Let’s talk about teaching assistants and ‘Erkennen & Waarderen’

By Patrick Bijsmans

When our BA European Studies (ES) started in 2002, I embarked on a job as teaching assistant at FASoS. A crazy time, but also a fun and rewarding one. I was the only teaching assistant back then. Today, teaching assistants (usually recent MA graduates) play a central role in BA level teaching, and, in contrast to what the job title suggests, they teach the full course, are responsible for the proceedings of their tutorials, and are engaged in course assessment.

I’ve just started teaching and coordinating two courses in period 2. One of these is a first-year BA ES course that I’m teaching together with seven colleagues, all of whom are teaching assistants, and six of whom have only just started work at the faculty. In my experience teaching assistants often do a wonderful job. Nevertheless, there are also important drawbacks: for them, because in a problem-based learning (PBL) environment teaching is a team effort and a balanced team of young and experienced colleagues stimulates development and sharing of best practices; for coordinators, because the heavy reliance on teaching assistants ups the stakes for coordination.

This situation now arises every first year in the BA ES and is also increasingly having an impact at the other end of the programme. Last August I had to assign no less than 26 new BA thesis first and second readers because some teaching assistants had found another job, but many more simply were at the end of their contract. Given our reliance on teaching assistants and with another ‘Erkennen & Waarderen’ (Recognition & Rewards) event just around the corner, it’s high time we talk about the future of teaching assistants at FASoS.

To me ‘Erkennen & Waarderen’ is all about valuing different careers in academia; something that is more attuned to reality at many universities. But most of the discussions so far concern staff who have obtained a PhD (or are in the process of doing so). But what about teaching assistants? Each year FASoS hires new teaching assistants on temporary contracts to replace others who often have become excellent teachers with a wealth of experience and valuable insights into PBL, but whose contracts have expired. Isn’t that a waste?

The argument for temporary contracts is usually twofold: teaching assistants can’t stay in academia without a PhD, and ‘we’ don’t want to determine their careers for them. The latter I find most puzzling. Some teaching assistants may actually have the ambition to teach, so is it then up to us to end contracts after 3-4 years? This argument also presupposes that teaching delivery is the only thing that they can do. But is that really the case?

Teaching assistants already coordinate courses in our BA programmes and even the PBL & Tutor Training for new staff. I have co-developed course materials with teaching assistants, but they can also help improve assessment and develop innovative practices – after all, teaching assistants follow the University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) programme which prepares them for such tasks. Perhaps they could even assist in teaching and learning research; find relevant literature, gather data, even publish together with FASoS staff who are already engaged in such research (who knows, this may eventually turn into a PhD after all!).

Of course, constantly fluctuating students numbers require a degree of flexibility. But wouldn’t we want to keep the best teaching assistants, for instance by having one vacancy every year or every second year? This offers security and a chance to build a strong CV, even when they want to move on after a few years – by all accounts it can be quite challenging to find another job after 3-4 years of teaching. We would, of course, have to determine what criteria ‘the best’ would have to meet, but there is lots of literature that could help in designing such career paths and the accompanying training.

I know that there are quite a few of you who share my view, but some of you might consider this to be the death of academia as we know it. But do teaching assistants need a PhD to teach in our BA programmes? Course evaluations certainly suggest that this may not be the case – not a surprise given that teaching in PBL is about more than substantive knowledge only. And wouldn’t we all benefit from holding on to the best ones? Experienced teachers can also contribute to coordinative and research duties. This would alleviate pressure on coordinators in our BA programmes, but also save others time and effort to continuously train new staff. Time and effort which are not acknowledged in SOLVER hours, but which would decrease demands on research time.

Finally, shouldn’t we also recognise teaching assistants’ substantial contribution by rewarding them with a different job title? They don’t just ‘assist’. Indeed, the task description for tutors on our intranet does not distinguish between teaching assistants and other teaching staff. The PBL & Tutor Training and UTQ also prepare them to do the same work as the rest of us. So perhaps instructor, teacher or simply tutor are more fitting job titles?

About the author

Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching & Learning European Studies. When he started his academic career as a teaching assistant in European Studies back in 2002, he had to teach the most diverse range of courses possible. Patrick now teaches at BA and MA level, is engaged in PhD and postdoc supervision, coordinates part of the teaching staff development trajectory, and regularly publishes on teaching and learning.