Every year, Professor of Government Christian Potholm selects a student as a teaching assistant (TA) for his first-year seminar, “The Korean War.”
Throughout the term, as part of an independent study, the TA helps facilitate in-class discussions, works with students on their writing skills, and delivers a lecture on a topic of his or her choosing towards the end of the course.
Potholm originally drew on his own experience as a Bowdoin student when crafting this format for his class.
“When I was a junior, the dean, who was also a professor of history, asked me to assist him in a class and actually give a lecture, and it really changed my life,” he said. “After it all, I looked at all sorts of different careers and eventually came back to that. I like to use the idea of the TA’s as an opportunity for [Bowdoin students].”
While educational for the student teaacher, having TA’s does run contrary to Bowdoin’s emphasis on strong communication between faculty and students without intermediaries.
This fall, 77 quantitative reasoning (QR) tutors are leading weekly study sessions, holding drop-in hours, and grading all homework assignments in the math and economics departments. They are paid $8.75 an hour, with an additional 25 cents an hour for each successive year that they tutor.
The number of QR tutors has steadily increased over the past seven years. With this addition to Bowdoin’s teaching system, is the College at risk of weakening the strong student-professor rapport that it values so much? Is communication between professor and student hindered when students are encouraged to bring their questions to peer tutors?
Potholm does not think this is the case. He does not deny that using a TA ultimately results in a little less work for him, but he does not think that his system damages communication between him and his students in any way. In fact, he thinks it facilitates a discussion.
“The students aren’t denied any access to me,” Potholm said. “The last thing I want is a student to be having trouble and not bring it to my attention.” In this way, he believes, the TA “helps identify a problem and open up the process.”
Microeconomics tutor Lee Abecunas ’14 shares Potholm’s sentiments.
“I feel that education at Bowdoin has been and still is grounded in teaching by professors,” he said in an email to the Orient. “However, I still think TA’s at Bowdoin serve an important role. I feel many students are more comfortable approaching someone approximately their own age with questions as opposed to a professor in office hours.”
QR tutor Andrew Hancock ’13 acknowledges that grading math homework definitely makes professors’ lives easier, but he does not necessarily think this is a bad thing.
“I’d imagine that grading homework sets would be a waste of a professor’s time that would be better spent conducting research or helping students at office hours,” he said.
In the end, Potholm thinks everyone benefits from his TA system.
“I see it very much as a collaborative synergy,” he said. “It helps me improve my teaching, because once the TA is on this collegial basis, then they are very open and honest.”
Hancock says that he has sought help from QR tutors quite often in the past.
“I really believe that the tutoring program provides a great resource for students who need help catching back up with class material, or for students who have most of the material nailed down but are looking to make further connections,” he said.
Abecunas said he has found tutoring to be a very rewarding experience on all sides.
“I truly enjoy the moment when it clicks for a student, [when] he or she finally understands a concept that had been causing so much frustration,” he said.
“I also think being a student tutor demonstrates a feeling that is already prevalent at Bowdoin, that is, noncompetitive collaboration. Students want to do well at Bowdoin, of course, but they also want their peers to do well. My job is to simply channel this academic good-will in a ‘formal’ setting,” he said.