Undergrad TFs: The Good, the Bad and the Awkward

This is the second in a series of posts by Anna G., a junior at Harvard who teaches one section and also serves as assistant head-TF for CS-51.

At Harvard, most Teaching Fellows (TFs) are graduate students. Yet this is not the case in the Computer Science Department, and more generally in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The reason for this seems to be that SEAS simply doesn’t have enough  graduate students to serve as TFs for the myriad courses that require them. The solution? Many undergraduates serve as TFs. This undergraduate TF therefore presents:

The Good:

  • Undergraduate TFs are usually students who took the class very recently and therefore have a good understanding of which concepts students could be struggling with and how best to address these issues to help the students succeed.
  • They have less of a communication barrier with their students because they have much more in common, and can more readily understand their concerns.
  • Undergraduate TFs are usually more accessible to students since they live in the same dorms, and frequently hold office hours right in the house dining halls or other undergraduate spaces.

The Bad:

  • Undergraduate TFs usually have more structured time constraints than graduate students do, since they usually take four classes as well as teach, which is billed as a 10 hour a week job, but which frequently takes much more time. This amounts to at least 12 hours of class a week, in addition to teaching, which is essentially a fifth class, but with more work. This means that there is a relatively high rate of undergraduate TF burnout, and many TFs find themselves overwhelmed with trying to balance teaching and their own coursework. The Computer Science Department has had issues with TFs burning out and neglecting their academics lately, which poses a problem for both the TFs and their students.
  • Usually undergraduate TFs don’t have a the same depth of knowledge as a graduate student would have in a specific discipline, which means that sometimes they can’t offer the broader perspective on the subject that a more seasoned graduate student could.
  • While a graduate student can keep TFing the same course for many years, there is usually a much higher rate of undergrad TF turnover, meaning that undergrad TF’s come and go, while a grad student can TF the same course for many years and can get really good at teaching that specific course.
  • Undergraduate TFs don’t receive the same level of teaching preparation and support as graduate TFs, and generally don’t have the pedagogical experience (or ambitions) of their graduate TF colleagues.

The Awkward: 

  • There is a much higher chance of having friends, roommates or significant others in a class you are TFing when you are an undergraduate, which can be difficult to deal with.  Though we are careful not to have TFs grading people they know, the situation is still awkward, especially when friends of TFs taking the class expect extra help, or when friends are more attuned to various staff struggles.
  • Grading your peers is awkward especially when you interact with them on a daily basis in other contexts: in other classes, in your house and in various other social situations.
  • It is sometimes hard to get students (some of whom may be older than you) to treat you with respect as their instructor.

What do all of you think?  Are undergraduate TFs good, bad, or more awkward than anything else?

The author would like to thank K.T. Cagen for her insightful comments on the issue.

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