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I'm a teaching assistant at a US university for a calculus class. My major duties are to write worksheets and then grade them along with the homework.

I have been a TA long enough (5 years now) to understand the usual responsibilities of one. I have also worked with a variety of instructors with different working styles. All of this, is to say that my current instructor is severely micromanaging me. So far, I've managed to do all of the miscellaneous and often questionable as necessary tasks they've given me. But as the semester is progressing, they're continuing to give me additional tasks.

By way of example, they'd started questioning why I took a point from a students assignment. Now they also want me to write down a detailed rubric of how I grade an assignment, down to every possible scenario of how a student may lose a point.

There are other examples. Their tone of emails is very disrespectful and I get several emails a week (on top of a weekly meeting) of that nature. I've considered talking to my research advisor, but they've got a lot on their plate right now and so I would like to call on the vast experience of this community to help me with the following questions:

  1. Am I allowed to use the word 'micromanage' in an email, or would it be considered unprofessional or inappropriate? I wish to let the instructor know that I would like to be treated like an adult.

  2. Do math departments at US universities have some kind of support system for TAs? If a TA such as I is distressed with their instructor, who would they go talk to?

  3. As a TA, am I allowed to say no to a task given by the instructor? Or must I do whatever they say?

Edit:

I. Clarification:

I am not unhappy that the instructor requires a rubric. Rubrics have always been created and used. They however, want me to write down in great detailed how many ways there are a student can get a problem incorrect, and how I'd mark them down. The point is, there are infinitely many ways and no rubric detailed enough can account for every contingency. I am also not unhappy that the instructor is handing me more tasks as the semester progresses. I am unhappy, however, that they're relinquishing many of the responsibilities of an instructor (that they started the semester, agreeing to do) onto me. This is creating logistical challenges for me (since we are not teaching in person). An earlier clarification that included a detail about the instructor has been removed, please keep it that way.

II. Update:

Thank you all for your comments and answers. I took the advice of approaching the instructor and the department chair (separately) and putting my concerns in front of them. I also spoke to fellow TAs who had worked with the instructor in the past. Following is a brief summary:

  1. The instructor seem to not agree that their tone of communication with me had been disrespectful. I showed them some examples and explained my perspective and after a dialogue, they seem to cave in and indirectly admitted by saying that their language was a bit too harsh.

The instructor did not agree that they're passing their work onto me, so I decided to take it to the chair.

  1. The chair agreed that many of the tasks I was performing were not to be handled by TAs. They told me they'd speak to the instructor.

  2. Apparently, a couple TAs I spoke to, who've worked with them in the past, had similar experiences. They said they got into arguments with the instructor often.

III) Conclusion:

I'm grateful for a lot of good advice given to me here. The situation seems to have gotten a lot better with the instructor now and I hope to finish the semester on a positive note.

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    In most places the "chair of undergrad studies" would be a tenured faculty position. I know of a couple of exceptions, but, still, a regular, permanent or long term, position held by an experienced educator.
    – Buffy
    Sep 19 at 0:04
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    Are you being paid for the extra time you spend performing these tasks, or is it something you are having to do beyond your contracted hours?
    – Ben
    Sep 19 at 0:11
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    Might it be the case there have been complaints expressed by students to the instructor or chair about you, particularly your grading of their work? It would be good to get that out of the way first. Sep 19 at 1:08
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    So, perhaps this is a bit harsh, but some of the answers and comments start with the assumption that either the Instructor or the TA is right. This is not only counterproductive to the actual situation, but also reinforces the idea that there is some sort of battle that must be fought for those in similar situations of this question. Please, take a moment and consider that you may not know who is in the right here, based on the limited information that has been provided to us. Sep 19 at 17:45
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes.
    – cag51
    Sep 20 at 19:27
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I'm not going to address your 3 points specifically, because I believe these are not the right questions to ask in your situation, and because two other posts have already replied to your specific concerns.

Rather, I think it is important to realize that there are multiple ways to organize the "staff" (i.e. all instructors, lecturers, TA's, etc. involved) of a course. Additionally, the teacher in charge usually has the freedom to choose a method of organization, and any "staff" member subordinate with respect to this course (including faculty members) should try to adapt towards it, as much as is reasonably possible.

