Friday, April 10, 2015

Mortimer Brewster Has Come To Us For Career Advice, Because We All Clearly Have Made The Right Choices.

I'm a graduate assistant whose work is in a large department, but I took a job in smaller but related department because I have a good relationship with the department head. The first semester went well enough, except that enrollment was unusually low, and we had a crop of dunderheaded students. I'm working again with the same faculty member, Professor Xanthippe (name changed, obviously). My one critique of the prior semester had been that Prof. X had not really made good use of my labor. This faculty member micromanages everything, such that all my grades and comments must be vetted, added-to, and regraded before X will give them back to the students. The papers the students get back are so riddled with comments they are unreadable.

On the first exam, I'd say I was tough but fair, wrote careful comments, and ended up with a range of grades spread between 32 and 98. Average was 65 and most common score was 58, so not an easy exam. Prof. Xanthippe tinkered with every single grade and added more comments, and the end result was a spread between 30 and 94, with an average in the high 50s. I'm accustomed to this regrading, but does always leave me feeling like I've wasted my time.

Then, since the students obviously didn't do very well, Prof. X. added a bunch of new assignments that were not on the original syllabus, and though they won't count in the final grade, X still wants me to assign a numerical grade and provide copious comments. What X never seems to understand is that this class is a 100-level gen-ed that attracts a number of apathetic students. The best students completed these "optional" assignments, and everyone else ignored them. Meanwhile, Prof. X has been pressing me to finish grading so that my grading can be reviewed. I should mention that I've been both sick, and consumed with finishing a large project for my other job this week.

I'm pretty easygoing and don't really need ownership of the grading, but in a busy and tiring week like this one, having to *pre*grade before Prof. Xanthippe *re*grades assignments that weren't even on the original syllabus gets to me. This might chafe less (though probably not) if I were new at the job. But I've worked well with other professors over the years, and even taught my own classes as an instructor. As my old coworker Paddy used to say, "this ain't my first rodeo." I've been around long enough to know that you don't change the syllabus/assignments in the middle of the semester, and that students will stop reading the comments on their assignments if they are an unending stream of corrections.

I'm puzzling over whether to renew my contract for next year while I finish my dissertation. I've tried desperately to get a full-time job (of any kind), with no luck so far. I've even considered commuting 3.5 hours back to my previous job, where I was valued. I know my old boss would be happy to have me back, but the commute won't really work. I'm guessing I will renew *and* keep looking, and hope to find something else before the next academic year starts. Breaking my contract might piss off Xanthippe, but then I'm not really sure I'm wanted back (except by the rest of the department). Ugh.


  1. I'd say this is how X does it. If you don't want to do it, don't, but you can forget any kind of advice you'd offer him changing his methods.

    1. Haha, I know! Just complaining, really... but it's hard to understand why X wants a TA, in this case (and X does).

  2. 1. Do you sign a TA contract while you finish your dissertation?

    Yes. I can't think of a good reason why you shouldn't. Your boss may be a jerk. Get over it, get paid, and graduate.

    2. What's up with your boss?

    You're not new to teaching but you are new to this particular job. Maybe your boss doesn't fully appreciate your experience.

    I'd suggest you follow one of two paths, your choice. Suck it up for one more year or talk to X about this. I'd explain that double-grading assignments is not efficient use of time. After seeing you work for a semester, Prof X might give you more freedom. You have a reasonable complaint that is worth discussing with your boss.

    1. 1. We sign once a year, and a replacement could be found if I had to back out.
      2. We've actually talked about this. I couched it in the most nonthreatening way I could ("I want to be helpful to you") but I know it will not change. We actually worked together already--this is my second semester with X. I know I can't change it--I just needed to vent to people who haven't heard all this ad nauseam (like my friends and family)!

    2. Well, consider it as training for how not to manage people.

  3. Something they don't teach us in grad school is how to deal with academics. This kind of professor is pretty par for the field; I know at least half a dozen at my current institution.

