By Kelsey Keech
At SIPA, the teacher’s assistant position is the most highly coveted of the second-year fellowships. Many students depend on acquiring these hard-fought positions to provide funding—up to half of the tuition costs—for their expensive Master’s degrees. Yet, when questioned on the effectiveness of the peer learning process, the SIPA community gives mixed reviews.
“I generally hear really positive things from the students about the TAs, because they see how hard our TAs work,” said Associate Dean of Student Affairs, Caroline Kay, when asked about student feedback. “They’re supposed to be working twenty hours per week, but most put in a lot more time than that.”
“If there are concerns with a TA, then yes, they do get brought up to us in Academic Affairs, but that rarely happens,” she added.
First-year MPA student Alex Foard has enjoyed his TAs, saying, “My experiences with peer TAs have only been positive so far. I feel that their shared experience fosters a comfortable and collegial environment.”
Other students offered less glowing feedback.
“Every TA I work with is dedicated to their class, willing to work hard, and attempts to be helpful,” said a first-year MPA student who requested anonymity. “That being said, they are still only a year ‘older,’ and in many core classes we as students may bring just as much or more background knowledge to our coursework than they do.”
“If we were undergrads working with SIPA students as TAs, I’d be blown away by what the typical TA brings to the table,” she continued. “But we’re not undergrads.” Another first-year student who also requested anonymity was initially unsure of the system. “Before coming to SIPA, my opinion was that TAs are generally useless and don’t know anything,” she said.
The student was pleasantly surprised by the knowledge of her TAs and their helpfulness during office hours. Still, she is skeptical of their mastery of the subjects. “I remain wary of asking certain questions,” she said, confiding that she does not like to ask TAs about exam material or criteria for a paper. “I am not always convinced they know the answer.”
This wariness from students seems to be a common challenge for TAs. When commenting about his experience teaching peers, Michael Littenberg-Brown, TA for Governance and Public Management in Developing Countries, said, “It forces you as a student to navigate the tricky kind of authority that you have. In some ways you are perceived to have a lot of authority, but you actually have very little.”
Managing a classroom of peers was an area in which Littenberg-Brown wished he had received more training. SIPA TAs attend a week-long orientation prior to the first day of classes, but the majority of the skills are learned on the job.
Statistics TA Laura Budzyna spoke about the difficulty of teaching peers, especially around exam time. “Last year’s TAs told me that the job ends up being part teacher, part therapist, and that has definitely turned out to be true,” she said. “It breaks your heart when a student you like does poorly on an exam.”
The position is further complicated by the peer component. “You are privy to a lot of private information about people you see every day, and you have to be very professional and respectful about that,” added Budzyna.
Despite such challenges and complaints about the system, many students interviewed still hope to obtain a TA position their second year, perhaps explaining their reluctance to go on the record. Of all SIPA fellowships, TAs receive the highest compensation—$20,000 per semester—and SIPA TAs are the best paid compared to similar positions at other Columbia schools. They receive $1800 at the Columbia Business School and $1200 at the School of Social Work.
TAs agree that they are well-paid, but point out that the compensation process is complicated. TAs receive their payment through tuition credit, a stipend, and a salary. “You get money three different ways, and obviously some have tax implications, so it’s not like you’re getting all of the money for tuition,” said Littenberg-Brown. Still, he concluded, “I think it’s fair compensation.”
For the TAs, the position has been worth the headaches. “This is my first experience in a teaching capacity in a formal academic setting. That’s been a learning experience, but it’s been one I’ve enjoyed,” said Littenberg-Brown. He also valued his time spent working closely with the professor of the course.
Budzyna agreed. “Being a TA has actually been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at SIPA. It’s one of the few roles where I feel like my work is directly benefiting people around me.”
She continued. “After a midterm grading marathon turned bonding session, a fellow TA and I were walking home when he said, ‘Sometimes, I ask myself, what am I doing getting a policy degree? I’m a teacher. That’s who I am. I am a teacher.’ That about sums it up.”
Kelsey Keech is a first-year Master of International Affairs student. This article first appeared in the December 6 issue of Communiqué.