Undergraduate student instructor Jobel Vecino on teaching data science and the major’s growing pains

Students working in a computer science lab. Data science is a growing field UC Berkeley is focusing on.
Kelly Fang/File

Computer Science 88 is a new computer science department connector course for Data 8, meant to focus on programming as it relates to data science rather than as it relates to computer engineering. Jobel Vecino is one of the undergraduate student instructors, or UGSIs, helping run the course, in which more than 100 students are enrolled. The course is part of a push by UC Berkeley to start a data science major, so we sat down with Vecino to learn about how the course has been going and to learn about the experience of the UGSIs helping to keep it running.

The Daily Californian: Do you find it more difficult to teach CS 88 since perhaps there’s less precedent to follow?

Jobel Vecino: Where the hard part comes in is that it’s a two-unit course. In this case, 88 is more like a four-unit course disguised as a two-unit course. Even cutting out the last month’s materials of CS 61A, it’s a lot to learn within a two-unit time span. So it’s difficult to condense the material in way in which students are still learning. Paring it down isn’t necessarily better. It doesn’t actually teach the students effectively. To be honest, we need more time with them. The way the course is designed, the instructional hours aren’t enough to teach them.

So there’s a challenge that comes with the material, there’s a challenge that comes with the instruction of the course, especially considering the previous course I taught, where everything was planned or set to a procedure and it was all about improving the procedure. Here, a lot of our policies, a lot of our procedures are not set in stone totally, and we’re trying to feel things out — what works and what doesn’t. So there’s a lot of room for error. We, as instructors of that course, have to understand that there’s going to be a chance that students aren’t going to like it because there is room for error. But the students, to a larger extent, understand that, so they’re a little more lenient with us than in a course that is a little more predefined.

DC: But despite that they’re more lenient with you, do you feel that you still get enough support from faculty or administration in terms of teaching a new course and having less structure? Do you feel like you get enough guidance and resources and support from the immediate instructor you work with, as well as other faculty who are in the department?

JV: Yeah, I think the faculty is there. The faculty support is definitely there. Funding is a big concern, and whether or not there’s enough funding to support students in the way that we should — and whether or not department and divisions within the department can give us that funding — really depends on the department you’re in, depends on the college you’re from.

DC: Despite the challenges, do you think that being an undergrad TA has given you more positive experiences, benefits rather than setbacks?

JV: It’s a very fulfilling role. I’ve done a lot of things on campus, and of the many things I’ve done, I would say this ranks high up there in terms of it being very fulfilling. There’s nothing that makes me as happy as knowing a students want to pursue CS because of you.

DC: To clarify, specifically for you, how much is your compensation?

JV: I get paid for about eight hours a week.

DC: Do you think it’s accurate? You get paid eight hours per week and you actually input eight hours per week? Or do you think put in more time?

JV: In this case, I’m getting paid for eight hours per week, but I’m doing some head teaching duties because we’re a newer course and we’re having to add more stuff on. It’s probably not accurate right now because we are a newer course and there’s just a lot more things to take care of, a lot more responsibilities. Is that how I would like it? Probably not. Is there enough money for that to do otherwise? I can’t tell you. I hope there is.

DC: :You don’t seem very angry about it.

JV: Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of sympathies with the union; I have worked with them. I very much believe that the department is getting more work out of us than what we’re actually being paid for. So it is unfair in that way. That being said, the funding realities are so opaque that none of us actually know what is and is not feasible.

Because pay rates are set evenly across all departments, and because there are such different conditions that different TAs and GSIs have to deal with, it’s hard to truly quantify what is just in this situation.

My general sense is that GSIs should be compensated more than they currently are. Whether there’s the political will for that and whether there’s the financial will for that is another question. My hope is that the contract negotiations do work something out specifically for undergraduates. So right now, one of the things we’re looking at now is partial fee remission, which is one of the big things that makes departments weary about compensating TAs working more than 10 hours. So partial fee remission is one of the main things we’re looking at, particularly for undergraduates since there’s so many of us and they’re using us to basically make up for the giant gap in instructors that they have in relation to the amount of students they’re bringing in. But we currently don’t have that in our contracts.

Should I probably be paid more for the amount of work that I’m doing? Yeah.

DC: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on?

I mean, I would just like to say, I think (if) the university is increasing the amount of students they’re taking in, it’s going to really have to reconsider the realities of being able to support this number of students and still give them a quality education, which is what students are paying for. And if they’re not doing that, then their reputation is going to suffer and the reputation of the degree is going to suffer. So I sincerely hope that in the future, the university really considers taking into account the disparate needs amongst the different departments and helping and working with student instructors and professors to give undergraduates the best possible education they can get or an education that befits the No. 1 university in the world.

Contact Katrina Fadrilan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katfadrilanDC.

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