For now, the teaching assistant crunch that plagued the History Department two years ago is, well, history.
The crisis, which reached its height in the fall of 1999, had left many professors nervously scrambling for last-minute TA appointments. Eventually, it led to capped lectures and delayed starting dates for sections.
But the TA crisis is now long in the past, said Valerie Hansen, director of graduate studies for history.
Although the department had considered several measures, such as limiting class size, making sections optional, eliminating sections altogether, and implementing a post-doctoral program, none were seriously pursued.
“Some years, enrollment just surprises us because we don’t have pre-registration,” said Paul Freedman, director of undergraduate studies for history. “We’ve certainly made an effort to improve our response time, but we never did anything dramatic to combat the problem.”
Instead, the department implemented subtler measures.
“We try to arrange the course schedule so we don’t have unusual demands on TAs one semester and lighter demands another semester,” History Department chairman Jon Butler said. “We don’t want a situation in which we can’t satisfy the demand within the history graduate department.”
There are also very strict guidelines that dictate no section may exceed 18 students, and that no TA may teach more than two sections per semester.
The department has also tapped into the law and divinity schools’ TA resources, which has helped, but has also caused controversy.
“I think it’s problematic from an undergraduate perspective because Law School and Divinity School students aren’t historians,” said Jacob Remes ’02, a member of the history department’s undergraduate advisory committee. “History should be taught by historians.”
Remes is a staff columnist for the Yale Daily News.
But with the sheer imbalance of numbers — more than 300 undergraduate history majors, compared with 25 history graduate students — the department has no choice, Freedman said.
The number of graduate students eligible to lead sections has also decreased because more students have been receiving fellowships for outside research, Butler said.
“We have first-rate graduate students, so they win these stipends to do their own research and work on their dissertations,” he said. “In an ironic way, it’s a good sign because it shows we’re supporting our students with far greater resources than a decade ago.”
Shopping period has also posed a problem, simply because professors cannot accurately gauge how many students to expect and, consequently, how many TAs to hire.
“It creates frenzy and inconvenience, but I think shopping period is good pedagogically because it means that students are taking the classes they want to take,” Freedman said.
John Gaddis, who teaches the popular Cold War class, had approximately 700 students show up to his first lecture this fall. Although he was forced to cap the class at 370 students, it was because of a lack of classroom space and not a shortage of TAs.
“Our problem in the past was simply surprise,” Gaddis said. “But I’ve taught this class enough, so I know what to expect. The TA situation has been very smooth this year.”
Jeff Schoenberger ’02 said he has not had any problems with sections or TAs in Gaddis’ Cold War class.
“My section only has 11 people in it, and the TA is very good,” he said. “I never had any problems with the class, and as far as I know, nobody else has either.”
Lately, the problem has not concerned the History Department much, but if another crisis were to arise, Freedman said he thought the department would be ready.
“We’d be prepared to respond, but we don’t have an emergency plan,” he said.