Managing Teaching Assistants — Help Sought.

by Harry on June 5, 2019

A team working on developing a short handbook for professors about how to manage TAs – this being, like so many other teaching-related matters, something we have little training and guidance in – asked me to come up with a few comments to start of the process. Below the fold are the initial thoughts which, with your help, I can revise to provide them with a starting point. Please comment away as you see fit – most of you have either managed, or been, or had, TAs, and have some sort of insight into what goes well and what goes badly, and what might be good advice for the professors who supervise them.

1.The professor and TAs constitute a team the central focus of which is to optimize the learning of the students in the class.

2.The TA is a beginning teacher. Ideally they would have already gone through a substantial teacher training program. More realistically, they have had a day or two of orientation and anything from no to several years of experience. One of your jobs is to help them improve as a teacher: you are a trainer as well as a manager. So you need to be able to give good, helpful, advice.

3.Talk through the class with the TA before the semester begins and continually as the semester continues. In the first conversation make it very clear to the TA what you expect of them both in the sections/labs that they will be running and in the lecture room in which you are doing much of your teaching.

4.Every TA will encounter problems throughout the course, sometimes with an individual student and sometimes with a whole section. Tell them this, and encourage them to discuss the problems with you – this will help them solve the problems, but it will also help you think better about what is going on in the class.

5.A good TA has more insight into what the students are having difficulty with and what is too easy for them; and on the dynamics in the lecture room (in which they are not doing the teaching and therefore have more mental bandwidth to take in the dynamics). Elicit that insight from them.

6.If you’re teaching in a large room make one TA sit at the back, regularly, and tell you how well students are adhering to your electronics policy; whether you are projecting enough that all students can hear; how the acoustics work, at the back, when interactive discussion happens. And whatever else they might usefully be able to tell you.

7.If you want feedback on your own teaching, ask the TA for it, but don’t expect the TA to be fully frank. A TA is going to find it difficult to tell you how bad you are, but they can tell you that a discussion prompt didn’t work well (or that it did work well); whether you are talking as little as you think you are; that you are ignoring certain hands or certain parts of the room (I have a strong tendency to pay more attention to the left side of the room; it is helpful for me to have a TA who calls my attention to that fact), that a certain explanation left students cold. Or that some of you cultural references are out of date (during my unit on abortion I always raise a remarkably pertinent true-life example involving Roy Orbison who, when I started teaching, was still known by many students but now is known by none). Convey that you are exactly as open to criticism as you are: you should be very open to it, but don’t mis-signal that it is ok for them to be critical in ways that, in fact, will piss you off.

8.Talk with your TAs about the timing of graded assignments. You want them, as graders, to be able to give their full attention to the task, and the students need feedback that is timely. Attempt to time the assignments accordingly, working to some extent around the workflow of other responsibilities graduate students have, but also, as much as you can, around the workflow of other responsibilities the students have.

{ 20 comments }

1

oldster 06.06.19 at 1:06 am

“…a remarkably pertinent true-life example involving Roy Orbison….”

Okay, that’s not fair. You cannot just toss that out there without giving us the full anecdote.

Inquiring minds want to know! And fans of Roy Orbison especially!

2

JakeB 06.06.19 at 4:24 am

in re 3 and 8, I’d suggest something more on being explicit with the TA as to how you expect them to do grading, i.e. how much judgment they are to apply/how firmly they are to stick to the rules (that you should have given them, if not in algorithmic format, then at least with some examples), how or whether they should smack down students who keep grubbing for an additional few percent, etc. Of course, you can leave it to them as a character-building exercise, but then I think there is greater likelihood of an overall unfair result, as the TAs start off too tolerant and then develop an abiding hatred for the more Wormtongue-like members of the class.

3

JDF 06.06.19 at 8:27 am

This pushes back a bit on (1), though I think only in letter, not spirit. I think that an important and overlooked part of managing your TAs is managing the student expectations.

When I was a TA, I felt like I was ‘on call’ throughout the day. The students felt entitled to my time, and I did not feel in a position to say no. If a student wanted to meet outside of office hours, I scheduled it. If they wanted answers to long and elaborate questions through emails, I gave them. If they wanted to get feedback on outlines or drafts repeatedly, I gave it. If they wanted to talk about the extensive comments I gave on their written work, I sat with them and went through the comments. Part of it was that I thought ‘I am helping these students learn’, though in reality many were just trying to massage grades or grumble about them. Part of it, though, was that I didn’t think that I could say that these demands on my time were unreasonable. I didn’t want to give the students any grounds for complaints on course evaluations, and I felt like the culture was such that all of this was expected of TAs.

