Adapting to virtual platforms, lack of communication and inadequate training and preparation has caused some graduate teaching assistants to cope with additional burdens during the fall 2020 semester.

Sarah, who requested her name be changed to remain anonymous, is a graduate assistant in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics. This semester, she is teaching Spanish fully online while working toward completing her master's degree. 

Sarah said outside of her classroom, poor communication within her department has left her feeling unsupported. This semester is her first time teaching an online course, and with no prior experience and little training, she said it has been difficult to adjust. 

“We never really received any guidance or recommendations on teaching online,” Sarah said. “I think we are all trying to figure out how to do classes online that are similar to what we had in-person, but that is not really possible.”

Sarah said communication between her and her advisor has been minimal, and she does not feel comfortable reaching out to her advisor with issues she may be having. She said this feeling comes from past attempts to reach out.

“I don’t want to feel like I am wasting his time,” Sarah said. “That is kind of how I feel when reaching out with these issues.”

Trevor Samaha, a third-year political science Ph.D student, currently teaches an in-person course. Three times a week, he said he arrives on campus at about 8 a.m., sets up his lecture materials and prepares recording software to share with students unable to attend in-person. 

This semester is Samaha's first time teaching a course on his own. Prior to this semester, he worked as a teaching assistant alongside professors in his department. 

Samaha said he has struggled due to lack of communication as well. However, it is the lack of communication with his peers that has affected him. 

Sitting in an office filled with desks, Samaha pointed to the empty seats.

“Normally, there are people sitting at that desk and that desk, and there are people in here and we can hang out and talk,” Samaha said. “This semester, I am literally the only grad student in this office.”

Amelia Whitaker, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Intensive English Program, works with international students to improve their English language skills. This semester is her first time teaching, and her schedule includes a mix of online and in-person classes.

For her, she said her advisors have gone above and beyond in communicating and ensuring students and faculty have the resources necessary for academic success given the obstacles. She said she receives daily emails from her advisors to check in with her.

“They know that coming into a graduate program, we are already stressed and don’t really know what to expect,” Whitaker said. “You throw COVID in with all of that and it is even more stressful.”

Like Samaha, Whitaker said her biggest challenge has been making connections with other graduate students. 

Samaha said besides wearing masks and standing behind a plexiglass barrier, he conducts lectures similarly to previous semesters. The strangest change for him is the change in location. Typically, he would be teaching in a regular classroom, but his class is held in a large lecture hall with just over 30 students spaced throughout it. 

At the start of the semester, Samaha and other graduate students were told to be prepared for a possible shift to online courses mid-semester. When courses moved temporarily online following an announcement on Sept. 7, Samaha said despite knowing the situation was a possibility, it presented the biggest challenge in his classroom. 

“Essentially, you had to be prepared to teach two different ways,” Samaha said. “It's impossible to deliver the same product in-person, online, in my opinion.”

Sarah said teaching a language course requires being conversational, something that is much more difficult to accomplish over Zoom. For group work, she divides her students into break-out rooms, making it impossible for her to monitor and ensure each group is continually engaging with one another.

To keep up with her students and support them, Sarah has had to take more time out of her own studies. She said compared to previous semesters, she is having to dedicate more time to helping her students keep up with deadlines.

“It's taking up more and more time out of my classes that I am taking, having to grade and make sure they are okay, because they are really struggling,” Sarah said. 

Whitaker said in a virtual setting, it is difficult to gauge whether students are fully understanding the material, interact with them and create connections. Even though in-person instruction has allowed her to make more personal connections with some of her students, wearing face masks and socially distancing still creates barriers between Whitaker and her students.

Kelly Weaver, an immunology and microbial pathogenesis Ph.D student, works as a graduate assistant for undergraduate microbiology courses alongside another professor in her department. Although she teaches in-person, some of her students attend the lectures live through Zoom. 

Weaver said her courses require students to work hands-on, making it difficult for students who do not attend in-person to participate. To help these students still engage with the course, Weaver said photos of the lab activities are uploaded online to allow students to make their own observations remotely.

Despite the additional challenges, Weaver said she feels students attending her in-person course have participated more than ever before. 

“I feel like they are more excited to come to classes,” Weaver said. “We don’t really have anyone absent unless maybe they’ve been told they can’t come.”

The hardships graduate assistants have faced has led them to alternative methods to ensure their students succeed in their courses, whether virtual or in-person. 

“There’s been a lot of random things that you would never think of under a normal semester,” Samaha said. “I think it has definitely been a struggle, but hopefully things get back to normal soon.”