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Over the course of my PhD, I've had the pleasure of being a TA for many courses under many different profs, all were great experiences. I learned a lot, did a lot of good work with the other TAs and helped the students a ton.

Currently however, the professor I am a TA for is an absolute menace to deal with, especially over email. He will give me vague instructions on what to do. If I do what I think he wants, he will rudely ask if I ever bothered to read his emails. If I ask him for clarification, he also rudely asks if I bothered to read his emails (even though the emails have nothing to do with my question). If I say nothing, then he tells me I am not responsive and need to communicate more and ask more questions if I'm confused. At one point, I asked him about a problem that students had with an assignment, and he told me not to bother with anything anymore and that he would just do everything himself (implying that my question had annoyed him to the point of giving up on me trying to help him as his TA). He just seems impossible to work with. No matter what I do, he will complain about something.

He has a very bad review on RateMyProf, and from what I heard from his former PhD students, he was a nightmare and they were treading on thin ice because they didn't want to lose funding. Fortunately this TA position is only a semester long, and even if he ends up giving me poor feedback, I just want to be able to tell myself I did my best at doing my job, even if he does not think so. So I'd like to ask for general advice on dealing with such people, especially when they're professors.

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    I am truly sorry that you had to experience such a bad work relation, but hopefully you can learn even from this (there will be, unfortunately, others in your career!). This put aside, you might want to clarify your question (there is not a single interrogation mark in your "question"!) if you want to get clear answers...
    – J..y B..y
    Sep 11 at 12:11
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    just get out, talk to the heads and get out.
    – PatrickT
    Sep 11 at 19:49
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    I have a strong ideological belief that one should act against such behavior if they possibly can. That being said, I suggest being pragmatic: first finish the course, but document that behavior for raising this issue later. Sep 12 at 7:51
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    I would suggest meeting him in person, rather than through emails. Ask for appointments before each session and make sure he gives you all necessary details. "If I do what I think he wants" is not enough. You must know exactly what he wants concerning the TA sessions. You could even submit a summary of what you will do in the next session and ask for feedback... Sep 12 at 11:49
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    If your relationship with that professor has deteriorated too much, do not meet up with them in person without a witness present.
    – Stef
    Sep 13 at 12:48

6 Answers 6

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@Buffy 's answer covers the ground.

Here's one small step you might consider. When you get an email from the professor about some issue or you are about to embark on a task they might want done differently, write them immediately saying "[...] is what I think you want me to do, so I will go ahead with it unless I hear from you with other instructions".

This is an adaptation of what I taught my software engineering students to do when faced with a possible ambiguity in requirements that was not serious enough to demand immediate clarification from a client. In that context it improves work flow while minimizing distraction. In yours it's more the importance of creating a record.

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    PS Don't ever look at rate my professors. Sep 11 at 18:32
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    I was about to hint at the above. I never enjoyed it as a student and even less so in my three years as a community college instructor. Just like any online reviews, you either have people write on there if they were really happy or really upset (or just really lazy). Sep 11 at 18:35
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    @SeanRoberson The main use I found with RateMyProf was to find out whether other people thought the prof was as attractive as I did.
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 12 at 0:52
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    I very much agree with the "please confirm"... approach. However I would add one thing: keep printed copies of all relevant emails in a safe place, complete with the headers that show what servers they have passed through. You need to allow for the scenario where the other party demands that the administrators delete at least some of his email records on the grounds of some imagined grievance, at which point being able to produce the full record in extremis could be a career- (or contract- etc.) salvaging tactic. Sep 13 at 15:32
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Two strategies are possible here, as I see it, depending on your personality and personal goals.

  1. Continue with the bullying professor, and avoid them at all cost after the term. That way you minimize any potential backlash.

  2. Apply standard tactics to deal with bullies at work. There is a risk that the professor is mad. But it is more reasonable to assume the bullying professor thrives on their victims being silent. In that case, simply be firm, assertive, and slightly combative, yet still polite and to the point (no personal insults, accusations). If they write you: "you should be more responsive". Answer back, assertively that you don't agree: "Dear professor X, I do not believe I have been non-responsive. On the contrary, I have shared with you on Y my concerns regarding, but you have not provided clear enough guidance, in a timely manner. ". Etc. Bullies, are not used to being confronted. With some high chance they back off.

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    "There is a risk that the professor is mad" does this mean mentally ill or angry?
    – Drake P
    Sep 11 at 19:08
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    I meant he/she are unpredictable and irrational, hence can cause disproportional damage.
    – Dilworth
    Sep 11 at 20:41
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    The word “mad” means “angry” in the US, but “insane” in Britain.
    – bubba
    Sep 11 at 23:39
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    It can mean both in the UK.
    – Tom
    Sep 12 at 12:38
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    It can mean both in the US too, but for the word itself angry is the more common one. OTOH I don't think I've ever seen madness and mad scientist used to mean angry. Sep 12 at 15:35
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Some things you can change and some you can't. From your description it seems that this has been going on for a long time. The administration would therefore likely know of it and has decided to live with it. Complaining to authority will probably get you nowhere, if a bit of sympathy. A top researcher, for example, might be "forgiven" for lots of transgressions.

