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I am currently working as a teaching assistant.

My tasks this semester include writing/putting together a formula sheet containing a lot of formulas and some graphs that the students should not have to memorize. This sheet will be used in the final exam.

A student recently send an e-mail asking whether he should print it out himself or will be given a copy upon taking the exam. Since I am not responsible for the exam or anything grading-related, this mail should have been addressed to the professor, since I can only guess (although I am fairly certain it would not be useful to let students bring the sheets themselves and thus giving them a chance to alter them).

Now how I see it, I have the following options:

  • Forward the e-mail to my professor.
  • Answer the student vaguely, recommending to mail the professor.
  • Contact the professor; ask him what to do.

I’m unsure whether forwarding this mail would be appropriate. I’d also feel stupid for asking the professor about something that should be obvious.

Which of the outlined possibilities would be the most efficient, yet still appropriate way to go?

  • "Since I am not responsible for the exam or anything grading-related, this mail should have been addressed to the professor" - I do not think the former implies the latter. At my (German) university, it is very much expected that TAs answer such questions (of course, only after making reasonably sure they have the correct answer based upon what the professor intends), precisely to balance the workload a bit and keep the professor largely free from this kind of "detail requests" (that may, presumeably, asked a 100 times by 100 students in the weeks leading up to the exam). – O. R. Mapper Jan 13 '18 at 15:49
  • @O.R.Mapper - The professor can act like a mensch and answer the question the first time, which would allow the TA to answer with confidence, and without having to bother the almighty professor again. Note, the professor could have prevented anyone having to bother him/her by conveying the information to the class during lecture, and/or in a mass email. Then instead of 100 repetitions of the question, there would be few if any repetitions. – aparente001 Jan 14 '18 at 1:25
  • @aparente001: "The professor can (...) answer the question the first time" - yes, that is what my remark "after making reasonably sure they have the correct answer" boils down to in practice. As for telling students upfront, not every question that might come up can be anticipated. – O. R. Mapper Jan 14 '18 at 9:08
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    @aparente001 Since the TA is writing the formula sheet this semester, it is a fair assumption that the professor has not used such a sheet before, or the TA would be revising, not writing. For me, at least, missing a detail like a pre-announcement is not unusual the first time I do something. I'd cut the professor some slack. – Bob Brown Jan 14 '18 at 16:33
  • @O.R.Mapper - Thanks for explaining your reasoning. I think what the OP was trying to express was that he didn't know the answer, and the only person who would know, at that stage, was the professor. I don't think he meant it as a bureaucratic, procedural principle, that students should by default address all questions to the professor. // By the way, both the professor and the TA can prevent 100 repetitions of the same question through the use of an email blast. I would strongly encourage you and your colleagues to consider using such a tool if you aren't already. – aparente001 Jan 14 '18 at 17:49
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You cannot answer this question, so you have to ask the professor. You do not want to be responsible for the potential confusion caused by a wrong answer. If your professor already made up their mind, it’s a matter of seconds for them to answer the mail (this is a clear case of this PhD comic). If not, they need to make up their mind anyway some time, and you were right to redirect the question.

Check that the forwarded mail is concise; otherwise summarise it when forwarding. Also make sure that the response goes to you as well (include yourself and the student in the reply to field) as you may get further questions along this line.

This does not really apply to this case, but for more complex or exotic questions you can also include a suggested action and rationale and just have it ratified by the professor, e.g.:

A student asked me whether they should bring a print of the formula sheet or it will be provided. I would guess the latter since it makes it easier for us to control that the sheets have not been tampered with. Can you please confirm or correct this?

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Since you don't know the answer, you have two options. You can (1) forward the email to your professor asking the answer, then respond to the student after you've heard back, or (2) hand it off to your professor by copying your professor on your reply. Personally, I'd go with the latter, replying something like this:

[adding Professor Jones]

Professor Jones, I don't know how to answer this. Should students print copies themselves?

This gives both your student and your professor a quick handoff and a clear expectation that your professor should reply to both of you with the answer and then you'll both know.

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Which of the outlined possibilities would be the most efficient, yet still appropriate way to go?

You’re way, way overthinking this. Since you seem to care so much about efficiency, have you considered what a huge waste of time and effort it is for you to bother to post a detailed stack exchange post and solicit opinions from multiple people around the world?

Do not be paralyzed by a fear of making a mistake on such a trivial matter - it’s your tendency to hesitate so much (that I’m reading from your question) that will be the ultimate efficiency-killer for you in the years ahead. Instead, just go ahead and choose the option that makes the most sense to you and act on it. You will learn much more by doing so than any of us could teach you with a brilliant analysis of your dilemma that points you to the “correct” (a meaningless concept here anyway) answer.

  • Dan, I understand your frustration. Sometimes students doubt themselves so much that they drive themselves and the people around them nuts. I do understand that. But I'm not sure this approach actually helps. Analogy: the first thing new parents need to learn is to trust themselves and their judgment, and to believe that they are the best experts about their baby. If they go see the doctor racked with self-doubt, how can the doctor influence their thinking? Probably not by scolding them for not trusting their own judgment.... – aparente001 Jan 14 '18 at 17:25
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It sounds like this is your first time working with this professor, so why not use this example to broach a conversation with him/her about what his/her preferences are for the semester in regards to receiving questions like this from the students. In general, do they want to be more hands off, or do they want you to forward questions like this? This is going to happen a lot over the semester, so you might as well ask the professor what he/she prefers so that you can best perform your job.

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