Some faculty members explicitly or implicitly encouraged this behavior, or at least some of it. No faculty member explicitly discouraged it. I think that they were wrong there. It ate up my time in a way which compromised the quality of my research, and the students in effect treated me like a customer service representative. Faculty should instead make clear to the students what they have a right to expect of their TA and what they do not in a way which pushes back against the culture which treats TAs in this way.

4

Sean 06.06.19 at 10:43 am

Might I also suggest: don’t just ask for feedback or input from TAs; schedule regular, frequent calibration sessions with TAs where all of these things – the feedback on the classes, the observations of the students, the difficulties the TAs might be having – are discussed. Making the process regular and formalised in the planning makes the TAs feel more comfortable about giving the difficult feedback or asking for help or showing they’re not sure what they’re doing, or any of the other feedback you require but which the TA might not feel safe to venture in a more informal or impromtu environment.

5

Channi Ernstoff 06.06.19 at 12:09 pm

“Convey that you are exactly as open to criticism as you are: you should be very open to it, but don’t mis-signal that it is ok for them to be critical in ways that, in fact, will piss you off.”
I think this is an important point. I was just a TA for two semesters with the same professor. At the end of the first semester, we (the professor and us 3 TAs) had a meeting dedicated to suggestions for improvement for next semester. Being the kind of person that I am, I prepared a list of things I thought could improve the class (mostly the labs) – things like grading participation, increasing writing exercises, etc. I had a rationale for each item as well as concrete ways to implement them. After I presented my suggestions, the professor said: “I have 20 years of experience and you have 0.5 – I think I know what’s best for the class”. If you ask for feedback, you should be open and receptive, understanding that many years of experience is exactly what makes you blind to the ways your teaching is no longer effective. It was difficult to work with her the second semester, knowing she had such little respect for the TAs.

Which I guess is another point that should really go without saying – be nice to your TAs! Respect them. Get to know them a little. Show some interest in their lives. The professor and TAs are a team, and like any team, may require some team-building. Don’t just jump right in with the work, first build some interpersonal connections.

Another thing I think is important is collaboration among the TAs. That shouldn’t necessarily be the professor’s responsibility, but I do think professors could set that expectation, and maybe even integrate TA observations of one another into the class.

6

M Caswell 06.06.19 at 12:41 pm

9. Take informal opportunities to discuss the substance of the class’ object of study- perhaps at a level not possible for the students. Establish to some extent an intellectual partnership, underlying your pedagogical partnership.

7

Donald A. Coffin 06.06.19 at 1:16 pm

When I was a TA (1970-73), the amount of supervision/training/guidance I had was basically “Here’s the textbook and the study guide and the syllabus. Go teach.” I was 22 and had no clue…

8

Mark Cooper 06.06.19 at 7:11 pm

Harry,

I’ve always enjoyed your posts about teaching, pedagogy, etc. and as a new assistant professor I’m hoping to work with many of the ideas that show up in your posts on these topics (and in the comments on these posts.) Would you have a suggestion for a way to quickly or easily find all of your posts at CT on these topics?

Thousand thanks,
Markus

9

ph 06.06.19 at 11:23 pm

Encourage unionization, ensure actions match words re: pay/respect, insist upon peer-review/feedback/ collaboration/ schedule regular peer-meetings with critiques, video real interactions for revue and discussions, and most important – understand that egos are involved and must be treated with respect: nine positives for every negative comment. Make time regular thanks, recognition, face-time and engagement with people as people, not servants or a lower form of life.

s always, great work Harry!

10

Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 06.07.19 at 2:18 am

In a class with lots of TAs, there are some other important issues.

1. Meet with everyone at once. A coordination point is vital.
2. Appoint a “head TA”, and recognize that this is work by giving them fewer other resposibilities.
3. If you can, avoid having everyone grade a little every week. Instead, have each TA do a bunch of grading a few times. This way, if there’s a schedule conflict it can be worked around, instead of one person getting more and more behind. Also, being responsible for all the grading means it’s more likely to get done.

