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I am a PhD student in an Applied Math program. Recently, we received our TA assignments for the next quarter. To my surprise, I was assigned to TA a graduate-level class that I had never taken before which covers material I have very little experience with. I wrote an email to the DGS to ask if this was a mistake and if I could maybe switch to another class I'd be more comfortable with TAing, but he responded that the department currently has a TA shortage and some graduate students have been assigned to TA courses that they have not taken before. He also mentioned that all TA assignments are final.

So it seems like I'm stuck TAing a class with material I have little knowledge of, and I'm really nervous about the upcoming quarter. I do not think I'm going to be very helpful to the students in this class unless I put in a lot of effort to learn the material and spend way more hours than we're supposed to be spending on TAing each week. I am also not confident in my abilities to correctly grade assignments, but I suppose this will be something I need to discuss with the instructor. Does anyone have any advice for someone in my situation? Should I escalate this to someone higher or just accept that I will have to TA this class?

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    You will be surprised about how much of this material you will be able to understand well enough to teach! Mar 15 at 20:48
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    As an incoming graduate student, I was asked to TA a course I had wanted to take! It all worked out in the end.
    – Gilbert
    Mar 15 at 21:15
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    I've had lots of classes (in both computer science and math) where the TA was a student who had never taken the course before either. Their trick was to simply stay one week ahead with the material. Additionally, they received sample solutions from the professor. For the most part, it worked out okay. We students knew about the TA shortages and accomodated to the fact that we could not ask questions beyond the current assignment. We all turned out okay ;)
    – citronas
    Mar 16 at 7:56
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    @AndrewJaffe: That is a completely unprofessional and inappropriate quip.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 16 at 14:50
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    @einpoklum: Absolutely not! (Or at least not intended as such.) The happy fact is that graduate students have already shown their ability to learn mathematics at a very high level, and are very likely able to master this new material with relative ease. Mar 16 at 14:57

9 Answers 9

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Yes, discuss the duties with the instructor. For some TAs the work might only include grading according to a rubric provided by the professor, which should be do-able. If you have to lead small groups, however, you need to be more creative. In particular, don't present yourself as the source of all answers, but perhaps, the organizer of discussions.

You may actually need to attend the course lectures to make a good go of this, but that isn't necessarily unusual. You will certainly be expected to review course materials.

But, I asked a question on another site here and the answers given may help, though it was directed at instructors, not TAs: How do you teach something when you don't know it yourself?.

As a professor (hopefully in your future) you will occasionally be put in such a situation. If you are honest with the students (and your instructor) you can come out ok.

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    (+1) [awarded 30 minutes after my answer] My answer was originally a comment, but I decided I answer too many questions in comments as it is, so I decided that since it had been 8 hours since the question was asked, with no comments or answers, I may as well put it as an answer. After reading your answer 30 minutes later, I realized how much more I could/should have said. FYI, I was in this position myself once, but it was "advanced math for physicists and engineers", and I'd already taken complex variables and PDE's (both mostly attended by engineers), so it wasn't much of a stretch for me. Mar 15 at 18:26
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    I've been in the same situation as the OP. Having mostly studied the science of zoology I was assigned to be the TA of a course called "Man and Environment" which contained sociology, politics and in fact everything from bicycle lanes to epidemics. But it was in the Zoology department. The best way to learn about something you don't know is to teach it!
    – Wastrel
    Mar 15 at 18:43
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Your TA position is for X hours a week. The professional thing to do when you are given a work assignment, even one you feel unqualified for, is to enthusiastically say you will do whatever is needed to perform the assignment competently, including spending time acquiring the skills and knowledge needed for the assignment, within the limitation of X hours a week. If you have a concern that that won’t be enough, express it clearly and let the people making the decisions make whatever decision they want to make in such a situation. Since you have documented your concern, they will also be the ones responsible if any problems arise later.

I suggest sending the DGS an email along the following lines:

Dear [name of DGS] (cc [name of course instructor]),

Thanks for your reply. I understand that my assignment is to TA the underwater basket-weaving class, and that you are unable to grant my request for an alternative assignment.