It seems that the new person in charge of this course has a very different management style than your previous one. Please be aware that there are probably many reasons this instructor opts for a "micromanaging" style (relative to the style of the previous instructor), and that probably none of them have something to do with you. So please try and do not take it personally. For example, I think it is more likely that the tone of the emails is a result of the new instructor not liking the management style and organization of its predecessor, of which you are unfortunately one of the most visible components.

An analogy

Consider this analogy: You have been working in a factory for 5 years now, assembling widgets with your bare hands, and all is going well. Suddenly, you get a new boss. The first time you meet, she cries in disbelief when she sees you carrying widgets with your bare hands. Angrily, she orders you to start wearing gloves from now on, and inspect all widgets you produced for any fingerprints, and start wiping them off.

Does the new boss hate you? Unlikely, you just met for the first time. It is more likely she simply does not want fingerprints on the widgets, and overreacts to the situation. Does the new boss treat you like a child? No. She treats you like a subordinate, which you are. It is true that academic staff are usually given more freedom than factory workers, but teaching tends to require more organization and structure (depending on your educational styles), and thus often has a de facto "boss" as well.

What to do

I think you should try to talk to your instructor (or your research advisor) first (preferably face to face, or video chat), before doing anything else. (as a side-note, if you feel your advisor is not able to advise you on these matters, for whatever reason, consider contacting the relevant support people at your university to make sure you have at least someone to talk to. Yes, you have this site, but this is no substitute for an advisor!)

If you keep in mind what I've stated above, this conversation ought to bring some calm to the conflict between you and your instructor. One way you could start is by first mentioning that you feel overwhelmed by the requests of you instructor, and that you are having a hard time to adapt to their way of running this course. Then, you can explicitly ask for help in performing your duties to their expectation. The latter may give you more work than you're used to. However, not doing that would be insubordination, and only prolong your conflict. If, after talking to the instructor, you still believe their requests are unreasonable, then you may go to others and ask them to do something about it. However, be aware that the others may disagree with your whether the requests are unreasonable. Be open to the possibility that the previous instructor simply made things easy for you.

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    I think this is the correct answer. OP is upset that they aren't being allowed to grade the students without supervision or accountability, and that simply isn't reasonable. Every other instructor may have simply supported their grading without question, and that had led OP to consider that level of authority "natural", when it isn't. At the end of the day, all delegated authority is contingent.
    – tbrookside
    Sep 19 at 13:15
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    @tbrookside The OP was made completely in-charge of worksheets, which is a lot of work and not completely typical. I think they're complaining about the process. If the instructor had said "this isn't working out, I'm going to write the grading criteria from now on" or "we'll do it together in a meeting" I don't think there would be a problem. Sep 19 at 19:13
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    @tbrookside depending on the class, having a detailed explanation of every possible reason to take off a point is maybe impossible and definitely a waste of time.
    – corsiKa
    Sep 19 at 20:46
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    The amount of hours wasted on writing a microscopic rubric needs paid, and at some point it will exceed the allotted hours on the TA contract. The instructor should know that at that point, the work stops.
    – obscurans
    Sep 20 at 0:07
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    @tbrookside Well, there is degrees of supervision, control, and accountability as well. Which often changes. We used to trust student assistants (i.e. higher year bachelor/master students that do TA work) to neat leak the solutions of our graded homework assignments. However, thanks to an incident, we now no longer do that. I guess you mean to say that there is no such thing as a "natural" level of these aspects? If so, I agree. Sep 20 at 5:08
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  1. Am I allowed to use the word 'micromanage' in an email, or would it be considered unprofessional or inappropriate? I wish to let the instructor know that I would like to be treated like an adult.

I’d advise you against using that word. It’s a somewhat loaded term, might have a negative triggering effect, and besides, some supervisors might believe that micromanaging someone is actually a good thing in some circumstances.

I suggest instead that you focus on communicating in a jargon-free manner that given your experience you could be doing your job more effectively with less detailed instructions from the professor, and that this could save the professor’s time and energy as well.

As for “treated like an adult”, that sounds fairy hyperbolic to me. They may be treating you like a first year graduate student instead of a fifth year, but first years are still adults. When you discuss this with anyone at your department, tone down the hyperbole and stick to factual, emotionally neutral terms.

  1. Do math departments at US universities have some kind of support system for TAs? If a TA such as I is distressed with their instructor, who would they go talk to?

