by Rachel Hunt, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences and Victoria Smillie, Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow
This blog post came about as a result of a postgraduate teaching session at RGS 2015. There, and now here, we have sought to share our views about the importance of the role of the GTA within courses which they help to run.
Those academics engaging with the problem of the GTA recognize that from the GTA perspective there are many positives to our awkward role within the department. Not only does this work boost our wages, communication skills and employability’s (so they tell us), but more importantly provides a much needed break from the solitude that the PHD can bring.
However, Despite advances in the appreciation of postgraduate efforts, and the acknowledgement that GTA’s make up a significant part of the undergraduate teaching team in most universities, the picture is not of universal progress and Linehan’s (1996:107) comments regarding the ‘low grumbling murmur’ of postgraduates continue today. Indeed we can see papers by Linehan (1996), Muzaka (2009), and Park and Ramos (2002), among many others who lament the underpaid, undervalued and under recognised work that many GTA’s undertake.
Many authors report on the specific role of the GTA in shaping courses arguing that we GTA’s should have a role to play in course construction. Yet we are left wondering where to find the time to continually provide and update the courses on top of our phd work, our requirements to publish, to do out reach work, to attend, organize and speak at conferences. The pulls on a researchers time are endless. As such it is not only diligence above and beyond the call of duty (or scope of payment) which is often expected in terms of GTA involvement, but we would argue that ‘we’ as a cohort are not given the full experience of this ‘apprenticeship’ to use Beesley’s (1979) term.
Despite this, very few authors provide an insight into the messy, in-between status of the GTA, nor really provide any helpful guidance as to how we might redress the balance between wanting to impact upon the courses upon which we tutor, demonstrate or lead, and keeping to our 3 (erm, 4 in our case) year deadline.
Therefore, our aim at RGS and within this blog is not only to voice some opinions from those GTA’s working within the university of Glasgow but also to discuss our own experience of creating a new level one introductory lab. In doing so we aim to make the argument for, and present one example of, the way in which PhD teaching assistants can be given a voice through involvement in the development of teaching materials. Through this we aim to ask questions of delivery and development, focusing on those questions voiced in our title, what’s the difference and why does it matter.
Now, lets hear from 5 of our fellow GTA’s at the university of Glasgow. (available here)
The views expressed here corroborate those within the literature recognizing both the positives and the negatives. Unlike many other departments however we often do have input into our courses. Working as part of the level 1/2 team we receive detailed outlines for each tutorial but these outlines also give points at which we can depart from the written word should our own experiences as researchers be more relevant.
Further to this a team of three GTAs (of which we are two), were given the opportunity to redesign course material for the level 1 introductory lab class, paid of course, giving us an undeniably invaluable opportunity for our voices to be heard. The offer for this opportunity was put out to all of the GTA’s in our department to work in groups to change any one part of the level 1 or 2 course. This amounted to any lab, tutorial or lecture. We were lucky enough to be chosen with our proposal to change a slow and dreary lab which had existed since many of the group were undergraduates.
And with this we created Disaster Island and a two hour task to save the lives and economy of those living on this hazardous place. The lab takes the form of a real time game where students are put in teams, and set to complete a number of hazard based choices. They are given money, people counters, press examples, and maps to aid these decisions.
This lab aims to encourage students to get to know to each other, get used to the lab environment and appreciate the unique qualities of geography in it’s ability to incorporate human and physical elements.
The process of creating this lab was an enjoyable one. As the images below show, the process started with blue sky thinking, and was gradually narrowed down to include reality or at least a more realistic approach to creating lab materials. We learnt about the practicalities of creating teaching materials, the timescales involved and how to incorporate such work into an existing course, complimenting what was already involved in the level one course while also bringing in brand new material and with that adding our voice. This was about a new tactile experience, which deviated from the traditional academic process of knowledge exchange, in our department at least.
We would therefore encourage other university teachers to provide these opportunities within their own institutions, not only for the students, but for the GTA’s themselves. Opportunities such as the one described remain few and far between. It simply would not be economical for universities to offer these opportunities to all willing GTA’s within the department, nor practical to fully redesign courses each year in order to provide these chances. But this represents an important way to recognize and respect the knowledge, enthusiasm and skills held within the GTA cohort. It is key for us to stress that our immediate, and award winning, teaching team do make us feel like we have a voice, and are not just a face of the department. However, it is still fair to say that department wide recognition of the teaching team as a whole sadly appears to be generally undervalued. In order to establish a significant role for the GTA within departments it is important to provide opportunities and support for the development of those courses on which we are trusted to teach, a trust we do not take lightly.
What we are talking about with regards to our experience in the development of materials is not the finished article, not by any means, the involvement of the GTA voice could, for sure, be taken further. Rather our suggestion is a movement towards increased appreciation, rising satisfaction, improved deployment and ultimately better departments which properly equip us for the profession in which we have made our first steps. We worry that failing to do so will continue to allow dissatisfaction to roam like monsters on maps of old. (Linehan 1996:107)
Linehan D., (1996) ‘Arena symposium: teaching assistants’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 20. pp. 107-117.
Mazaka V., (2009) ‘The niche of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GRAs): perceptions and reflections’, Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 14, pp.1-12.
Park C., Ramos M., (2002) ‘The Donkey in the Department? Insights into the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) experience in the UK’, Journal of Graduate Education, Vol. 3, pp. 47-53.