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One of the biggest academic miseries facing undergraduates is the prospect of ending up in a section led by a poorly-qualified or unprepared teaching fellow (TF) hired at the last minute. Simultaneously, eleventh-hour TFs hiring causes a great deal of stress for graduate students seeking employment. Both predicaments will be ameliorated by a new policy—announced by Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Peter T. Ellison on Tuesday—that will require faculty to hire their TFs in May for the fall and spring semesters of the following year.
Undergraduates want to be taught by TFs who are knowledgeable, talented and enthusiastic. The rushed melee of hiring at the beginning of each semester is hardly conducive to that goal, so pre-hiring is a welcome improvement. By giving TFs months of advanced notice of what they will be teaching, the policy allows them ample time to familiarize themselves with the course texts and allow professors to train them to lead sections.
Moreover, Ellison’s policy is also a boon for graduate students, who will be able to make long-term plans with much more certainty. Pre-hiring considerably reduces the risks associated with applying for a teaching fellow position by assuring employment for the coming terms. Consequently, those who are hired will have more time to balance teaching with their own academic work and research—conducive to better-run sections. By removing these obstacles, which have made Ellison call “prohibitively difficult” the process for graduate students to become TFs. This policy will likely encourage a larger number of students to apply—giving professors a wider pool of applicants from which to choose the most qualified candidates.
As was often cited in the debate over preregistration, extremely accurate class size predictions can often be made months before classes are offered. But even with these predictions, professors will not always know exactly how many TFs to pre-hire. The consequences of early over-hiring TFs, however, are hardly negative—students would gain from smaller sections and more individual attention, benefits that would be worth the expense of employing an extra TF or two.
In the event of under-hiring TFs, it would be neither desirable nor necessary to cap class sizes, which hurts both professors and interested students. In such cases, professors can always resort to a system like the present one, but with improved hiring methods. To whatever extent TFs must be acquired near the start of a class, standardizing, computerizing and centralizing the hiring process would allow a more efficient matching of desperate professors and latecomer TFs.
In general, professors should be encouraged to err on the side of hiring more TFs—not only to further reduce a last-minute rush—but also because having too many TFs for a class is a far more desirable problem than having too few.
The new pre-hiring policy recognizes the intersection between graduate students’ detest of the frenzied scramble associated with applying for a teaching fellow job and undergraduates’ interest in being taught by qualified, well-prepared TFs.
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