I think I taught a writing course linked to that ethics course six years in row. Every time the course was taught by a teaching assistant who had been elevated for that particular course to the status of something called an associate. This status allowed a second year graduate student to teach 250 undergraduate students and to act as the boss of two or three other TA’s who read the papers, midterms and finals for the course.
I was rather amazed when I heard about this. 250 students seemed a pretty big responsibility especially for teaching assistants who had never taught such a course before. I learned later that, if a TA was going to be elevated to the position of an instructor for an upper division course in a major special paper work had to be filled out, explaining why this substitution was necessary (the usual professor was on sabbatical usually) and indicating the TAs qualifications to teach the course. But no such dispensation was necessary for a teaching assistant to teach a General Education course.
This seemed to me another indication of the low regard for and the little thought given to General Education courses by the departments that offered them. And because no paper work was necessary, nobody knew how many General Education courses were serving as teacher training sessions for teaching assistants rather than educational situations for students. I found this all the more troubling given that many of these General Education courses were money makers for the individual departments concerned and that some departments would have trouble making ends meet without their General Education courses.
I do not suggest the Teaching Assistants were necessarily bad instructors. They tended to make up for their lack of knowledge, their lack of confidence, and public speaking skills by a good deal of enthusiasm. Still, I wish could forget the General Education course devoted to the Civil Rights movement. For some reason, the usual dynamic instructor, a lecturer like me was not available, and the course was handed over to a young graduate student.
She showed a lot of video. Additionally, the instructor was teaching a revisionist version of the Civil Rights movement with emphasis upon the role of women. Alright, I guess. But none of the students knew that was what she was doing because none of the students knew anything about the history she was revising. The intellectual force of the course was thereby considerably blunted.
Also she had technological troubles. One day she was attempting to show slides. But every time she clicked the slide clicker the slide machine would go backwards. I don’t know how long she clicked and re-clicked. I was in the back row. So I got up, went to the slide machine, readjusted the carriage of slides, and for a few clicks it worked. Then with another click, the whole machine sort of leapt up off its tiny perch and flung itself to the floor in apparent death throes. I was embarrassed to death for the poor instructor.
This embarrassment was trumped however by what I felt when one day she said she was going to play a tape of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream" speech. The tape started splendidly, with Kings sonorous “I have a dream….” But was followed abruptly by Walter Cronkite saying, “Yes, he had a dream.” This was not what the TA wanted. This is not what anybody wanted. But the teaching assistant had failed to preview the tape. She persisted by having the tech guy in a little booth in the back try to fast forward through the Cronkite parts to get to the King parts. This proved impossible. The speech was rendered a horrible mish mash of King plus Cronkite.
I swear I was ready to crap with embarrassment. But looking around, the students seemed their usual selves, yawning, sleeping, reading the paper, picking their noses and generally acting completely unperturbed as if this kind of screw up was simply par for the course. And who knows, maybe it was.