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It would seem a coveted job for any graduate student: close contact with a well-known professor, a boost in salary and a plumb title for a rising academic's resume. But head teaching fellows across campus say the competition for their jobs is hardly cutthroat.
Instead, they say the administrative workload of a large course's head TF spot scares many graduate students away--forcing professors frequently to solicit the graduate students they know best to help out.
Head by Default
Angelika Fretzen, head TF of Chemistry 10: "Foundations of Chemstry," says Gregory L. Verdine, professor of chemistry and instructor of the course, actually approached her and mentioned the opportunity.
"There was no formal process," she says. "[Verdine] was looking, and he called on me."
David W. Goldsmith says there was absolutely no competition for his job as head TF of Science B-16: "History of Life." Even though the position allows a graduate student to work one-on-one with famed evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould, Goldsmith says he was the only one willing to assume the workload.
For Science B-16 and other classes, the TF selection process is very logical, according to Goldsmith.
Gould usually names his three graduate students as TFs for the course, and it is rare for more than one to express interest in becoming the head TF, Goldsmith says.
"There was not much competition," Goldsmith says."In fact, there was none at all."
It was an experience Scott M. Ransom, the head TF for Science A-35: "Matter in the Universe," would find familiar.
"I am sure a few people showed interest, but it did not seem to me that there was stiff competition," Ransom says. "I was recruited by the professor to be head TF."
Want to switch sections? Find the head TF. Want a paper extension? The head TF's your best bet.
Fretzen says the paperwork may be a reason more may not apply. Many people are not ready to take on the huge organizational tasks, she says.
"My job is very different from that of a regular TF," Fretzen says. "We have to do all the organizing and coordination."
Few students will consider the intense preparation and organization that is required in structuring the semester, duties performed primarily by head TFs, she says.
"The administration that goes on is a thankless job, but it is a necessary one," Ransom says. "There is a lot that goes on that no one sees."
Most smaller courses do not have head teaching fellows at all. One or two TFs are left to deal with the teaching and administrative concerns of the small group. However, large courses--particularly Core and introductory level classes--require a head TF to help the professor handle its logistics and bureaucracy.
Richard Dearborn, the head teaching fellow of Biological Sciences 1: "Introductory Genetics, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology," says his course did not have a head TF last year.
The newly-created position was created to divert the pressure of administration off of the three Faculty member-team which leads the class. Dearborn says his own presence has allowed the professors and TFs to concentrate more on academics.
"I handle most of the administration," Dearborn says, as he crunches sectioning numbers. "It allows everyone else to focus more on the actual teaching."
Searching Near and Far
Professors shopping for head TFs says they try to bill the long-hours involved as a good career move--the position is a logical springboard to a professorship after graduate studies are complete. This year, former Social Analysis 10: "Principles of Economics" head TF Judith Li '94 rose to the rank of assistant professor in the course.
The typical head TF of a course works closely with the professor in formulating the curriculum, including lectures and reading lists.
Head TFs are usually selected months in advance of the start of class and also aid professors in choosing other teaching assistants for the course.
Ransom had taught Science A-35 only once prior to his selection as head TF for this semester. He had also served as a teaching assistant in three similar science courses in the past.
Ransom believes he was chosen primarily for his teaching experience.
"I had a lot of experience, and that helped," he says.
Goldsmith, the head TF for Science B-16, agrees.
"I was chosen by the professor for my previous teaching," says Goldsmith, a veteran TF of the course.
Yet other head TFs are selected by professors without having prior teaching experience.
Fretzen had never TFed before she was selected to head up the class's stable of TFs. She says she was picked because of her people skills, as well as her career aims.
"I think the professor was looking for someone with good qualities," she says. "A head TF really needs to be able to talk to people and bring people together. I obviously have a lot of experience in the field, though not teaching."
Fretzen says she is seriously considering remaining in academic life as a college instructor, and Verdine picked her partly for this reason.
"[Verdine] knew that I am considering going into academia, so I think that helped," Fretzen says.
One Big Happy Family
Fretzen dismisses the notion that teaching fellows could be jealous of the haed TF's more prestigious title. She says other TFs usually only want to teach and want nothing to do with course administration.
"While the head TF deals with administration, there is a much greater teaching load associated with being a regular TF," Fretzen says.
"The jobs are so different, I think the TFs are happy where they are, doing most of the teaching."
Dearborn says he has a very healthy working relationship with the other TFs for the course.
"I was involved in their careful selection," Dearborn says. "So I know them very well, and I think we see each other as peers."
Pecking order among TFs is established early--most professors choose their head TF first and then the two choose other TFs together.
Ransom says he has a very professional relationship with all the TFs for his course. Although he adds that there may be resentment under the surface, he says he has not seen any expressed.
"We work very well together," he says. "It may happen that some are jealous of the rank, but I haven't seen anything."
Many teaching fellows say experience in a course gives more prestige than the head TF label anyway. Phillips Professor of Early American History Laurel T. Ulrich says the head TF and other returning TFs all have a lot of say about the structure of her course, Historical Study A-33: Women, Feminism and History.
"In my own case, all the teaching fellows in my course have either taught with me before in the course or are
advanced graduate students whose dissertations I am directing," Ulrich writes in an e-mail message.
And in the past they all "have had quite a bit of input into the content," she continues.
Thus, TFs can still feel they are high up in a course's hierarchy without being the leader of the pack. Course input can provide consolation to those who aspire to the head TF position and make relations between all TFs more agreeable.
Outside of administrative tasks, head TFs see their role primarily as a go-between--mediating any conflicts that arise with students or other TFs.
Ransom says the professional dynamic of his course could not be better, and it is his job talk to the professor on behalf of the course's other TFs.
"I am a herder of cats," Ransom says. "The TFs will come to me, and I go to the professor. It seems to work real well."
"My job is to be a conduit for information and ideas," he says.
Ransom says his good working relationship with the course's other teaching staff allow him to exude the high level of enthusiasm necessary to excite students with varied interests in his science Core class.
"This is an interesting subject, and we are all very excited to start teaching it," he says. "Among the TFs, the excitement is infectuous."
Many are also happy to put the hassels of shopping period behind them, and delve into the material.
With the intense level of preparation and administration that go into courses before the start of the semester, head TFs say they are ready to begin the more enjoyable component of their job--the course instruction.
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