exercise that I think will yield some interesting and enlightening results of benefit to all Yale students, undergraduate and graduate alike.

  • Anonymous

    #14. After 10 semesters of teaching at Yale I found that the feedback I received from students was only anecdotally helpful. As a teacher I am much more interested in real professional development than in getting "interesting and enlightening" comments, most of which always seemed centered around how effective I was at 'making class enjoyable,' which is scarcely the point of instruction.

    This is a consumerist model of education, so yes, I'm bitter at how dreadfully disappointing it is.

  • Shocked

    #15: Please stop teaching. Is that what "pedagogical training" has taught you? That undergraduate education at Yale is "a consumerist model of education"? That the opinions of your students (undergraduates at Yale, I might add) are mere nonsense? Seriously, please stop teaching. TA's like you are the reason we need this survey to be aired out in public.

  • GSAS Alum

    Perhaps graduate teachers can implement a survey of their own for use in determining which undergraduates to allow in their discussion sections.

  • Trumbull 09

    To everyone who is concerned about TFs who are not Yale grad students:
    The best TF I have ever had was not a Yale grad student. In fact, he was so widely acknowledged to be the best of the 3 TAs for this class at clarifying the material that by the end of the term, 50% of the class was attending his sections even though only 1/3 of the class had been formally enrolled in it at the start of the term.
    I've had excellent TFs who were Yale grad students as well, but also many who weren't so excellent. Intelligence and teaching ability are two very different things, and personally I'd rather have someone who's perfectly smart and a good teacher running my section than someone who's brilliant but can't teach (and I'm not saying that people who aren't Yale grad students can't be brilliant, I'm just saying that brilliance isn't what's important here).