York TA apologizes for criticizing her students

Sociology department still investigating ‘regrettable and inappropriate’ Facebook comments


The York University tutorial assistant who criticized her students on Facebook has apologized. According to campus paper the Excalibur, the status update from sociology TA Bianca Baggiarini, read in part: “My student’s papers are making me dumber, so very stupid; by the minute. Please, make them, stop.” Posted on Feb. 22, the comments have since been taken down. Chair of the sociology department, Nancy Mandell, told the Toronto Star that Baggiarini has now apologized for her actions. “She’s very sincere in that apology,” Mandell said, but added that the comments were “very regrettable and inappropriate,” and that they show “a lack of respect for students.” The department is still investigating the matter.

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York TA apologizes for criticizing her students

  1. I agree that the TA’s comments were inappropriate, but people need to understand something before they pass judgment here:

    If undergraduate students in the majority of academic disciplines at Ontario’s post-secondary institutions were graded solely on their written communication skills, the majority would receive a failing grade.

    It is only natural that TAs are frustrated with the alarming number of students who cannot be bothered to employ the spelling and/or grammar proofing tools built into their word processing programs, let alone take advantage of the academic writing support services offered on campus.

    Every TA experiences the frustration expressed by the TA in question to some degree and truthfully, when you spend so many hours of your time willfully ignoring all manner of error in the material you are grading, it becomes ingrained. You suddenly find yourself unable to efficiently proofread your own academic and professional submissions. It truly is astounding how widespread the problem is and it truly is infectious.

    Shame on you, media, making news of an overstressed, overworked, underpaid early-twenty-something year old student’s social blunder. That’ll teach her.

    Shame on you, too, York U, publicly condemning one of your untrained STUDENT employees as unprofessional. No kidding!? Why don’t you spend more than an hour training your TAs before you put them in the front line with the expectation that they conduct themselves professionally?

    And fret not, students. You ought to take some reassurance from the fact that your TAs are venting to their friends and family and not instead taking their frustrations out on your grades. Rejoice. This may come as news to you, but your TAs are graduate students who are automatically put to work as TAs as stipulated by their academic funding packages. There is no alternative employment available to them.

    Do at least extend them the courtesy of submitting legible, organized work. You have no excuse. If you’re already doing so, you have nothing to fear. Your TAs love you, truly. You are a breath of fresh air.

    • I am a TA and recognize the financial and workload issues that many graduate students face. But you are shifting the issue here. The issue at hand is that this graduate student chose the wrong place to vent her frustrations. Facebook is not the place. It is – in most cases – a public arena. As a teaching assistant, this grad student should have realized this. If you don’t customize the privacy settings on facebook to their maximum, you must accept that it is, to all intents and purposes, an open, public space. It continues to amaze me how many intelligent people – grad students included – fail to see Facebook and the internet for what they are: public places of communication and sharing. Sorokin hits the point perfectly in the ‘social network’: “the internet is written in ink”

  2. @Former TA

    Hear hear! I’m not at all surprised that given the obscene sense of entitlement amongst today’s undergraduate that they could skate on through high school, benefit from the totally dumbed-down standards of Ontario’s universities (what a feel good story it is that enrollments are at an all time high!!), and when someone feels the all too human need to vent while marking a pile of substandard, half-assed assignments they feel insulted.

    Guess what average Ontario undergraduate: If the standards of 10–Hell, even 5 years ago–were applied to you, most of you would not last long.

    This TA should have never said sorry: Her students instead should have apologized en masse for wasting her–and the instructor’s time.

  3. I am a York University 4th year undergraduate student. This TA has the right to express her opinions and frustrations. By the same token, she should have known better, especially since she is a PHD student and is a highly intelligent person, not to post her thoughts on facebook, for everyone to access her page. I don’t feel bad for her, she deserves to be publicly humiliated for her lack of respect for her students. Perhaps if she was a better TA her students work would not be making her “dumber”. She may have book smarts, but she has no common sense what so ever. I have friends who have her as a TA and they say that she is not a good teacher and that she thinks that just because she is a PHD student she is better than them. This chick better remember that once upon a time, she was a undergrad, and I bet her TA’s were also unimpressed by her work too. She isn’t perfect.