11

Alan White 06.07.19 at 3:34 am

I’m about a decade past D A Coffin’s experience at my own institution U/Tennessee–Knoxville, though the lack of guidance was similar. There were two types of grad assistants, GAs who only graded (no discussion sessions), and TAs who only had full responsibility for courses, and I did both (wildly underpaid of course–I made then $300/month as a TA, less than a tenth of what assistant profs made). But, my point for posting is to encourage making that space for TAs to take full responsibility for courses. Over three years I taught 9 courses (quarter terms) , mostly 101s but also logic sections, and I cannot overstate how much this experience afforded me not only an opportunity to cultivate my love for the classroom, but to produce a solid resume that helped secure my TT appointment at a teaching institution in the University of Wisconsin System. I could have used much more feedback from my department–I was evaluated only by student evals without one professor actually reviewing my teaching. But giving TAs maximum responsibility for the real day-to-day classroom experience is valuable, especially as now most people hired are for teaching-intensive positions.

12

Gabriel Conroy 06.07.19 at 11:24 am

JDF @3 ‘s experiences were close to mine. I’m not sure how much it was a result of professors not training/helping me to manage my time and assert myself or how much it was just my own personality and insecurities. But yeah, it would have been helpful to have been given guidance on how to balance my own needs with those of my students, especially when I was first starting out.

One thing not explicitly mentioned in the OP, although it’s probably implied in point no. 4, is problems with academic honesty, such as cheating or plagiarism. As a TA for a total of about 7 years and an instructor for a couple semesters (my discipline was history, and I’m no longer in a teaching position, for what it’s worth), I never could figure out a fair or workable way to address plagiarism. I do remember it was very vexing, as a TA, to work with professors when plagiarism came up, because whenever I or a fellow TA brought a concern to a professor, it became “an Issue” that needed to be resolved, even if the “plagiarism” was merely quoting a couple sentences from the textbook instead of, say, downloading a paper. I’m not sure what guidance a professor can offer–and I’m not here and now intending to argue whether, how, and how much to punish plagiarism–but it would help for her or him to acknowledge some of the practical difficulties with plagiarism.

13

SamChevre 06.07.19 at 12:35 pm

Not a TA, and have never been or had a TA–but I do work with a somewhat-similar group of employees in my role.

I’m going to strongly second Sean (comment #4); some forum for calibration is really valuable. If you have multiple TAs, and especially if you have multiple lecture sections each with it’s own TAs–the expectations should be the same, and the ONLY way to accomplish that is to get everyone together and talk about it. It doesn’t take a huge amount of time; in my experience, about 5 minutes/person each week is about right. All you need is a basic set of questions–what are students asking, what issues have you needed to deal with, how much time are you spending–and a few minutes.

14

Ebenezer Scrooge 06.07.19 at 12:47 pm

Here’s my war story.
I was a hard science Ph.D. student, and had to TA for four semesters. Three of them were lab exercises: easy-peasy. The ethos for TAs was “sink or swim”, and it was very hard to sink as a lab instructor. My final semester, I drew a classroom TA assignment for an alcoholic professor who had retired in place about a decade earlier. His lectures all revolved around his specialty, which was only tangentially related to the course he was supposed to teach. The ethos was still sink or swim, and swimming wasn’t easy. I had to learn enough about his specialty to know 2-3x more than the lectures, because you can’t help somebody if you don’t know at least 2-3x more than the person you’re helping. (This is a science thing–I can’t speak for the humanities.) I also had to fill in for the course material, which fortunately I understood. He didn’t want to talk to me, and I was too afraid to talk to the other professors. Which was probably a good idea, because the ethos remained sink or swim.
This was the 1970’s: the late Paleolithic era. I don’t know what’s changed since then.

15

Slanted Answer 06.07.19 at 1:58 pm

I would encourage a few visits to a TA’s discussion sections — preferably early in the term and then later in the term. Unless there’s a really compelling reason not to, let the TA choose which section you come to and let him or her know when you are going to visit. I realize that creates a bit of an artificial environment, but you can still learn things about a TA’s teaching styles even with the artificiality. If the TA/professor aren’t comfortable with a faculty visit, have a more experienced TA sit in on a section and give feedback.

16

Harry 06.07.19 at 6:17 pm

Thanks Mark. Oddly, my wife asked me exactly the same question 5 minutes before I saw your comment. I’ll compile this weekend and put the links on my webpage, and link to them here.

17

Matt L 06.10.19 at 12:02 pm

It’s been almost two decades since my last TA experience. I have been teaching my own classes since 2002 as a grad instructor or instructor of record. I do not have TAs for my classes.

Push for more pedagogy training in your department or as part of the grad programs, or failing that offer up a reading list on pedagogy for the TAs who report to you directly. I had one instructor offer a 1 credit class on teaching global history to his TAs to read and talk about teaching global history.

