Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

The Visioning of Policy and the Hope of Implementation: Support for Graduate Students' Teaching at a Canadian Institution

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

The Visioning of Policy and the Hope of Implementation: Support for Graduate Students' Teaching at a Canadian Institution

Article excerpt


Global trends in higher education (HE) are rapidly shifting and evolving (Wildavsky, 2010). This dynamic environment presents a number of challenges for HE institutions, including increased demands for accountability, a tightening of fiscal resources, the rise of information technologies, and increasing diversity within student cohorts (Austin, 2003; Yankelovish, 2005). Within this complex environment, graduate students attempt to successfully navigate their program of study to achieve a sense of graduateness alongside their acquisition of skills for employability (Steur, Jansen, & Hofman, 2012). Employment as teaching assistants (TAs) can provide financial support and skill development, but adds to the juggling of responsibilities (Price, 2008) and presents new challenges, including adjusting to student-centered pedagogies demanded by the HE market place (Wright, Bergom, & Brooks, 2011). For graduate students to be sufficiently supported in their teaching duties, the scope and quality of support matter.

Across Canada, the number of graduate students continues to increase, with Statistics Canada reporting over 165,000 studying during 2011. They are likely to have teaching assistantships during their studies; however, the literature primarily focuses on TAs in the United States (Park, 2004), the United Kingdom (Muzaka, 2009), Australia (Kift, 2003), and New Zealand (Barrington, 2001). Although provincially governed, HE in Canada is shaped by federal research funding from the Tri-Council granting agencies, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), as well as discussions by national bodies, including the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS). In the absence of provincial documents, our analysis of NSERC and CAGS visioning documents, along with institutional policies and websites, tells the story of how graduate students are supported in their teaching at one Canadian institution, including the stated goals, recommendations, and existing support.


We focused our search and analysis on the national Canadian and institutional policies that describe or could shape the experiences of graduate students at one medium-size medical-doctoral university with undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, in Ontario, Canada. Publicly available documents describing recommended or existing supports for graduate students were identified through purposeful nonsampling selection (Miller & Alvarado, 2005) based on (i) a search-engine review of the institutional website for terms such as "graduate students" and "teaching," (ii) a manual search of the selected institution's institution-wide teaching, graduate studies, and student support units' websites, (iii) a search-engine search of similar terms within Canada and the province, and (iv) a manual search for national documents mentioned on higher education blogs and news reports (no provincial documents were found in the search). Given the relevancy of the original purpose, context, and intended audience of these documents to this research question, these documents were appropriate, authentic, and useful sources of data (Berg, 2004; Bowen, 2009). The resulting 10 documents, shown in Table 1, spanned sector and institutional levels to provide insight into the context shared by all graduate students and supportive individuals in this institution.

This study is part of a larger mixed-method investigation into support for graduate students at this institution. To maintain interviewees' anonymity, we replace the names of the university, units, and committees with generic pseudonyms (e.g., "university" in our text or in quoted text), and we do not list the URLs of websites studied when reporting illustrative quotes (Labuschagne, 2003).

At the sector level, the national conversation about graduate students historically showed limited consideration of professional skill development until 2007, when Pierre Bilodeau of the national Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), a major Canadian granting agency, produced the NSERC working document V2. …

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