Economics. The mere word conjures up feelings of misery and despair for many students who have taken, or have been forced to take, a class in the econ department. The subject itself is traditionally one of the most challenging at Georgetown, and it is an often-cited truism that for most students, econ classes serve as a speed bump on the way to a high GPA. Since the economics department stands out as one of the most rigorous and challenging disciplines for students, especially for those in the School of Foreign Service who are required to take four courses, one would think that the teaching assistants chosen would be extremely well-qualified. Unfortunately, based on the experience of the Editorial Board and a wide variety of Georgetown students we spoke with, the TAs in the econ department are notoriously unhelpful.

The complaints against TAs are diverse, ranging from broken English to faltering teaching skills to perceived unfairness when grading work. The frequent problems with TAs shouldn’t be a big surprise given the manner in which TAs are chosen.

Undergraduate economics TAs are frequently chosen by individual professors based on who received the best grade in the class the semester before. Some might cite this alone as a problematic recruiting criterion.

The complaints against undergraduate TAs are different and less severe than those that face graduate TAs. Because undergraduate students have taken the class for which they are the TA, they know what material can be problematic and how best to explain the more difficult concepts. Many graduate students have a poor understanding of how to explain the subject to undergraduate students, who are learning the subject at a more basic level. Further, because undergraduates have been a student in the given professor’s class, they understand the benefits and failings of his teaching style.

As most students who have taken an economics class can tell you, the greatest problem with economics TAs, undergraduate or graduate, seems to be that they are chosen not by their ability to communicate information but merely by their ability to understand it.

Teaching is not an easy job and not a common skill. Neither is the comprehension of economics. Economics is a challenging and rigorous subject with which many students need assistance outside of cut-and-dry lectures. Allowing students with poor communication skills to be in charge of a class is misguided. Picking students based solely on high grades is a poor mechanism because, in economics, good communications skills are not required to receive a high grade in the class. TAs should be rigorously chosen, well-trained and frequently examined for quality control. Right now it appears as though very little of this is happening. Though there is a six-hour training session at the beginning of the year for new economics TAs, this clearly is insufficient.

This problem with TAs isn’t exclusive to the economics department, and the responsibility for ensuring higher-quality TAs across all departments is a burden shared by students and administrators. Students have the opportunity to critique their TAs and fail to do so in a way that communicates the obvious shortcomings of their TA. Without this information, it is not surprising that there continue to be a number of poor TAs. Of course, administrators need to seriously reexamine the manner in which they hire TAs. You wouldn’t hire someone to tutor your kids for their SATs who, though brilliant, doesn’t know how to communicate that knowledge. Likewise, you shouldn’t hire TAs who only know economics, not how to teach it.

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