  4. I am also a York University Undergraduate student (a 34 year old undergrad, who decided to pursue her degree after being in the working world for about 10 years) I am in my third year majoring in criminology. I disagree with my fellow undergraduate Cassie. I totally respect your opinion, however, unless we are in the TA’s position, we cannot really understand how she feels or any TA feels when they are marking over 60 papers. I am sure, based on what my cousin, who is a TA, has told me, that most TA’s complain that their students essay’s are horrible, while they praise others who do an amazing job. Facebook probably wasn’t the best avenue for her to express her disdain for her students work. She could have perhaps complained to her friends in person about it. Being publicly humiliated is not fun, not matter who it is, or what they are being humiliated for. She probably wants to crawl into a whole an die, I would! But I suppose she has to buck up and get to her class on Monday and face her class who all probably hate her tremendously. As I said, this TA is entitled to her opinion and is entitled to vent, but she picked the wrong avenue to talk about her students.

  5. Cassie, just a few writing tips:

    -In PhD the “h” is lower case
    -“whatsoever” is one word, not three
    -If she *were* a better TA (use the subjunctive here)
    -In the second last sentence, you’re use of “also” and “too” is kind of overkill
    -Also in the second last sentence, no apostrophe on “TAs”. You might notice for the other posts that the apostrophe is only used for possession or in a contraction, but not when TA is plural.
    -“she should have known better […] *than* to post her thoughts on facebook” (not “not to post her thoughts on facebook”)

    By your fourth year, you should probably know these things. Your opinions are appreciated, but I really do hope you are proofreading your papers better than your internet posts! Otherwise, I totally feel sorry for your TAs.

  6. Kirsten, a writing tip for you: “you’re use of ‘also’…” should be “your.” “You’re” is a contraction of “you are” while “your” indicates possession. It’s an easy mistake to make, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed or publicly humiliated for it. Nor should Cassie have been humiliated for making errors in her post, nor should Bianca have humiliated her students by publicly posting her complaints on facebook, nor should she in turn have been publicly humiliated for making a mistake. What we’re talking about here is modeling pedagogy within an institution of higher education that is supposed to exist for the sake of student advancement, and pedagogy through humiliation simply doesn’t work.

    The real issue here, that the university is glossing over by putting the media focus on Bianca’s error, is the systemic failure of universities to teach their undergraduates to write. Class sizes are too large, TAs are inadequately trained, and yes, students are coming out of high school without the basic communication skills they need in order to write a paper. It’s true that most undergraduates have no idea how completely unacceptable the quality of their written English is, but it’s also true that the university (as an institution) is not doing enough to teach students to write. Instead of fixating on individuals and the mistakes they make, why don’t we take a look at the bigger issue at hand?

  7. @GK

    I can’t place the entirety of the blame on the students. You can’t expect too many people to go to the trouble of taking a running leap when you set the bar so low that they can just shuffle their feet over it.

    The problem is epidemic and it is complex. Focusing solely on the communication skills aspect of it, it comes down English being an extremely difficult language to learn. It’s bad enough that it’s a grab bag of borrowed rules, exceptions and uncertainties; nobody whose first language is English speaks it properly. (I’m looking at you, Canada.) We learn popular English, not proper English. Who can be expected to speak or write formally with any great accuracy without formal education to that end?

    Unfortunately, English language instruction in our elementary and secondary education schools is virtually nonexistent. In the interest of keeping students moderately interested, the “Language” curriculum is primarily focused on literary analysis and the club sandwich paragraph/essay format. We wouldn’t want anyone dropping out for sheer boredom.

    It’s by and large expected of students that they’ll learn as they go, by way of exposure. What a sick joke when just about everything they’re exposed to is not only riddled with innocent errors, but tainted by laziness and an atmosphere of tolerance for it.

    Add to that a much more sensitive issue: Especially in urban areas of the province, educators have to consider that not everyone speaks English as their first language. Many first generation Canadians and many of those who immigrated here as young (or not so young) children are simply not fluent. It is a difficult task for teachers and curriculum planners to strike a balance between granting due acknowledgment of the intelligence, creativity and effort and providing firm pressure towards improvement of communication skills.

    Many educators understandably feel a great aversion towards crippling a brilliant student’s post-secondary options over a matter of English fluency, but the hard truth of the matter is that being overly accommodating of poor communication skills, regardless of their reason for being, removes the impetus for improvement.

    This is the problem we are now seeing on university campuses. Whether native English speakers or otherwise, there is a complete lack of pressure on students to bring their communication skills up to the standards of past generations. Why try harder when you don’t have to? You’ve been accommodated.