That’s specific to your department but probably the graduate program coordinator, graduate program chair, or the graduate vice chair. In a smaller department it might be the department chair. At my department, all of the above people would be quite supportive and try to help you resolve the situation.

  1. As a TA, am I allowed to say no to a task given by the instructor? Or must I do whatever they say?

Generally speaking a math department is like most hierarchical workplaces in the US, that is, people have supervisors who give them instructions, and they are expected to follow those instructions. However, it’s not like some kind of navy ship where disobeying an order will get you court-martialed (or, during wartime in certain historical times and places, summarily executed); if that were the case, there’d be a lot of dead TAs on my record…

In reality in professional workplaces where the employees are college-educated “knowledge workers” (a description that certainly includes math departments) it is understood that the supervisee is going to apply their own judgment to the situation and try to get the task they were given done in the best way as they understand it. So, while it is not considered appropriate to disobey a direct order, it is also not considered very appropriate for a supervisor to give a direct order that has extreme levels of specificity to it and takes away the autonomy of the supervisee to apply their professional skill and judgment to the situation. In such a situation it would not be inappropriate to at least try to reason with the professor. In reality, in my experience TAs often don’t do everything I tell them to do in the exact way I told them to do it, and somehow the world keeps spinning. But I’m a reasonable person, and your professor may not be.

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  • Thank you for the answer. Indeed, not using passive aggressive language worked in my favor.
    – user82663
    Sep 21 at 22:39
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My guess is that students are asking the instructor about the worksheet grading. They assume the professor did it all, or that you graded using their criterion. The awkwardness when the instructor replies "uh, this -1 was for, uh, I'll have to get back to you" is the source of the problem.

The fix is for the instructor to tell the students about the arrangement. Maybe your instructor wants to check around, but having mere worksheets done by a grad TA (I assume), with close supervision, of course, seems fine. I got to write a few test Q's when I was a TA. Then work out whatever seems comfortable. For examples, maybe they want to look over the worksheets first (at one of these meetings). Maybe you talk a little about how in class they emphasize more X when the book covers more Y, so the worksheet should also be more on X; you're using the terminology the students are hearing in class, and so on. A rubric is a pretty simple thing: "Part I: 5pts, Part-II: 4pts general approach & most steps, 4pts details; several minor mistakes (overall) -1".

The goal is students coming to you, not them, to whine about worksheet points (during your well-publicized office hours), and many fewer students appealing to the instructor, who is now not blind-sided by a worksheet Q they've never seen before. My guess is your instructor asks less and less about the worksheets as fewer and fewer students ask them about it. If they wanted to really get involved in the worksheets they wouldn't have given you the job.

As far as duties, TA's tend to be paid on a basis of 20 hours/week. Generally this will be roughly laid out -- 4 hours grading homework, 1 hour meeting, 3 hours in class, 6 hours office ... . And, of course, TA's are firstly students -- unlike other part-time jobs, TA-ing is educational and less disruptive to your schoolwork. That's what we say, anyway. Your best defense against too much work is letting the instructor know how the extra time past 20 hours is cutting into your studies. Having your TA flunk the semester doesn't look good.

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  • There seems to not have been any concerns from the students about my grading. My rubrics, like you've explained, are indeed clear and accurate. I have not had any problems in the past. I've also seen the rubrics created by more experienced TAs and faculty and mine seems quite reasonable. Thanks for the answer.
    – user82663
    Sep 21 at 22:42
  • @tangentbundle Huh. It seems like something must have happened to go from "here, you handle it all -- I don't have time" to "now I want to get involved". Sep 22 at 0:54
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Taking your questions in reverse order: As a TA it is very unlikely that you have any independent authority at all. The course is assigned to the professor who is responsible for it and for managing any support staff. There are likely rules on what it is appropriate for them to require and certainly limits on the time you are required to work.

At some institutions the TAs might have a union or a support organization, and students normally have somewhere they can appeal to.

You can say "micromanage" or any other terms you like and whether they are unprofessional or not, if you push people's buttons, especially intentionally, then it probably works against you. It is also possible that the "disrespect" you are feeling is a reaction to your own actions. You seem very angry, both in the question and in a comment. Projecting that does you no good.

