The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has a little more than 13,000 graduate students. Many of them, if not most, are involved in research, and some have chosen to take positions as teaching assistants for undergraduate courses as well, either because their advisers expect them to or because they desire additional funding for their research. Some TAs — the very best of them — make the decision to teach undergraduate classes because they genuinely enjoy the material they teach and want students to appreciate it as well. Perhaps these TAs want to lay the groundwork for future professorship.
Too often, however, there is a disconnect between TAs and their students. Most undergraduates can reflect on at least one TA they have had who seemed about as interested in their teaching as students are interested in their last week of classes. The role of research in their graduate education is a top priority for them, as perhaps it should be, but hiring TAs should require a thorough interviewing process, and peer supervising should be maintained throughout the semester. Not only is there variance between how each TA grades, but the teaching styles can often be vastly different from one another. A lack of cohesiveness in expectations and policy between different sections of the same class is not fair to students.
It’s important that the chosen TAs are truly interested and invested in teaching undergraduate students. The value of research at a public university like ours cannot be understated, but a conflict arises when its significance competes with the quality of undergraduate education. Teaching cannot simply exist as an afterthought in the minds of graduate TAs; our education is too important and too expensive to be playing second fiddle to the aspirations of student-researchers.