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New committee established to oversee TA training

The Faculty Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation to establish a committee that would provide university-wide oversight for teaching assistant (TA) training, despite some senators questioning the need for yet another regulatory body.

Hester Gelber, associate professor of religious studies and chair of the senate's Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement (C-AAA), traced the process by which her committee had discussed and then proposed the legislation creating the oversight committee.

"The Faculty Senate established policies regarding TA training and guidelines for that training in 1989 and 1991," Gelber said at the Dec. 4 senate meeting. "But as those years should signal, the legislation was passed at the time of restructuring. And it was never fully clear how the schools, departments and individual faculty asked to train TAs were to be held accountable for establishing TA training."

In response to a formal request two years ago by the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), C-AAA and its subcommittee on the evaluation of teaching looked into the policy of how the university was carrying out TA training and found a record of very uneven compliance.

"At the time we looked, [the number of TA training programs] were at a level of two out of nine science departments, two out of six social science departments, eight out of 12 humanities departments and two out of eight engineering departments," said Russ Fernald, professor of psychology, who chaired the subcommittee that looked into the matter.

Doug Natelson, the graduate student who drafted the ASSU resolution, told members of the senate that he was shocked to find out that there wasn't a regular review of TA training.

"I was somewhat dismayed to find out that roughly 10,000 undergraduates had gone through this university without anyone actually checking up to see if anyone was really training people to teach," he said. "I know from my own experience it was never really clear when I was going to be a TA what was required of me."

Gelber said the new committee will work with departments to help develop TA training programs, evaluate their effectiveness and give them feedback.

While all agreed that improving TA training was a noble goal, some senators expressed concern that an accountability mechanism was being established to ensure proper training without any departmental support to implement the improvements.

Professor John Brauman, professor of chemistry, said he supported efforts to improve TA training but had reservations about establishing an oversight committee to meet this goal.

"I've become very sensitized to issues of regulatory compliance," Brauman said. "This smacks a lot of that. And I think we need to be careful if we want people to really perform that we provide some kind of support that makes sense in accomplishing these matters."

Addressing this concern, Gelber said that a large part of the oversight committee's work will be helping departments to identify particular resources that they need in order to implement effective TA training programs.

"The committee can [then] begin conversations with other parts of the university, with [C-AAA] and elsewhere about obtaining necessary resources," she said.

As a first step, Gelber hopes the committee will get a sense of TA training programs that are working well for some departments and those that are not. "We don't know this at this point," she said.

Provost Condoleezza Rice raised an additional point, noting that the university has an obligation to train graduate students to be not just researchers but teachers.

"After all, many of them will end up as unsuspecting assistant professors at some other university," she said. "And TA training ought to be thought of as a first effort to make them better teachers when they arrive at those first-year jobs in other universities."


By Marisa Cigarroa

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