I still feel slightly nauseas when I recall standing in front of my Business Communications class for the first time. While the students moseyed in, beads of sweat rolled down my back, and I took long, deep breaths through my nose to keep from keeling over. The time had come for me to teach this college class, and I wondered how my transcript had so wrongly led the university to think I was qualified to do so.
Luckily, several semesters later, I can now stand at the head of my classroom without fearing that I may collapse. But sometimes, when my lesson has failed or I don’t have the answer, I still find myself pondering whether I’m truly fit to instruct a 200-level English course.
As an alumna of a small college, and a current master’s candidate and teaching fellow at a large university, I believe the value of education largely depends on the quality of faculty, and whether or not grad students are teaching classes. In an interview with More Magazine, New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus says there were 181,000 teaching assistants at 280 research universities across the country last year. And while many of those TAs probably did just fine, my undergraduate education compared with that of my students shows me that instructors with doctoral degrees and professional expertise bring something inimitable to the table.
I absolutely agree that like life in general, much of education is what you make of it, and what chances you choose to pursue. If your sole concern is getting the degree, and you’ll work your little butt off regardless of who your instructors are, then it may not really matter.
But I also believe that the typical young adult – who tends to be more easily influenced – is going to need a little shove every once in a while. And what you make of your education is largely decided by your environment – and all of the support and opportunities that come with it. If you’re choosing your college based on the ability of its staff to push you a little bit further, to challenge you to be better, then it may definitely matter.
Allow me to show you where I’m coming from. In 2009 I received my BA in English from Assumption College, a liberal arts school in Worcester, MA, with just over 2,000 students and a very limited graduate school. In the 2010 U.S. News & World Report ratings for universities in the northern region, Assumption College was ranked 36. The student-to-faculty ratio is 12 to 1, and grad students teach none of the classes.
Contrast that to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where I’m currently a master’s candidate in the Professional Writing Program and a teaching fellow. Ranked 81 in the northern region, UMD has nearly 10,000 students, a fifth of whom are postgraduates. Over the last few years, the campus has started to expand its 32 graduate programs with intent to qualify as doctoral level for the Carnegie classification. The student-to-faculty ratio at UMD is 18 to 1, and grad students teach a fair number of courses.
Those statistics, though, don’t fully reflect the difference between these two institutions. A student-to-faculty ratio of 12 to 1 – versus 18 to 1 – doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But let me remind you that I’m a teaching fellow at UMD, with my own 200-level class, and my own 75 students each year.
I do receive a lot of support and guidance from my supervisor and comrades who take our position very seriously. But nonetheless, I’m the instructor. Students had paid tuition to take my course before I even began graduate school. And quite frankly, looking back at my first semester on the job, they probably got jipped.
As an undergrad, I had professors who literally changed my life. With such limited professional and teaching experience, I really don’t believe that I can do that for my students. I go in there, and I give it my all, but I’m not sure that’s enough.
I remember once asking one of the more seasoned teaching fellows what she did when she didn’t know the answer to a student’s question.
“I just make one up,” she frankly responded.
What that tells me is that 12 to 1 is very different than 18 to 1, especially since you could argue that some of those 1’s to the 18’s aren’t even qualified – And that, I believe, makes all the difference in the world.