The teaching assistant at Rutgers, as at other major research universities in the United States, plays an important role in the education of undergraduates. Rutgers depends on teaching assistants to staff both introductory and advanced undergraduate courses. Today, it is a rare student who graduates from Rutgers without having been taught by a TA. With approximately 800 teaching assistants in the full range of disciplines, TAs are obviously essential to the running of the university. Furthermore, without teaching assistantships the university would be at a disadvantage in competing to attract the best faculty to work at Rutgers and would have difficulty meeting its obligation to train and develop the next generation of scholars and teachers.
The benefits of an assistantship to a TA are considerable. First, there are financial benefits, including tuition remission, which make it possible for some students to enroll in graduate school in the first place. In addition, TAs gain valuable experience in teaching at the college level, which will help when the time comes to look for a job. Finally, TAs have an opportunity to strengthen their own knowledge of their chosen field, since teaching demands not only a thorough understanding but also a constant rethinking of the subject matter. Teaching assistants and professors frequently comment on how much better they have grasped a subject after teaching it. Recognizing these mutually beneficial aspects of the assistantship may help TAs to feel more comfortable with their position at Rutgers. At least at first, many TAs may feel uncertain about their status in the university. As graduate students, they may feel that they have come a long way from their undergraduate days, but as teachers, they may feel that they have far to go. Although resolving this conflict may not be simple, working hard at professional development will make TAs feel more secure in their status as members of the teaching staff and help accelerate their professional growth. Keep in mind that TAs are needed, qualified, and respected members of the Rutgers community who have the opportunity to make a unique and important contribution to its educational goals.
What is the connection between research and teaching? Is there a connection between serious research and good teaching? Do undergraduates benefit from instructors who devote a considerable amount of time to research rather than to teaching full-time? What are the benefits for the students in having a TA who is engaged in teaching, studying, and research? What are the disadvantages of this arrangement?
Although the benefits teachers gain from research are generally clear to those engaged in it, people on the other side of the fence may question the efficacy of such a dual system. Undergraduates and critics outside of the academy often see the researcher as someone who is seeking to avoid the responsibility of teaching, someone in retreat from the "real world." The notion that jobs are, in fact, rigidly compartmentalized teachers teach, nurses nurse, waiters wait does not hold true. Almost any job combines many skills and duties; the most interesting fields are often those that intersect with others, where a person gets the opportunity to integrate diverse interests and talents into a single satisfying job. Teaching in a research university such as Rutgers can be a very satisfying occupation. It is important also to note that it benefits not only the teacher but that teacher's students and society at large. The teacher/researcher, of course, is the obvious beneficiary; being paid to explore areas of interest in one's chosen field is a joy. In addition, having the chance to discuss new ideas with a group of interesting and interested students is a way of testing ideas. More importantly, the act of teaching provides a constant opportunity to rethink old questions, a process that often leads to new ways of looking at problems, even of solving them. Finally, in the end, the research may result in some real contribution to the field the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences that will benefit others in the discipline and the constituents served by it.
Undergraduates, of course, benefit also. The teacher who is currently involved in research, who stays abreast of the field, is able to keep his or her teaching fresh: knowing about new ideas, new theories, new approaches to a subject are necessary to anyone actively involved in research. Students, therefore, are given a broader, more up-to-date view of the subject than might be available to a student with a teacher whose research ended when the degree was awarded. Students can be challenged and excited by a teacher whose subject seems open-ended and evolving rather than closed and final.
Undergraduates do have a legitimate complaint, however, when a faculty member spends precious class time on an arcane, highly specialized problem. Unless students have mastered the basics of a subject, they simply will not be interested in these matters. It is useful to bring in relevant ideas from research when they assist students in understanding the course material or when they offer opportunities for students to build upon their basic knowledge. TAs must balance their students' need to understand the basics thoroughly with their own desire to keep their students aware of the latest ideas in a field. Without the basics, these ideas are meaningless.
Another problem may arise when students perceive the faculty member or TA as too busy to work with them. Faculty members who spend all their time in the laboratory and make themselves inaccessible to their students are not, of course, meeting their obligations. The key to the success of the research university lies in the ability of its members to balance the roles of researcher and teacher; one role cannot take priority over the other. If either role is neglected, the faculty member or teaching assistant is not fulfilling his or her obligation to the university, to the department, and to the undergraduates.
Faculty members engaged in important research attract other talented faculty members to the campus, who, in turn, attract better graduate students and undergraduates. Research also brings needed funds to the university in the form of grants. Because a university takes its shape from the kinds of teaching and research it undertakes and is judged by its level of commitment to teaching and research, it is important that all members of the university community are aware of the nature of this commitment.