To be clear, I am excited about this opportunity to broaden my mathematical horizons, and will do my best to perform this assignment within the X hours a week allocated to my TA position.

However, to reiterate the concern I expressed earlier, I estimate that because of my lack of familiarity with the course material, it will take me about Y hours a week just to learn the course material at the level needed to competently work on TA duties like grading. I am concerned that this won’t leave enough time to actually finish those duties, which might create an awkward situation for [course instructor]. However, as I said, I will try my best in any case.

Best wishes,

weighted sum

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    I really appreciate this email template! I will definitely send a similar email to the DGS, thank you. Mar 15 at 19:03
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    Hmm, I can see your point, but I'm not convinced whether it's in @weightedsum's best interest to really write such an email. I think there's a considerable chance that the main outcome of the email could be that both the DGS and the instructor are seriously pissed off (I'm not claiming that this would be an appropriate reaction by them - but it might still be a very likely reaction). Mar 15 at 22:35
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    @JochenGlueck “they will be seriously pissed”, even if true, does not imply “it’s not in OP’s interest to write the email”. To the contrary, OP has a professional duty to make their concern known and documented even if it pisses people off.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 16 at 0:46
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    I think this is company professional but not phd program / university professional. Most universities expect you to work around the clock; which you do not have to do of course, but one shd be cautious to talk about it. The first rule is: you do not talk about not working around the clock. Maybe the culture of this specific varisity is different, we dont know.
    – lalala
    Mar 16 at 9:22
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    @lalala I also believe you are wrong that “most universities” have the unprofessional norms you’re describing. This is the attitude in some places, of course, even many places probably. But in the US today at least, in serious, highly ranked universities, there is generally an attitude of respect for the labor rights of employees, and a growing awareness of work-life balance, the mental health needs of graduate students, etc. I hope OP’s university is one of those, otherwise they might have bigger problems to worry about than this TAing assignment.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 16 at 14:44
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I would just try to connect with the instructor as soon as possible and be honest with them about your concerns. I'm sure they have dealt with having TAs that haven't taken the course before and so they will have a good feel for if you will be able to "survive" or not and what you might need to do to prepare.

I was in a similar situation and ended up being ok without it taking more than my 20 hrs per week I was supposed to be working on it because the instructor had good grading rubrics, I could typically just tell students if I didn't know an answer and research it and get back to them, and for the discussions, like Buffy said, I was really just as a facilitator and not there to give the students the answers.

Connecting with the instructor as soon as you can will hopefully remove some of this stress and worry! Also, you likely are qualified to teach it...you are a PhD student in the department!

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It's likely they felt a Ph.D. student should be able handle most any reasonably standard undergraduate course, regardless of whether the student had actually taken the course. Maybe you could try to find someone TA'ing a course they are also not comfortable with, but you would be, and see if you can switch courses with them. I don't see how the DGS could object to this, as it would not affect the issues the DGS is concerned with. [DGS = Director of Graduate Studies? Doesn't really matter here, I suppose.]

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    Yes, DGS stands for Director of Graduate Studies. I emailed him because he seems to be in charge of graduate student administration issues and I didn't feel like this problem was serious enough to contact the department head about. In addition, by "upper-level class" I meant to say that this is a graduate course, although I suppose undergraduates with a strong-enough background could take the course. I think your suggestion to try to swap courses with another TA is a good idea. I will ask around to see if anyone will be willing to swap with me. Mar 15 at 18:22
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You write that the course is an upper level/PhD course.

You should check how much work you will have (esp. homework) with your professor, but in my experience with undergraduate courses, the higher the level of course the less the TA has to do.

The low level, introductory type courses are usually huge and packed with students from other majors who have no particular love of math and maybe not even much math background. That's a lot of homework that needs to be graded and a lot of students who need a lot of individual help (and often a large number of students who specifically do not want to be taking the class and can be very trying about it).