I'll suggest, sadly, that you probably need to "grin and bear it", keeping a low profile if possible.

If it were a recent phenomenon, I'd suggest that the professor is going through a hard period and acting badly as a result, as many do.

For the specific email issue, you might consider replying to every email from them immediately, so it is clear that you have read their mail. For the unhelpful-ness issue you might consider getting advice from a trusted faculty member with knowledge of the course when you need advice about responding to students. I had a helpful advisor, with no such issues, but I also had another mentor who was responsive to questions as well as a good model for teaching.

Keep your head down if possible. Don't give the person a "reason" to attack you in any way. Luckily it is a short term situation. Purgatory, perhaps, but not hell.

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    The administration would therefore likely know of it and has decided to live with it. Complaining to authority will probably get you nowhere, if a bit of sympathy. - I disagree with this. The department head may know this prof is causes problems, but if they don't know specific details they can't do anything about it.
    – Kimball
    Sep 11 at 22:47
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    Complaining to authority will probably get you nowhere, if a bit of sympathy. A top researcher, for example, might be "forgiven" for lots of transgressions Very true in the short term, but it is better to have +1 comment in said prof's HR folder. As soon as the professor loose a bit of thier momentum (they miss large project funding, there is a change in university administration or political party supporting said professor) they will be among the first people considered to be "restrucutured", instead of other decent persons being employed in the uni...
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 12 at 7:34
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    Yet another comment on the "Complaining to authority will probably get you nowhere, if a bit of sympathy" part. Not right! It provides a written documentation to the HR-equivalent academic body. If the professor later attempts to cause problems by giving you a bad review and report you to some body, such a letter could prove to be of immerse value.
    – Neinstein
    Sep 14 at 9:51
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Depending on the structure of your department, this professor is probably not your boss. You probably report to the Graduate Director in your department, or someone in a similar position. This is worth keeping in mind!

Moreover, bullies are usually known to be bullies. All too often, there is usually no way to dismiss them or make them change. If most people in the department are nice, then they probably don't hold your bully in high regard. (Probably -- I can't say for certain!) If so, then this means that he might not have a lot of actual power.

In addition to the other suggestions, I'd recommend doing two things:

  • Ask to speak to the graduate director (if you trust him or her). Explain the situation and ask for their advice. You might get some good advice specific to the situation -- and you also cover for yourself if your bully later tries to complain about you.

  • You say that "I just want to be able to tell myself I did my best at doing my job", which is admirable. From what you say about your professor, I'd say that he is incompetent to recognize or evaluate good teaching. So, although you'll want to minimize any damage there, I'd focus on your students, and remember that it is to them and not to your professor that you are accountable. Do right by them, and you will have done a good job.

Good luck!

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This professor is a bully and a [redacted], and luckily your interaction with him will be over relatively soon. Your focus should be on getting there with minimal repercussions to yourself and, where possible, others. I recommend you change your perspective on your TA position to get the best out of it nevertheless.

  • There is no appeasing people like him. There is no magic combination of words, email frequency and content that will result in him interacting pleasantly with you (or with anyone else, it seems). Stop seeing him as an ally (and trying to extract something useful from him: blood from a stone, etc.), and start seeing him as what he is: an obstacle to your goal.
  • Focus on helping the course students as your goal. Ideally your professor should be on your side in this, but clearly not. What do your students need? In some cases it's someone to act as buffer/intermediary with the professor, in which case it may be necessary for you to contact him and bear the rude and unhelpful responses; even here, write the queries with your goal in mind, ideally with a very simple answer (e.g. "clarify whether exercise 3 is intended to be solved using technique A or B", not "help me make students understand the applicability of A and B techniques"). But in many other cases, the professor may not really be any help anyway - find the answer on your own, perhaps identifying other authoritative people or peers with the relevant experience, then (if you want) send him an email with your intentions (as per Ethan Bolker's quite correct answer) as a CYA. Don't seek your professor's approval but your students' success.
  • Learn from the experience. This is quite different from your other TAing jobs (which is good!) and therefore you are finding your past experiences are not useful here. Observe this person, how he interacts with others (he may be quite different with "underlings" like you and PhD students, compared to "peers") and learn to spot the signs - it will be useful in the future when you meet others like him. There's plenty of [redacted] out there.
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Others have suggested that the problem is really with your professor and they may very well be correct.

However, since you mentioned emails several time in your post: I think it is worth pointing out that (from my experience as a software developer) misunderstandings are much more likely to arise and much harder to clear up when communicating in writing only, rather than meeting in person from time to time. Where I work, fifteen minutes of talking to the difficult co-worker from another department can easily save several hours of semi-angry writing back and forth. Even just meeting up from time to time and casually asking what is new already can improve communication a lot.

So while your professor may indeed be the main problem here, communicating only via email rather than in person (at least from time to time) can also be quite problematic.

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