    No idea where the solution lies, short of a complete education overhaul. A single, mandatory first year course might do the trick insofar as general composition, but the problem is deeply ingrained now. Such a proposal would almost certainly be met with outrage from students. “We’re not going to waste our money to sit there and learn something we already know.”

    There wouldn’t be much support among faculty, either. Those who are now many years tenured are too far removed from the problem to see how deep it runs and those of us who are in the thick of it go unheard when we complain; unless of course we do it on Facebook and make it personal.

  8. @Former TA

    All valid points indeed regarding the teaching of the English language, especially your comment “there is a complete lack of pressure on students to bring their communication skills up to the standards of past generations. Why try harder when you don’t have to? You’ve been accommodated.”

    The issue regarding students that I really take issue with is not so much the lowered standards (though not to say I don’t take exception to it!), but rather the sheer sense of entitlement amongst current students. As I progressed through my PhD and went from TA to lecturer, I noticed an increasing number of instances of students not simply failing to grasp the requirements of a given assignment, but an actual anger at ME for pointing it out when their work was assessed. I came to adore the student (regardless of mark) who would come to me with a genuine interest in how they could improve, instead of essentially stating *I* (you know, the person with the advanced degrees and teaching experience) was wrong in giving them a lower mark than they wished.

    Perhaps this was just more of a rant on my part. I think this is just one result of universities portraying themselves as businesses selling a product, and as a result students are in turn viewing themselves as customers instead of well…students!

  9. I am currently a TA at an Ontario university, and guilty of writing sarcastic comments about student papers on Facebook (albeit with a much higher privacy setting). Because of the risks, I have stopped. (It is much better to complain privately amongst real friends than “Facebook friends”.)

    However, I think this TA is becoming the scapegoat for some larger problems within the post-secondary education system. We need to investigate some of these issues:

    1) TAs get limited training, and are essentially just thrown into the job. They need on-going SUPPORT. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to balance graduate school work with TA duties. Many of us show up for tutorial having only skimmed the readings. Why? We don’t have time to read them all! It takes a lot of prep work to lead a strong tutorial, which is impossible with the limited amount of hours allotted within TA contracts.

    2) Lecture and tutorial sizes are getting larger and larger. Consequently, there is no time for TAs to work with students to fix their very basic writing/essay structure problems.

    I recently read a young man’s essay that was so atrociously horrible that it made me laugh…uneasily. I made fun of it on Facebook, but I was actually deeply worried that he was able to pass high school with this quality of writing; there were basic sentence structure problems, a lack of coherent argument, use of conversational language, etc. As a TA, I feel unable to help him adequately.

    3) Students deserve more time and care than Teaching Assistants can give them. Two weeks ago, my students handed in 2000 word essays that we (the class TAs) were instructed to spend 10 mintues grading, with minimal comments. This is not the way for students to learn, but with decreased government resources and an increasing number of students, it’s inevitable.

    Anyway, this TA was probably acting out her frustrations with “the system” through the public forum of Facebook–sometimes it’s the only way to stay sane. I’ve done the same, but it’s not because I have elitist disdain for students…it’s because I’m deeply worried about the quality of our educational system. I simply cannot give these students the help they need, which is discouraging.

  10. Perhaps more universities should adopt policies that require students to take a full year of first-year English studies (with a major focus on writing) or one semester of English and one of writing studies. At some universities, all undergraduate students have to take a full year of English studies, even if they are studying science or engineering.

    I do know that in Ontario, once grade 13/OAC was eliminated, the English skills displayed by first year students seemed to drop considerably. You wouldn’t think that one extra year of high school English would make a difference, but somehow it did for many “average” students. (In Ontario, when OAC was still in effect, English was a required course for all five years of high school, so students who planned on attending university had to take English every year from grades 9-13).

    I have noticed that at some universities there seems to be a renewed focus on writing skills, as some departments have noticed the deterioration in writing skills among first-year students. For example, some science faculties now have compulsory essays as part of first-year science courses (in addition to the standard lab report(s)). I know at the University of Alberta, both first-year biology courses have an essay worth 10% of the student’s final mark. The students hand in a draft, get feedback on that draft, and then submit a final paper. The hope is that they learn something and improve their writing.

    Of course, that takes time and money, as you need to hire TAs to mark the essays and provide the feedback. It is certainly one way to help first-year students develop some writing skills at the university level, however. Compulsory English and/or writing classes are another way.

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