By the time you get to upper level classes, particularly in math after the first proofs class, all of the students have specifically chosen to be there and are at least somewhat proficient in what they're doing. The class sizes are usually a lot smaller, as well, so less homework (although homework can be more complex/nuanced).

In a PhD course that may not entirely hold, there may be some students coming from a non-math background who need more help, but they have at least chosen to be in that class and are willing participants.

Often all the help students really need is someone to talk calmly and provide very generic guidance. I got a lot of mileage out of phrases like, "I don't know, but can you explain what you're trying to do and I'll see if I can figure it out..." It's a sort of mathematical Socratic method (/rubber duck debugging, etc.) where there's a pretty good chance that by explaining the problem well enough they will figure out the answer on their own.

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There's at least one advantage to teaching a subject you aren't yet familiar with. When teaching a subject in which you're already an expert, it's hard to judge how difficult various topics are to someone who's learning it for the first time (especially for those topics that are exceedingly difficult right up until you "get it", after which they're trivial). But if you just learned the material yourself, you have an idea of what parts might give students trouble (admittedly, you know this from a sample size of 1, but it's better than nothing.)

And you may be overestimating just how much extra time it takes to teach yourself the material: a lot of what you need to do to teach yourself can be reused to teach the students. I was once called on to TA a topic in which I had very limited experience (for first year grad students, if recollection serves), and had to take the approach of teaching it to myself and staying a week ahead of the students. Each week, I would teach myself the material, and then to verify that I understood the material, I designed toy problems that I could solve using the newly acquired knowledge. By writing programs to solve these problems, I had...

  1. ...verified that I did, in fact, understand the topic at least reasonably well.
  2. ...designed a set of problems that test the material. Thus, I could create homework assignments merely by writing out the problem specifications more formally (and I knew for a fact that someone who just learned the material last week is capable of doing these assignments, because I just did exactly that).
  3. ...written a set of tests and sample solutions for each assignment, which is prep-work I'd need to do for grading anyway.

So all that was left to do was answer questions (and the material was certainly fresh in my mind) and grade assignments. All in all, it didn't take that much more time than any other course I hadn't TAed before would have. Some adjustment to this approach will be necessary, based on the specifics of the course, but for applied math, something similar should be practical.

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  • The first paragraph is spot-on. An important skill in maths is how to check things as you go and how to find your mistakes (it is a lot like programming in that respect), and sometimes that is difficult to do if you know the topic too well. As a TA you should be supporting the material taught by the professor/lecturer, rather than teaching it yourself, so any advanced questions can be passed on to the prof to answer. Mar 17 at 14:29
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I was expected to be a professor of courses I had never taken. Needless to say, it didn't go particularly well. During the interview, one professor promised to help me. From my POV, that didn't actually happen.

In any event, sometimes as a TA, all I had to do was grade homework. On the other extreme, the TA can do everything, with only minimal supervising by the professor. So find out which is your situation.

As others have said or implied, probably, you will need to attend the course lectures, study the materials, and learn the course work. (See other answers and also comments on this page.)

Depending on your POV, this could be a positive learning experience!

Most PhD's are expected to do self-teaching at some point, but staying ahead of the curve while learning a course you are teaching IS a very real challenge!

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First of all note that this is a labor issue. You are an employee of the university, given a certain work assignment which you are unable to properly fulfill, but expected to do so anyway. Even though the university cloaks it it the garb of "student" affairs.

Secondly, note that the university is linking your being a PhD candidate - a junior researcher - with teaching, to the extent that the junior researchers are, as they see it, obliged to teach whatever the university/department deems it necessary for them to teach. This is not problematic in itself - assuming you're not required to teach things you are not academically mal-equipped to teach; and provided your entire activity as a PhD candidate - research + teaching + administrative duties etc. - is considered altogether as your breadth of employment. In a typical US university, that is not, unfortunately, the case.

So now that we've established the scenario, the question becomes: What is a semi-uncrecognized, disenfranchised, employee for a large (academic) institution to do when demanded to perform tasks s/he cannot properly perform?