You resent being given additional tasks, it seems. But some would interpret that as being given additional responsibility, which is part of the learning process.

Five years experience doesn't make you an expert. Sorry.

But, your research advisor is probably a good person to talk to. Ask if your complaints are valid. Ask if others have complained. A local source is more valuable than anyone here (myself included) since there are details you can share there, but not here. You say the tasks are "questionable" but we can't judge that.

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    Thanks for the answer but you misunderstand, I meant 5 years experience as a TA. I'm not claiming to be an expert educator.
    – user82663
    Sep 19 at 0:28
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    I think Buffy meant an expert in being a TA.
    – justhalf
    Sep 19 at 12:41
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    To play devil's advocate, how many more years of experience being a TA do people realistically have than 5? The question author sounds to be nearing the reasonable experience limit of a TA.
    – Ian
    Sep 19 at 16:16
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A detailed rubric on grading, is the wrong way to do it. It may seem useful, for someone who wants a "dumb" person (or a robot) to do grading. An intelligent person can do much better.

When you have a detailed rubric, you're stuck with it – which is bad. Specify every way a student may loose a point? Well, they always invent new ways of doing an exercise badly. And when the new error isn't on that detailed list, you can't take a point for it. This is why the detailed spec doesn't work. You end up giving an A on something mediocre, because "this isn't on the list of what they can loose points for".

It is ok that they ask why you deducted points. They must do the occational check to see that you do your job properly. And perhaps they're following up a complaint. Of course, the complaint may be bogus. Students occationally complain in the hope that a complaint alone will improve their grade.

They should not go for a detailed rubric in order to cover their asses or whatever. Next thing, they publish that list, and students will then complain "yes, this is an error. But it is not on the list, so I demand an A as is my right..." With a detailed spec, you get "lawyers" arguing.

So, the spec should simply be: Read the students work. Deduct points for anything that is wrong, missing or otherwise bad. (Infinite list, cannot be specified!)

Or the other way: Read the students work. Grant points for correct complete answers...

Math people often go for a detailed approach to grading, because it is to some extent possible with math exercises. But this is not the only way. A math test can be graded using the same approach as when grading an essay: "Read the whole thing, get a feel for how good they are." Grades set this way can be harder to argue about. But they capture phenomena such as: "Student had all the correct answers, but clearly don't know the best way to get at them. Bad intuition, laborious and roundabout methods..." Being good at math, is much more than coming up with a correct answer. Good education should appreciate that. An exercise/test consisting of a series of problems where one awards "points" in a strict way, is not a good way to grade. It may be useful because it is quick and easy to do with a large class. But it shouldn't be the only approach to grading, and certainly not made progressively stricter every year.

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From a college professor who has supervised TAs.

  1. Rubrics are fundamental for "assessment of learning". Your supervisor may have to demonstrate whether they are closing the loop on institutional objects required for accreditation. Rubrics demonstrate that learning objectives are being assessed. So, try to also think from the point of view of the supervisor who has their own goals that they need to meet.
  2. This does NOT absolve them of using a disparaging tone.
  3. Whatever you do, don't burn bridges. Like all professions, this can be a really small world.

Good luck!

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  • Thank you for the very concise yet helpful answer. Not burning bridges is indeed wise advice.
    – user82663
    Sep 21 at 22:44
-3

LEAVE

The usual failing of someone in an academic position is typically too much of a laissez faire attitude viz-a-viz teaching. Someone erring on the opposite side of the scale is unlikely to see their failing - nay they are probably going to consider themselves virtuous for lavishing attention on minute aspects of how their course is delivered. They don't trust anyone to do as good a job as themselves. It is clear that you are unlikely to meet their exacting standards. Complaining about their management would be interpreted as you attempting to shirk responsibility. The fact that the work being loaded on you may be meaningless is not the issue.

While we could talk about the pedagogical pros and cons of this style of management, it's not actually relevant to the question. I cannot realistically see any scenario where you could make the fundamentals changes to the management style that you require. This is probably multifaceted for you. Teaching is pretty labor intensive at the best of times. Pointless busywork will make the nominal task grow exponentially in terms of time cost. Unless there is a requirement not stated in the question it will certainly not be worth it from a monetary point of view. It almost certainly not be worth it either from the perspective of reputation as you are already being treated as an underling, and remaining in this position will likely cement that perception, at least in the instructor's eyes. If you are asking this question here, you are probably close to saying something about the way in which you are being managed, which is more likely to sour the relationship rather than establish the firm boundaries that you are seeking.

