TA today, star teacher tomorrow
Matt Lassiter clears up some misconceptions about graduate students in the classroom.
Photo by Ken Campbell.
It’s a tried-and-true recruiting pitch for a small liberal arts college. Go to a big school and you’ll find huge classes where much of meaningful academic interaction is handled not by top professors, but by … graduate students.
Today there are plenty of current and former Virginia students who will tell you not only that this is true, but how fortunate they feel because of it. The reason is that at Virginia, today’s TA is tomorrow’s rising star.
Meet Exhibit A: Matt Lassiter. Lassiter (MA, History ’94, PhD ’99) came to the University in 1992 with an eye toward a doctorate in history. He left in 1998 to teach at Bowdoin College before earning a spot in the prestigious history department at the University of Michigan.
“When I was at the University of Virginia, I was a TA for some amazing professors,” Lassiter says, “including Paul Gaston, Ed Ayers and Julian Bond. TAs are able to spend more time with the students and give more of a hands-on educational experience in the environment of a public university than professors ever could. I’m not saying it is a direct substitute, but I really think there is a misconception about how teaching works.”
Many assume that graduate students teach a course from A to Z, but Lassiter explains that at Virginia his role was different: “You’re a discussion leader in a large lecture class.” He is quick to point out that the grad students don’t serve as substitutes for their mentors but that they in fact play an important role in enhancing the overall educational experience.
“My colleagues and I at Virginia spent a lot of time on teaching and had good mentoring from our professors. Ed Ayers would let us give a lecture in his class and give us feedback on it. Part of his goal in teaching his big class on the 19th-century South was to prepare the TAs for the time when we would be doing our own class.”
Lassiter’s experiences and mentors prepared him for much more than that. While still at the University, Lassiter and classmate Andrew B. Lewis published “The Moderate’s Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia.” And last year, his dissertation, “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South,” was published by Princeton University Press. The book focuses on southern politics and national politics, he says, including the civil rights battles over school integration from the 1950s through the 1970s.
Now that he is on the other side of the fundraising fence, Lassiter finds that the lessons he learned as a student are being put to good use. “When you are talking about funding for graduate students, it’s not just about making their lives more comfortable. It’s essential to be able to recruit the top candidates, and public universities face a real challenge here because private universities have more money. But if you are close enough to be competitive, it allows you to get the top students. And it’s not just about the quality of their dissertations, it’s that they are going to be doing a lot of the
teaching. It is an underappreciated part of what makes undergraduate education a valuable experience.”