Each instructor should be expected to give TAs models for assignment sheets, discussion questions and section syllabi. As a new or green TA, I found it difficult to come up with a syllabus, assignments, and activities for my discussion sections. More than once I had an instructor say ‘Your section is worth 15 % of the class, please come up with a syllabus for your discussion section by Monday.’ The first time was daunting because I had never written a syllabus before and every discussion I had seen in section sucked ass.

Work with TAs to come up with a rubric for major assignments that everyone will use. Or if you already have the rubrics, just give it to the TAs and the students in the class at the same time. It is remarkable how few professors give the rubric to the students. If you have a list of things you expect to be in the essay, why wouldn’t you want to give that to the students ahead of time? One of my colleagues gives them a fantastic, detailed grading rubric after he grades the essays. The students would write much better essays if he handed it out with the assignment sheet. Instead the students have an “O’Henry Moment” when they get their essays back.

I second Sean’s comment. My best experiences as a TA came when I had regular meetings with the instructor and fellow TAs. I think a (regular) weekly or biweekly meeting with the instructor of record and all TAs should be mandatory. It should be part of what the TAs get paid to do.

My worst experiences as a TA came when an instructor resolved a student complaint about assigned work by simply changing the grades instead of giving me a chance to revisit the grade and the assignment. This certainly saved the instructor of record time that they could use to finish up edits to their book, but it did not give the TA a chance to fix and learn from a mistake, or to explain why they thought the grade was fine. A discussion between a TA and the instructor

I agree with JDF that managing expectations is a big part of teaching. It has taken me a while to set those expectations so they work for both me and the students. This is where I think examples are helpful in the form of syllabi and a shared set of class policies. For an example, as an instructor, I tell students that I will try to answer their emails as quickly as I can, especially during business hours, but if they email me at 10pm at night or over the weekend, they might not hear from me until the next business day. I would not expect my TA (if I had one) to be more accessible than me, but I would also say its a problem if the TA decides to only check email once a week. This is where the instructor should provide several examples of policies that meet a minimum set of expectations for the TAs for borrow from.

18

John Koolage 06.10.19 at 1:26 pm

I have two quick thoughts, both of which came from my own GAs:

(1) It would be helpful to have GAs reading outstanding work by undergraduate students. This will help them calibrate quickly to top notch work. There are numerous undergraduate journals of some standing, Stance comes readily to mind. This sits nicely with the calibration and group norming that is being suggested, but also removes unrealistic expectation (whether too high or too low) of student writing.

(2) If we think of the GA semester of work as a set of learning activities, and design some learning outcomes for “the TA is a beginning teacher,” it will help us continue to refine our own practice as teaching mentors. It may even serve to identify some gaps in how we think about their experience. I can imagine a number of interesting ways of assessing out success and generating a list of outcomes, but I am betting this would be worthwhile to do with your fellow faculty. (Best practices could include a professional learning community for supervisors of TAs, I would think.)

19

Trevor Nelson 06.10.19 at 6:58 pm

1.) Set clear expectations and deadlines. This goes for both the professor and TAs. I worked with a professor who would email me handout PDFs at 3am which she needed printed for our 8:15 am class the next morning. She seemed flabbergasted when I said I needed to have the files by 10 pm so I could print them in time (the library closed at 11 pm and didn’t open until 8 am, so I could not print handouts for all 300 students in 15 minutes if it was a large packet).
2.) Support your TAs in all of their ventures, and give honest feedback. You might end up being a letter-writer or even advisor for them one day. Stay up to date with the workings of the grad student population. Know that students might need longer to grade assignments during seminar paper season.
3.) Provide as much training as possible. This includes orientations, reading groups, mock teachings, courses, etc. Encourage the TAs to build networks amongst themselves for peer evaluation.

20

Kevin J Harris 06.10.19 at 8:48 pm

Spend time managing your TAs. As follows:

Be prepared to happily and willingly devote more time to TAs than you think necessary. Each of the numbered points listed above can be either a bureaucratic memo item or an element in actually dealing with TAs. Your choice.

Be intrusive until you find out whether you need to be intrusive. Often, new managers give too little time to their staff, simply expecting things are going as planned. Odds are, things are not going as planned. Making contact on a frequent basis creates the opportunity for staff to ask questions and convey information. By asking their own questions, managers – and that’s how professors need to see themselves – can get a sense of whether there are difficulties, and of who is or is not willing to admit to difficulties.

Give feedback on performance early. Whether they are teaching, grading, running labs or holding hours, TAs need to know you care how they perform against standards and that you will help them if they need it.

Comments on this entry are closed.