Last semester, Orest Werbowy went to class, studied, and took tests like any third-year student. He did well; some of his classmates did too. He should know – he marked their assignments.
Werbowy, a third-year ITM student, was hired by professor Debra Sels as a teaching assistant for her third-year ITM course. He says he got the job because of his high marks in the course the year before (his overall GPA was 3.4) and is paid $11.90 an hour.
According to Werbowy, he evaluated mostly smaller assignments, like making sure students’ 30-second audio files were the right length. However, he also gave input on final group projects at the end of the year, though he didn’t assign grades. “I was a second set of eyes,” said Werbowy.
Despite his closeness in age and education to the students he was marking, Werbowy doesn’t recall any objections from his peers: “I think I got the respect that any other TA would get,” said Werbowy.
John Cook, chair of Ryerson’s English department, said it’s hard enough being a graduate student marking undergraduates and the idea of fellow students marking other undergraduates worries him.
“I was uncomfortable as a master’s student marking undergraduate essays,” said Cook.
Cook also said the system of using TAs generally benefits those marking the work rather the ones handing it in.
“It’s an internship system; the marker gets a chance to work with the professor, and the marker saves [the prof] when [he or she has] a mass of students,” said Cook.
Rebecca Rose, RyeSAC’s vice president education-elect, said TAs will always be a necessary part of life at Ryerson as long as money is short.
“The teacher to student ratio in a lot of classes isn’t good,” said Rose. “We have to live with stuff like that.”
Rose said last year she lost marks on her paper because her TA thought she’d spelled the name of a book wrong. Rose’s paper was on The Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, but the TA took off marks, mistakenly insisting it was actually spelled The Dollhouse. Rose took the essay to her professor and got the mark raised. She said the experience was just one among many that soured her on TAs in general.
“I’ve always found that TA’s don’t know the subject as well as the teachers,” said Rose.
Over his 35 years at Ryerson, Cook has marked all of his students’ papers, and says that while smaller assignments are one thing, it’s appalling when professors hire TAs to evaluate essays.
“It’s in the writing of essays we discover ourselves,” says Cook.
“It’s important for a teacher to feel a student’s voice.”
Cook says using TAs to grade student work discourages originality and makes it impossible for professors to get a complete picture of a student’s progress. He also says that by not reading papers, professors are sending the wrong message to students.
“We’re in danger of making the essay an utterly irrelevant piece of work because it’s become an object created only to be evaluated,” Cook says.
He says professors need to make grading essays a priority, not only to gain an understanding of their students’ level, but also to keep plagiarized papers from slipping through.
“I’m surprised no one has pointed out that at a time when you’ve got a lot of attention to plagiarism, you’ve got people buying essays and you’re paying someone else to mark papers – it’s bizarre,” says Cook.
Kathleen Gallagher, a professor in the University of Toronto’s teacher education program, agrees that marking papers is the best way to not just evaluate students, but to help them.
“It’s another way to converse, to have dialogue, and it’s an opportunity that’s lost if you turn it over to markers,” says Gallagher.
Gallagher believes the biggest reason profs don’t mark their own classes isn’t because they want to skip out of work, but because universities don’t take into account marking times when doling out classes and other responsibilities.
“The scheduling has to support a prof’s desire to [mark papers],” says Gallagher. “If someone has a class of 80 and another has a class or 25, there’s a terrible inequity there.”
Despite heavy workloads, Gallagher says it’s a professor’s duty to tackle marking.
“Part of marking an assignment is a reality check; even in those large classes, the prof should evaluate by hand.”
But for now, TAs like Werbowy can make decent cash marking papers and use their TA experience as a stepping stone to an academic career.
“Professor Sels opened up other opportunities for me. It was great,” Werbowy says.