11/13/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

In Defense of Teaching Assistants


It's time to set the record straight.

I work in higher education editorial with CollegeXpress and Private Colleges & Universities, and I'm often reading information on a range of institutions. These schools have much to brag about: expansive campuses, academic resources, stellar athletic teams, and the list goes on. One attribute often noted is the student-faculty ratio. Private schools frequently boast a low student-faculty ratio, given the smaller student body. Even some larger state schools manage to keep this proportion to a sensible number. No matter the ratio, though, I'd estimate that at least half of these schools are also quick to point out, "most classes are taught by professors--not teaching assistants."

Pardon me for being so bold, but... What's so bad about TAs?

Colleges market this statement as if TAs are the equivalent of putting a chicken at the podium. Of course, professors are professors for a reason: students value learning from their career-based proficiency, and student-faculty interaction is something well worth the costly tuition. Sure, there are some TAs that are less-than-stellar -- and there are likely some less-than-stellar professors out there too -- but, honestly, that wasn't my experience.

I'll confess that I may not be in the best position to judge the teaching ability of TAs. Despite the colossal size of the student body at my school, I had just a few TAs during my time at Penn State, and only two of them taught full time. The rest simply assisted with the myriad tasks needed by the professor, or as was the case in my accounting class, taught the hour-long follow-up seminar that reviewed key lessons from the week's lecture, which was taught by a tenured professor.

I'm not an accounting whiz, so, naturally, I went for extra help. I had the option to meet with the professor, but I chose the TA. Why? One reason: he was infinitely more approachable. I don't say that because I saw him waiting in line at a bar the week before, but because he, like us, was a student. And as a student, you understand what it's like to truly, genuinely struggle in a class. Rather than sitting down with a lofty professor rattling off the same accounting jargon I was still learning, the first words out of the TA's mouth were, "Yeah. This section sucks."

Well, let me tell you -- I was elated to hear him say that. It was like talking to one of my classmates over a cup of coffee. Quite frankly, the section did suck. But after meeting with the TA, the section sucked substantially less because he was close enough to my age and intelligence level to pinpoint the minute areas in which I had trouble. And -- like I said, accounting is not my forte -- the successful completion of all the little functions add up to one big, heaping equation, and most likely a successful one.

Never in my life would I want to impugn the wonderful things professors do and the wealth of knowledge they impart. But, in my eyes, comparing a professor and a TA isn't necessarily about one being better than the other. Rather, I think they offer two very different teaching styles: A professor has a top-down approach, with years of experience and expertise that needs to be whittled down to a level 18-22-year-olds can understand. On the contrary, TAs -- or at least the good ones -- work from the bottom up, being fully aware that these students, whether slow learners or academically gifted, just came from high school and will likely thrive in an environment that takes set steps towards a larger goal. Is one method superior? Not necessarily. But it certainly isn't any reason to question a TA's competency.

Now, I'm not going to begin a crusade against the schools with the aforementioned sentence in their promotional materials. Whatever faculty members institutions have on hand -- tenured professors, adjuncts, TAs -- so long as they hire the right person for the right courses, then a title shouldn't make a difference. We need to reconsider giving TAs such an unfavorable reputation. Sure, they may not have 32 years of experience like that full-time professor, but TAs can still offer an educational environment that enables students to thrive, no matter how much a particular lesson may suck.