Unfortunately, many junior researchers bow their head down, swallow their pride and try to teach / TA the course as best they can. The result is a reinforcement of their collective servility, a deterioration in teaching quality, and indirectly also a push-down of employment conditions, since the university, when faced with lacking of qualified teaching staff, is under no pressure to offer better employment conditions so as to be able to recruit (especially on short notice).

Now, what I would like to be able to tell you is: Go see your academic staff union representative. The union should be raising hell on this kind of demand, calling out that DGS and threatening both collective action and initiating academic-disciplinary procedures against that DGS.

However, most US universities are not unionized, and even if yours was - the fact that this can happen means that the union is weak or co-opted (or both). So, what you should really focus on doing is unionize junior academic staff at your university. I know that is a tall order, and certainly it is not a matter for a single individual, but it is an absolutely necessity, and such struggles do succeed when carried out consistently.

Lacking a union - you need to find an officer or an organization which would be interested in putting counter-pressure on that DGS. Options could be:

  • The instructor in charge of the course.
  • The university's student union, or more specifically its departmental officers/representatives.
  • Your advisor.
  • Some Dean or vice-Dean in charge of teaching, as opposed to graduate studies.
  • A senior tenured professor whom you have a close relationship with.
  • Your cohort of junior researchers at the department.

These were not listed in order. The question of who to approach depends on your relationship with them, your assessment of their interest and willingness to act on this matter, their backbone, their ability to withstand pressure etc.

About the last option - it is the most relevant if there are multiple junior researchers who have been met with this demand. Try to locate a group of people in the same predicament. You would be amazed at the difference in effect of even 3-4 people coming to see the DGS together, to explain how they cannot ethically teach courses in material they are themselves not fluent in, relative to a single person coming to complain or ask for leniency. It would be even more powerful if that group could get a few more PhD candidates to tag along, fill up the DGS' room, and look seriously dissatisfied.

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    Actually, I doubt that most academics treat this purely as a labor issue. It would be if TAs worked in the bookstore or the cafeteria, or even in the library. But, instead, they are part of the educational process itself and gain valuable experience if their career is to be in academia. It is, in part, a learning issue, that helps assure somewhat more ready entry level faculty. Some TAs actually get to teach their own sections of a larger course, as I did once I got some experience with grading and such.
    – Buffy
    Mar 16 at 15:28
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    @Buffy: I agree that this isn't a pure labor issue. But the scale is tipped so far to the other side, that I need to emphasize the other end. As for the "educational process" - that's the same process that senior academic staff go through when they study a new subject. Almost everything can be presented as continued education. And in fact, that's true not just in academia - but in industrial settings as well: Much of one's time is spent studying new things.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 16 at 16:44
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As part of my PhD studies, I re-discovered a bunch of areas in physics that I thought I knew or thought I did not know.

All this thanks to teaching - that was a wonderful experience.

You can rest assured that you will always have that one weird student who already knows more than you on a topic. If you are lucky they will just go though. If you are lucky they will come to you directly during open hours to address a problem you have no idea how to address but at least you suffer alone.

And then if you are not lucky they will ask the question during your course and you will have to do some belly dancing to get out of that difficult situation. The experience is invaluable for your future career.

Oh, how much I miss teaching! (I am in the industry now and teaching was the best exerice I got from academia).


Anecdote time: I was asked a question during my PhD defence, from the public. The sociologically impaired asker asked something of which I understood all the words, but not when they were all together in one sentence. My shirt got wet from the sweat and I had to say I have no idea. The president of the jury sighted into the microphone and said

This is very sad, Mr WoJ, that a PhD candidate does not know this. I am disappointed.
Dr IdiotWhoAsksSuchQuestionsDuringADefense, please explain to Mr WoJ the answer

To what Dr IdiotWhoAsksSuchQuestionsDuringADefense said

ah, I do not know, I though he would

The room was roaring with laughter and I finally got my PhD (that was one of the most crazy defenses in our department, but this is a story for another time. It involves mud, tongs, a wandering magnifying glass and the words fucking notes said in the microphone)

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