Undergrad TAs Under Fire





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With all the time chemistry students spend obsessing over their midterms and lab projects, many never stop to think about who is really overseeing them.

Often, it is a chemistry graduate student, bound for his or her Ph.D. and greatness in the field. But sometimes it is an undergraduate student bound for his or her bachelor's degree.

As midterms approach, UC Berkeley students and faculty in the College of Chemistry remain divided over whether or not undergraduates should be among those selected as teaching assistants for lower division courses.

For Clayton Heathcock, dean of the college, taking on undergraduates for the position is both beneficial and necessary for the department.

"Enrollment in the lower division 3A and 3B organic chemistry courses has reached an upper limit," Heathcock says. "We simply don't have enough graduate students for the job, and we need to recruit the very best undergraduates."

He explains that students selected must have completed the courses they will teach with an "A" average, shadow a graduate student instructor for a semester, and provide up to three letters of recommendation.

"In general, the undergraduate TAs go above and beyond the typical graduate student," Heathcock adds. "And when it comes to receiving recognition for teaching performance at the end of the semester, they usually get the most."

But Heathcock admits that students in lower division courses sometimes question the integrity of undergraduate teaching assistants. While he says some of them are underwhelming, he cites a particular undergraduate teaching assistant who held the position at a young age and later capitalized on the experience.

"Like the undergraduates we select for the position, the young man was amazingly qualified," he says. "If any students doubt either of these facts, they can check with this particular individual. He's a professor of chemistry at Stanford."

Chemistry students are undecided. Sophomore molecular and cell biology major Jessica Risener says having undergraduate teaching assistants available in her courses has been a welcome change.

"I've had plenty of courses led by graduate student TAs," Risener says. "But it's the courses with the undergraduate TAs in which I find myself learning the absolute most."

She says maximum learning is directly related to the motivation of the teaching assistants.

"And there's no question whatsoever about motivation," Risener adds. "These undergraduates are volunteering for the position, whereas the graduate students are simply enduring a requirement."

Other students find the prospect of undergraduate teaching assistants assuming the exact same role as a graduate student anything but appealing.

Undergraduate teaching assistants who are of less-than-senior standing and not majoring in chemistry are simply not suited for the position, the students say.

"One of these supposedly qualified teaching assistants isn't a chemistry or molecular and cell biology major," says one student who wishes to remain anonymous. "He's actually a humanities major who isn't even in his fourth year."

One chemistry professor refutes those complaints and says a student's major pales in comparison to dedication.

"In terms of the claim about humanities (majors) not being qualified, that's extremely irrelevant," says Steven Pedersen, a chemistry professor.

Pedersen says humanities majors who elect to take the organic chemistry courses in the first place are undoubtedly intelligent and often interested in some sort of medical profession.

"The academic strength of a student majoring in two separate areas is incredibly impressive," he adds. "That can only serve as an attribute in the selection process."

But the College of Chemistry is not blind to those times when the teaching assistants fail to meet expectations, officials say.

"It's great when we have capable undergraduates in the position," Pedersen says. "But in the rarest case when they aren't, they simply won't be rehired."

According to Pedersen, complaints about the undergraduate teaching assistants have been minimal.

"Our selection of both the undergraduates and graduate students is a very fair process," Pedersen says. "But if students are continually bothered, it's in their best interest to discuss the matter with the department."

At the California Institute of Technology, which often has smaller class sizes than UC Berkeley, faculty say undergraduate teaching assistants are sought out for numerous reasons.

"Caltech is the kind of place where people pride themselves in working with one another," says John Bercaw, executive officer of the department of chemistry. "And for us, that means undergraduate teaching assistants instructing other undergraduates."

He says that it is not always a bad idea to recruit undergraduates fresh out of a particular course at the university. Undergraduates have the advantage of having taken the course more recently, leaving it fresher in their minds, he says.

"Our last organic chemistry sequence course is the most difficult course, yet undergraduates are always recruited as teaching assistants," Bercaw adds. "Mainly because these students have taken the exact same course at Caltech fairly recently."

Bercaw explains that the situation at UC Berkeley may best be explained by the excessive competition inherent at such a large university.

"Competitiveness festers at sizable and prestigious schools such as Berkeley," Bercaw says. "And it's that kind overexcessive competition that leaves those students feeling so threatened."

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