An Open Letter to Undergraduate Students from a GTA

This is my fourth year as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA). I’ve taught at two universities in four classes, two at the first year level and two second year. Incontestably, my students this year are the worst.

Participation, attendance, and effort put into assignments, essays, and exams have been mediocre at best. And, unfortunately, this nightmare of students carries over into my preparation and enthusiasm for weekly teaching. What should I say to a sparsely attended seminar of students who have neither read the required materials nor been to lecture? Nothing, really nothing.

There is something to be said here about the cost a student pays for education, to be educated. If a student does not complete the readings or attend the lecture, that individual cannot participate in the seminar, therefore burning about $50 in the process.

Their three modes of engaging in a course (reading, lecture, seminar) are lost, refused, snubbed, or taken indifferently – any of these lackluster approaches result in a squandering of tuition as well as the filling up of a seat that could be better used by a student who cares.

The rebuttal is that I’m paid to teach, to give the students a show. I am, fortunately, not an entertainer, but rather a facilitator and grader, so this claim doesn’t matter. To make the class enjoyable, educational, interesting, and worth the money, students must engage with texts and lectures prior to seminar (an obvious thing to say) – the 50-minute seminar works in this manner alone.

I am given the position as a GTA for the one (or more) student(s) who do take the time to appropriately prepare. It is for them that I organize my seminars in the way that I do and do not for those who can’t spare an hour or two on readings and lectures. In a sense then, the students are more responsible for their own education than the professor, TA, or university, although the instructors and institution play a part.

Students, I can see how it is easy for you to forget the most important thing about your time here at Trent: attending, participating, and engaging in lectures, seminars, and labs; finishing the required readings; and getting assignments done by the due dates and done to a certain standard for this university (“dumbed-down” to say the least – were you attending the University of Toronto, for example, take 5-10% off every one of your graded assignments).

Students, I believe you really do not want to write essays the night before the due dates nor, given the limited time to write said essays, refuse to edit them before submitting. You have spent three months preparing to write a term paper or exam. No one “in this economy” would spend $500 (the approximate cost of a half-credit course) on something you make use of only once before it expires, such as cramming for an exam the night before, or similarly, researching and writing an essay the day before it’s due.

Sure, life gets in the way, but don’t shirk your responsibilities to professors, TAs, peers (a group of bad students ruins the educational experience for the few good ones), or this university. Don’t forget to be a student.

The university is a business. Trent has spent a great deal of time and money to figure out its mandate, uniqueness, and goals, but the product Trent is trying to sell is to student-consumers who don’t really want it. A successful university isn’t a lecture hall full of warm bodies, half-asleep or on Facebook, or a well-registered online course that has no way of assessing or gauging interest and involvement.

A successful university is a community of intelligent and engaged students who put education first and who want a group of peers with whom they can share their enthusiasm and smarts.

If the student I have described in this last sentence isn’t you, then you’ve found the wrong vocation. Four (or more) years are a long, long time to be doing something you dislike, or worse, are apathetic about.

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