20-hour GSIs

As part of their degree, PhD students in EECS are required to teach 30 weekly hours. Because most GSI appointments are either 10h/week or 20h/week, this means that the most common ways to fulfill this requirement are to teach three semesters at 10h/week, or to teach one semester at 20h/week and another semester at 10h/week.

In a more standard course staff model, most of the TAs are grad students hired at 20h/week, so this teaching requirement makes a lot of sense. However, the EECS department uses a different, more scalable course staff model (see Kevin Lin’s masters thesis for more on this). In this model, most TAs are hired at 8h/week to focus on student-facing jobs like discussions and office hours, and a few admin-level TAs are hired at 20h/week to focus more on backend tasks like exam writing, preparing course materials, and managing course infrastructure. Usually, 20h/week TAs are veteran TAs with a lot of experience teaching the course.

A 20h/week GSI who’s teaching the class to satisfy their teaching requirement is often teaching the class for the first (and sometimes only) time, and in many cases, they haven’t taken the class before (sometimes they haven’t taken any undergrad class at Berkeley). This also means that there’s more overhead involved for them to learn the course structure and get familiar with the unique way course staff operates at Berkeley.

It’s important to make sure that they’re working most or all of their weekly hours, to ensure that the class is well-supported and that other TAs don’t have to work overtime. A question I’ve struggled with as a head TA is: how can we best allocate hours for these TAs?

One solution is to make them admin-level TAs that work on content creation, logistics, and other backend tasks. This is a good way to keep their workload more varied, but it also requires more onboarding from the other admin TAs to make sure they understand the inner workings of course staff. Anecdotally, I’ve personally done a lot of admin tasks myself because it’s faster to do it myself than to show someone else how it’s done. Also, if the GSI isn’t returning for another semester with the class, the time it’s taken to transfer specialized knowledge about how to run the course might have been better spent with an undergrad TA who will stick around for longer and eventually become an admin-level TA after the current bunch graduates. With more a solid knowledge transfer process and more documentation in place, this task allocation does seem like a good approach, though.

Another solution is to have them work on the student-facing jobs that 8h/week TAs usually work on (e.g. discussions, office hours), but have them do a lot more of those jobs to reach their 20h/week appointment. This can be simpler logistically because it requires less knowledge transfer from both veteran TAs and the new GSI, and it lets the GSI focus on student-facing teaching roles if that’s what they prefer. The downside is that having to do effectively twice the job of an 8h TA (e.g. 2 or 3 discussions, many hours of office hours per week) might lead to some burnout.

Of course, different GSIs have different preferences too, so their role assignments ultimately depend on what they enjoy doing and what they’re good at doing. Still, it’s an interesting problem to think about how to best utilize someone who’s been hired for as many hours as a veteran admin-level TA, but may not have the prior experience in the class that is needed to be an efficient admin-level TA. I also do want to point out that some of the best TAs we’ve had in our classes are PhD students who are very passionate about teaching and bring their unique skill set as a PhD student to contribute great new ideas and tools to our classes.

Finally, an interesting piece of feedback I’ve heard from GSIs is that the course staff structure at Berkeley doesn’t really let them get the kind of teaching experience they might expect in preparation for a faculty position in the future. Specifically, the discussion worksheets are usually already prepared for them, and the course materials are already mostly developed and streamlined, so there isn’t as much freedom to create their own teaching materials compared to TA positions in other departments. I’m not sure what the best way to fix this is - maybe have them teach smaller grad classes where the course staff model is closer to a “standard” model than the scalable EECS model? - but it’s an interesting piece of feedback to keep in mind.