Some of Ohio University’s graduate students, who currently teach classes in an online format, are struggling to keep a balance in their lives, while also keeping students engaged.

These graduate students carry a heavy workload to assist in the education of other students. Many graduate students are teaching assistants, or TAs, who instruct consistently. Marc Guagenti, a first-year graduate student studying philosophy, is a TA for Principles of Reasoning.

While time spent working as a teaching assistant is supposed to be limited to 10 hours a week, Guagenti believes he spends closer to 20 hours a week.

“The main problems I've been having are … the usual balancing problems,” Guagenti said. “They're far more extreme in the case of COVID. The 20 hours (a week) is just too much to actually manage my other graduate work.”

There is a lack of training for graduate students when it comes to teaching, and the online environment has only made this worse. Blackboard training is sparse and not particularly well-done, Guagenti said.

Steel Brooks, a TA in the Fall Semester for Introduction to Visual Communication Skills: Photography and a first-year graduate studying photography, feels similarly about the lack of training.

“The university had a fairly general ‘TA orientation’ which covered a lot of the basics, but the role and work of TAs is vastly different across fields and disciplines, so I felt like a lot of that wasn't necessarily applicable to the position I was in,” Brooks said in an email. 

Brooks said that on a technical level, learning how to teach remotely wasn’t much of a problem. Guagenti said that he found professors and students alike have needed assistance in becoming acclimated to remote learning. 

“That happened early in the pandemic to professors, and I wasn't the only person helping them … it's hard to adapt to technology as you get older,” Guagenti said. “It's not like the students are very good with the technology either … I had to do a lot of tech support for them too, and for a couple teachers.” 

Getting students engaged during remote classes also proved to be challenging for TAs.  

“The video format really stifles natural conversation flow and it took a lot of work to get students to engage,” Brooks said in an email. “I had to come up with … tools to help get students talking and asking questions.”

Luis Miguel Lopez Londono, a Ph.D. graduate student in communications studies, is an instructor for Communication Among Cultures. Londono said he feels online learning has caused a loss in connection between him and the students. 

“Having in-person instruction, first, I can receive emotions and feelings … I can read my students bodies, like the meanings they communicate through nonverbal language,” Londono said. “I think I am losing … the interaction with the physical. We are losing the interaction with the material … having only a screen as a means of communication with my students of course has a lot of obstacles and constraints.”

Graduate students have also had to field conversations about mental health, as many of them work primarily with freshmen in introductory-level classes. During the coronavirus pandemic, some of these students were learning remotely for the first time.

“Last fall, when I had many people who were only 18 years old entering the program, who had never had a college experience, there was a lot of mental health problems,” Guagenti said. “And I was often doing things that I wasn't trained to do. For example, be a counselor, almost … it was a huge toll on my mental health, trying to keep up with the mental health of people who didn't get a chance to have their high school graduation, and then suddenly are thrust into this rather effects of some sort of facsimile of a college environment.” 

As OU shifts back to in-person instruction, some online courses will remain available. Graduate student instructors hope for reflection on the year as they try to improve the online environment setting. 

“I’m always reflecting on my job assignment structure,” Londono said. “I think it would be interesting to get together and share our positive and negative experience … what worked for you, what didn't work … I think that sharing different experiences would help to identify which strategies would work better.”