I arrived in Montreal in Fall 2008 eager to begin my graduate career at McGill as a master’s student in political science. I knew McGill had a reputation for academic excellence and talented, open-minded, and intellectually stimulating students and faculty members. Fortunately, McGill measured up to its reputation in these respects. But I had also heard about the teaching assistants’ strike that had occurred the previous spring and was concerned that I would confront difficult working conditions as a TA. Unfortunately, this expectation also came to pass.
This fall I was a TA for a large introductory political science class. Since there were only four TAs for the class, I was responsible for 89 students. Among other things, this meant having to grade about 70 essays for each assignment (the professor would take on some of the load), having to lead four large discussion sections each week, and having 89 students vying for my attention. This was close to a full-time job. I was only paid to work part-time, however, and so I was working many more hours than I was paid. Moreover, with graduate work to complete, I only had time to work a part-time job. As a result of this TA position my work weeks were consistently long and stressful.
Not only was this unfair to me, it was unfair to my students. First of all, my students had to participate in large discussion groups of over 20 students. Discussion groups are an important part of large classes as they allow students to engage more intimately with the material. But in groups this large, it’s difficult for all students to consistently participate and to develop cohesion and intellectual intimacy. (However, a large group does not preclude physical intimacy: the classroom that one of my groups was located in was so cramped that on one occasion a student had to sit in the hallway.) Secondly, there was only so much time I could spend grading students’ papers, answering their questions, and preparing for weekly discussion groups¬, which affected how well those tasks were done. Thirdly, stress and a lack of sleep sometimes affected my disposition and perspicacity which probably negatively affected my work. My discussion sections went well, my students’ questions were answered, and my students’ essays were adequately graded, but it was unfair to them that I was so severely limited in how well I could do my job.
Being responsible for too many students is not the only difficulty TAs often encounter at McGill. Other common problems include a lack of training and poor communication between TAs and the professors they work for. (Luckily, this problem was not relevant for me.) But overcrowding is particularly unfair to TAs and their students. The administration has a responsibility to address this pressing problem.
In the meantime, students, professors, and TAs need to recognize that when TAs have too many students, it limits the quantity and quality of work TAs should be expected to produce. Particularly, TAs in such a situation should understand it’s only the administration’s fault, and that it’s not fair for them to work more hours than they’re paid. Moreover, continuing to do so encourages the administration to maintain the present situation. As long as the administration can hire inadequate numbers of TAs and overwork them, it will likely continue to do so.
Ben Thompson is a master’s student in political science.