    In light of that, I suggest you find a way to reduce your hours. You already know that the grades will be regraded. Half-ass it a little more, while taking care to disguise your half-assing behavior. Then be vigilant in observing yourself and others around this prof. If you can figure out how to work with assholes like this, while still being productive, it will be a great skill.

    It's something I'm working on now. Last year was terrible. Earlier this year was pretty awful too. But I am getting into the swing of things. The profs are still assholes, over-protective of stupid unimportant things, demanding extra scheduling and administrative accommodations, but the area of major professional growth for me has been in handling high maintenance proffies. It's a skill worth cultivating, a skill you will use forever.

    1. I like this answer! I know nothing can/will change about the situation, but this is something I could actually do. I've been lucky--I've worked with seven other faculty members over the years and this is really the first time I've had this problem.

  4. Caveats: it's been a very, very long time since I was a TA; I was almost entirely unsupervised/unmentored when I was one, and I've never supervised a TA.

    That said, it seems to me that you have two things to consider:

    --Would renewing your contract to TA for X aid or impede your progress toward the degree?

    --What if anything do you hope to get out of this experience that will aid you past the degree (e.g. a letter of recommendation)?

    Given your extreme differences in pedagogical style (and your reasonable doubts about X's pedagogical competence), and the fact that you have other experience, it seems unlikely that you will want to seek a letter or recommendation from X. The only point in the job's favor seems to be that it's providing you with some income (and perhaps tuition remission)? You're not getting much if any useful teaching experience, and X's approach is not, as you already know, a model of good pedagogical behavior. Knowing that you almost certainly can't control/change what X does, but you can change your own behavior, you could start practicing much more minimal marking, and see what happens (you don't make it clear whether X is indicating that you should "provide copious comments" by word or by example; if the former, that provides an opening for a conversation -- see below; if the latter, is there any chance that you're misreading the message sent by X's own copious comments?)

    You might, however, want a letter from X's department head, with whom you say you have a good relationship. Maybe that relationship is at least in part dependent on your taking a nuisance off the department head's hands, but, even so, I think you should have a conversation with hir before not renewing.

    Since (s)he may well ask if you've spoken to X about the problem (standard, and appropriate, department-head MO when there's any sort of student/faculty conflict), your first step is probably to speak to X, and since you've got outstanding work which X is pressuring you to finish right now (and which wasn't originally included in the syllabus, and hence your own semester plans), you've got the perfect opportunity to start a conversation. I'd keep it narrow and specific, something along the lines of saying that you've noticed that X usually adds comments of hir own, and asking if there's a particular area in which (s)he'd like you to focus your own comments (e.g. deal with the grammatical/technical issues and let hir deal with argument/evidence, or provide a grade and the basic justification for it, or comment on particular areas but let hir do the actual grade, or whatever). You might also mention that you didn't have the extra-credit assignments on your original grading calendar for the semester (yes, many of us with heavy teaching loads create those as we're creating syllabi, because everything coming in at once doesn't work out well for anyone), and that you've got other projects coming due at the same time (and have been sick as well), and ask whether you might mark those more minimally than usual, perhaps with an offer to make out-of-office-hours appointments with any students who are interested in additional feedback (as you realize, few will be), and, if so, what area(s) of feedback X would like you to prioritize.

    1. If this conversation goes well, maybe you've solved your problem, and can find a way to work with X for another year. If not, then I'd move on to talking with the department head, and let hir know that you're having problems working with X, have tried to resolve them, but still feel that they're bad enough that they're interfering with your degree work, and that you're therefore seriously considering not re-upping your contract. It may be that the head can't do much about any of that, but it may also be that (s)he has another, better assignment available, and would rather offer you that than lose you altogether. If you do sign another contract, you might also ask for some additional, fairly specific language about the number of hours you're supposed to spend on the job, how many assignments are involved, how additional assignments will be dealt with, etc., etc. I'm not sure how this applies to TAs, but there's actually considerable nervousness these days about making sure adjuncts don't work more than their assigned hours (usually fewer than 30), because schools don't want them to become eligible for health care under the Affordable Care Act. There's also growing concern about the exploitation of TAs. Obviously, if you're unionized (or if there's some other sort of TA association), you should check with your union/association as well.

