Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1991

KU EDITION

August 17, 1991

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Graduate teaching assistants tend to get a bad rap from students at Kansas University.

When students come to KU, many of them expect their classes to be taught by professors, not people who are not much older than themselves.

Others complain that they can't understand their foreign GTAs.

But GTAs are a vital part of the university and provide benefits that outweigh any perceived problem, said Bob Sanders, associate dean of the graduate school.

"They provide a unique perspective on education," Sanders said. "They have experience in their field, they're young, they can relate with the students. They've won teaching awards just like regular members of the faculty."

LAST FALL, GTAs numbered about 1,050, teaching mostly introductory level classes.

Most KU GTAs teach classes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that students need to fulfill graduation requirements: biology, communications, English, Western Civilization, math, foreign languages.

Many teach laboratory courses, run tutorial sessions or oversee exams.

And many are from foreign countries, making the language barrier a problem they have to hurdle. Foreign graduate students must take an English equivalency exam, called SPEAK, if they want to become a GTA at KU, said Christine Jensen, a language specialist at the university's Applied English Center.

Students are tested on a variety of skills, from reading aloud to presenting hypothetical class schedules, Jensen said. To be a GTA at KU, students must get a score of 240 on the exam, which is 20 points higher than the Kansas Board of Regents' requirement.

A SCORE of 240, Jensen said, would indicate that the students can be understood with relatively little difficulty. Someone who receives a perfect score of 300 is considered a native speaker.

The Applied English Center also runs a month-long program during the summer that is designed to help foreign students with their English and with teaching techniques. Cultural obstacles also face foreign GTAs, Jensen said.

"People need to realize that we're dealing with different kinds of teaching systems," she said. "A student from India, if they're studying chemistry, the historical issues and names and dates are important. In the U.S., we spend more time in the here and now."

The university also offers a one-day orientation program for all new GTAs, said Jerry Hutchinson, associate vice chancellor of academic affairs. In an average fall semester, there are about 175 new GTAs at KU.

The Office of Academic Affairs, which works jointly on the orientation with the Graduate Student Council, brings in experienced faculty members and veteran GTAs, who give seminars and talks about lecture, discussion and evaluation methods.

GTAS RECEIVE a 75 percent fee waiver, a fact that irks many GTAs. They have been lobbying for a 100 percent waiver, which GTAs at many of KU's peer schools have, but state and university funding is tight.

"It's important for students," Sanders said. "It's a way of providing financial aid, another form of scholarship.''

Many GTAs, he said, are are angry about not having a 100 percent fee waiver. ``You can't blame them."

One of the angry is Julie Gleve, one of the 60 to 70 graduate students who teach introductory level courses at KU's Spanish and Portuguese department.

Gleve said it is difficult to live on her wages and at the same time pay for her tuition at the start of the semester. The university also will suffer if it does not enact a 100 percent fee waiver, she said.

"KU is going to have to (enact a 100 percent waiver) if it wants to be competitive with other universities," Gleve said. "Graduate students are going to other universities that have a fee waiver. For most students, finances are a factor when they have to choose schools, and this doesn't help."

FEE WAIVER or no fee waiver, Gleve, who has taught at KU since 1987, is upbeat about her position and about GTAs in general.

"For students, they know it's not been that long since (GTAs) have been in the same situation they are in," she said. "That helps GTAs understand what students are going through."

She said she thought GTAs tended to be enthusiasic, dedicated to what they are teaching and to new methods of teaching and can be receptive to student problems.

But, she said, while being close in age to the students is good in some ways, it also can cause problems. Students may feel like they're "buddies" with the professor and not take things as seriously as they should, she said.

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