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  • You appear to know quite a bit about this instructor. If I may ask, how likely do you think your description is accurate, and on what parts of the question do you base your assessment of the instructor? Also, is the adaptation truly as terrible as you describe? This does not correspond with my personal experience of changing management styles as a TA, at least. Sep 20 at 12:17
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    @Discretelizard I have worked as a TA a lot, and I have worked as someone who has hired TAs. Someone who intercedes between the TA and their task is one that is an asshole to work for. It can sometimes be tempting to do it when in a senior position, but it screams that you do not trust the people you have hired. If someone is a good TA, they are a good TA, and if they're not, no degree of micromanagement will make them a good one. The best intructors I had knew when to manage and when to stand back. The ones that didn't ended up endlessly rearranging deck chairs on their sinking ship.
    – Stumbler
    Sep 20 at 13:09
  • Hmm, well, of course there is a time and place for more or less management. I'm just not so sure this particular scenario cannot be a place for more management. You say that the instructor gets between the TA and their task, but it seems to me that the instructor is changing the task the TA should perform, and provide (perhaps too much, I cannot tell) feedback when the new task has not been performed in the way they liked. (or they realised the TA actually should have been doing something slightly different from what they asked...) Sep 21 at 8:20
  • I understand the frustration and I'm sorry your labor was unappreciated by your colleagues/superiors, @Stumbler. I do agree, the job of a TA is not very rewarding and sometimes, quite demeaning.
    – user82663
    Sep 21 at 22:46
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Not to put too fine a point on this, but generally speaking the way to make sure you are treated as an adult is to convince people that you are an adult who should be treated as such. Part of this is competence — the ability to successfully complete tasks, which you have no problem with — but a larger part is confidence and self-assertiveness. On a purely psychological level, you need to present yourself to this professor as an equal (a colleague, not a student) until s/he wakes up and sees you as such.

A good first step would be to set up a face-to-face appointment, and begin it (after the pleasantries) by saying" I'm getting the sense that you don't trust or respect my work, and I wanted to talk to you about that." When asked why you say that — which is the likely next move — calmly and factually explain that s/he has been loading you with trivial tasks, double-checking what you do, and speaking dismissively to you. Have examples ready-to-hand to show what you mean, and keep emotion out of it (even if s/he starts to get irked). Then talk it out: negotiate...

Your workload probably won't drop much — you're being paid to do what this professor tells you to do, after all — but it should change his/her attitude to give you more leeway, independence, and courtesy. You may discover, for instance, that the last TA for this class was a complete tool, or that the professor is under some kind of pressure from the department or students. Keep in mind that a small cohort of undergrads believes the road to better grades lies in complaining about TAs to professors, and complaining about professors to the department. Such students are a PitA (Pain in the A...), but their parents pay the school's bills.

The key here is to ask for what you want — this being a measure of consideration and mutual regard — from the state of mind that you have a right to receive it, and any reasonable person would naturally give it to you. When that becomes true, then you are being treated like an adult, because you've become an adult in other people's eyes.

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    This sounds like a bad plan if the instructor has been making demands that would be considered reasonable by a (knowledgeable) third party. I strongly suggest talking to such a third party before trying this approach. Sep 19 at 17:40
  • @Discretelizard: I disagree, mainly because I find it ridiculous to delegate psychology to bureaucracy. This is an interpersonal problem having to do with the feelings and desires of the TA, and at some point each of us needs to stand up for our own feelings and desires. Adding a third party merely complicates an already complex psychosocial interaction. If a direct discussion goes badly one can always turn to a third party, sure; but depending on a third party from the get-go does not do much to project an independent, respectable persona. Sep 19 at 17:56
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    Except the TA is decidedly not an equal to a professor. A TA is a subordinate and should act as such. This doesn’t give the professor the right to treat them badly, but if the TA fails to acknowledge the real power difference between themselves and the professor, any attempt to address the bad behavior is likely to backfire. Sep 19 at 18:47
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Sep 20 at 19:20
  • I'm fascinated that this answer suggesting open and direct communication was received so poorly...
    – Andrew
    Sep 22 at 6:05

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