Screen Savers

Graduate students are providing the first line of computer support to hundreds of faculty and staff

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

History doctoral candidate Mark Stansbury may not be an expert on computers, but he knows just enough about them to make life easier for many people in Carney Hall.

Stansbury helps sort out common problems - such as why a newly installed printer refuses to function - as well as the more unusual conundrums - like locating a lost "trash" icon on a computer screen - as a participant in the four-year-old Graduate Technical Assistants program.

Graduate technical assistant Mark Stansbury (standing) helps Prof. James Cronin (History) resolve a computer problem. (Photo by Lee Pelligrini)

Through the project, overseen by the Faculty Microcomputer Resource Center, 12 graduate students are assigned to cover specific sites encompassing several academic departments each semester. The GTAs provide first-line computer support services for faculty and staff, such as setting up and configuring workstations, installing or upgrading software and - as Stansbury's experience demonstrates - general trouble-shooting.

Administrators and faculty praise the GTA program, which now serves as many as 100 people or workstations per site, as a "grass roots" solution to a variety of needs. It offers talented graduate students valuable financial support and work experience, they said, while helping schools and departments more efficiently resolve computer-related issues.

"The GTA program has become an essential component in our technology support system," said Associate Academic Vice President Robert Newton, chair of the Academic Technology Council, which approved the initiative in 1992. "GTAs are a very effective means by which academic departments and offices address some technology needs on their own terms."

"Technology services have become quite complex, with the development of local and wide-area networking, file-serving and advanced function workstations," said Assoc. Prof. Michael Connolly (Slavic and Eastern Languages), FMRC co-coordinator and a prime architect of the GTA program. "This requires significant increases in the level of human resources in academic units, so the GTAs fulfill a very important role."

"I have nothing but praise for our GTAs; they're life-savers," said FMRC Co-Coordinator Assoc. Prof. Richard Jenson (Mathematics), one of 12 faculty tech coordinators appointed to supervise GTAs. "The problems they tackle usually have simple solutions, but they are arcane in nature for many users and would otherwise be time-consuming to correct."

GTAs are usually recommended for the program by a faculty tech coordinator and work approximately 13 hours a week. They must be able to work with such software as Microsoft Word and Excel, Claris HyperCard and FileMaker Pro, standard data communications packages - including Internet-related applications - and any special applications used in an assigned area.

"It's a program with many virtues," agreed Prof. James Cronin (History), an occasional recipient of Stansbury's assistance. "GTAs are close physically, of course, and as graduate students they also have a good feel for the academic environment. They develop a familiarity with the hardware and software needs for a department, so it is very reassuring to know they are around."

GTAs represent a variety of interests, backgrounds and experiences. Stansbury, in his third semester as a GTA, acquired a working knowledge of computers during his years as a journalist and he finds the job involves more than wielding technical skills.

"I'd say 90 percent of the job is simply answering questions," Stansbury said. "The major thing is to make computers seem less intimidating, to make them do what the user wants them to do. It's not so much that I know a lot about computers, but because I've been doing this kind of trouble-shooting or minor adjustment constantly it is less of a problem for me to handle."

Stansbury feels his experience as a GTA can only benefit him when he begins seeking a position in his field. "It may not be the deciding factor," he said, "but someone considering me for a job could say, 'Oh, and he knows computers pretty well.'"

"GTAs can pick up enough knowledge to become very useful," said Assoc. Prof. Christopher Baum (Economics), another FTC who worked with Connolly in developing the program. "There is no training, no benefits involved, so this represents a low-cost option for the University. Ultimately, of course, if they couldn't do the job well enough there'd be no call for the program. But the program has caught on and its importance will continue to grow."

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