Manual for Teaching Assistants

Admission to the PhD program in Religion carries with it a commitment of full financial support for up to six years, subject to the condition that the student is making satisfactory progress toward the doctoral degree. This position carries a fixed stipend (the same for all students) for nine months plus tuition and fees. In fulfillment of the requirements for the MPhil degree, all students must gain teaching experience as part of their graduate training. Thus, all graduate students serve as Teaching Assistants for four years as a form of teaching apprenticeship.

The four-year teaching apprenticeship is an integral part of academic training in the Religion Department. For all PhD students, Teaching Assistantships begin in the second year and continue until four years have been completed. Exceptions to this general rule are those students who win external financial awards, such as the Foreign Language and Studies Fellowship or the Javits Fellowship, which exempt students from teaching responsibilities. However, this does not supersede the GSAS policy that doctoral students must teach a minimum of two semesters before receiving their MPhil. Please also note that students cannot fulfill the two-semester requirement by teaching two courses in the same semester.

Except during examination weeks and in other extraordinary circumstances, the workload for Teaching Assistants should not exceed 20 hours per week. No teaching is allowed in the first year so that students will be able concentrate on their studies.

Job placements in Religious Studies are becoming increasingly competitive. It is imperative that students complete their PhD with rich teaching experience. The teaching apprenticeship provides students with diverse, first-hand teaching experiences: lectures, individual consultation, guiding class discussions, and grading exams and papers. Learning and participating in new technologies and teaching methods are fundamental to teaching in the academy, and students should be prepared to assist faculty in adopting new materials.

At least once during the three year apprenticeship, every student will be assigned to a course outside their specialization. Since our graduate programs are designed to produce specialists in selected fields, Teaching Assistant responsibilities provide important opportunities for students to develop insight into the study of religion from a comparative perspective. Having knowledge of traditions, ritual systems, or doctrines outside one's own specialization will be a powerful intellectual tool for students in developing their academic career.

For those students who seek to develop their teaching skills further, preceptorships in Columbia College's Core Curriculum and teaching an independent course are also possibilities after the apprenticeship is completed. Students may find information about additional teaching opportunities on the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website.

Several criteria are considered when making Teaching Fellow assignments. In the spring and fall of each year a list of eligible courses will be emailed to every Teaching Assistants. Teaching Assistants will be asked to submit a "wish list" of courses to which they would like to be assigned in the following semester. Please note that seminars and graduate courses do not have Teaching Assistants assigned to them.

The process works as follows:

  1. Students are assigned to classes based on the following criteria:
    1. Seniority. Students in their fourth year of teaching will have their preferences considered first. Every attempt will be made, however, to match each student with at least one of their first or second choices each year.
    2. Field of study. A student's academic interests will be considered when assignments are made. Every student, however, will be expected to teach in at least one course outside their field during the three-year apprenticeship. Each semester several students will be assigned to courses that do not appear on their lists, particularly if no one lists those courses as one of their preferences.
    3. The needs of the department. Some classes require more Teaching Assistant assistance than others and the teaching schedule can shift from year to year, depending on who is on leave and other staffing issues. Though the department will make every effort to minimize disruptions, students should be prepared to shift their assignments should unexpected schedule changes occur.
  2. Teaching Assistant assignments are made by the Director of Graduate Studies and tracked by the department administrator to ensure that every student is given appointments in as fair and equitable a manner as possible. All assignments are subject to the approval of the Chair. All questions and concerns about assignments should be addressed to the Director of Graduate Studies. 

Generally, Teaching Assistants are responsible for attending classes and taking notes, doing the readings with the class, and grading exams and papers. More specifically, the responsibilities of Teaching Assistants vary depending on the size of the class, type of class, and expectations of the professor teaching the class. Faculty may also expect Teaching Assistants to perform practical tasks, such as ordering books and photocopying. Faculty cannot ask Teaching Assistants to conduct research for them.

Both Teaching Assistants and instructors are encouraged to review the Teaching Roles and Responsibilities document prior to starting each term.

Lecture courses may have more than one Teaching Assistant. If so, students will be divided into sections, with each Teaching Assistant being responsible for one or more sections. There will often be meetings between the professor and Teaching Assistants to discuss exams, review sessions, assignments, etc. Teaching Assistants should also expect to hold office hours, meet with students on an individual basis, and lead general review sessions between exams. They are often expected to proctor exams.