      Finally, if you truly have the option of returning to a previous job (you'd need to be quite sure about that), you might want to think about whether you really need to be in residence in your grad-school location while you finish the degree. Commuting back to your old job from your grad school location might not work, but traveling as necessary to your grad school location from a home nearer your old/new job might.

    2. Thanks for all these thoughts! I had written a longer reply, but it disappeared when I tried to post it. Ah well! Anyway, I was mostly just venting, and not looking for advice, but I'm happy to have the advice. I'll add that there is some ongoing animosity between X and the department head (not sure why, but have seen them butt heads several times) and I won't add to it. The assistantship is probably delaying my research and writing, but I don't have a better offer right now. If I'm offered other work, I'll surely take it. And I can't relocate my family right now, but in summers past I have traveled to do short-term work with old boss. Again, wasn't really considering this, but I do miss being appreciated!

  5. My suggested conversation talking points:
    a) Hey, Dr. X, I noticed that you are regrading and adding lots of comments on all the assignments I've been grading this semester. Do you have specific concerns about how I'm grading these assignments?

    *Listen* Dr. X may have some good points ( they need a specific spread on the grades, they are worried about enough feedback, they are the instructor, so they feel the need to touch everything...) Try to breathe deeply, and say something like:

    "Ok, that's good to know. I guess I'm feeling like I'm spending a lot of time doing work that is not useful to you (remember: your job as TA is really to make the Professor's life easier. Students are secondary.) What can I do that would be more useful?"

    Hopefully at this point, they will offer something like (oh, you are useful, here's how we work together as a team!) or (huh. actually, can you just go through and mark wrong answers, and then I'll assign grades?)

    Dr. X might be off their gourd, or they might not be used to having a TA, or be terrible at managing. You might have to do some "managing up" to get through the rest of the semester.

    Then, you can see if things improve: if so, renew away. If not, try one more conversation (Dr. X, I'm spending a lot more time than my contract suggests on grading these extra assignments. Could we change how we are grading them? [pass/fail, points for effort, overall summary rather than comments?] OR Dr. X, these extra assignments are only being done by a few students. Is there some other way we could offer more help to all the students [tutoring sessions? online chat hours?]

    Still nothing, or worse, a demand for more grades? Then talk to the department head about working with someone else. (incompatible teaching/ grading style!)

    If the department head will not offer something else, skip the next contract.

    1. Thanks! Actually, we had some of this discussion between semesters ("I'd like to be more helpful to you") but things haven't really changed. I know I can't correct as well on content--it's not my area--though I have now heard the lectures and done the readings three times.

      Part of the problem is that X really demands absolute precision of ideas from the students. Seems okay until you discover that an answer that's mostly correct, or maybe just phrased awkwardly, has to be corrected until it is precise. Can't just give 4/5.

      For me, this means scrutinizing the readings and every sentence of student writing, and in some assignments, looking up and reading the materials the student has chosen to use (not assigned readings). Then I have to determine whether the student has understood the material they chose and expressed it well enough. This takes hours! And I really don't have a choice about it, because I'm essentially being asked to prove that I read what the student did. Again, can't just say "I suspect you've misunderstood researcher N's point."

      I'm not looking for a solution, though! I'm just complaining!! Most days are fine, and my own research is just put off a little :)

  6. At our Uni the TAs are unionized, and the TA contract is based on a set number of hours. The union is strong, so the TAs who know their contractual rights, and assert them, will state something to the effect of "These added assignments will put me over my allotted number of hours for my TA contract." Some sort of mollifying statements would have to be uttered... "Did you want me to grade just a subset of these assignments? I can't do them all without exceeding the contract hours, in which case we'd need to talk about tasks elsewhere in the course that you want me to drop so I can focus more time on these."

  7. I had a prof for whom I TA'd who would ignore my grades, and just assign a final grade to the student based on what he "felt" the student earned. I still had to grade everything and pass it back to the students even though the prof never even looked at them......