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Context: I am an associate professor of mathematics at a small liberal-arts college in the US.

I am teaching multiple sections of a general-education mathematics course this fall, and I have an undergraduate TA who leads optional review sessions for students in the evenings. A student who regularly attends these sessions recently confided in me that the TA has made two statements to them that they perceived as microagressions. (The student is from a minoritized group, but the TA is not. The student did not use the word "microagression", but did use other "Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) terminology" about their status as a minoritized group member.)

I apologized for what the TA said, assured the student that it was not ok that this had happened, and thanked them for being willing to speak to me about it. I also told the student that I would investigate what I could do to prevent future occurrences of this behavior while still protecting their anonymity. The conversation between us went well, and they plan to continue their work in the course and with the TA.

Although I am from the same privileged group as the TA, in my interactions with the TA I have found them to be well-spoken, sensitive, and caring, so I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that these statements (which the unhappy student repeated to me) were not intentionally microagressive. That said, the TA has no formal training in education, and I could certainly see them making faulty assumptions that would have lead to this situation. In my (once again, privileged) opinion, this problem is not serious enough that the TA should be removed, but I do want to take concrete steps to protect my students from future microagressions. (Not to mention, it would be a learning opportunity for the TA.)

Specifically, I am looking for advice about what to say to my TA. I have a few ideas about where to begin, but I am not an expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, nor do I regularly supervise teaching assistants. Should I simply start a conversation with them about how best to work with the diverse group of students we find in this general-education course?

To be more specific:

  1. The TA made a comment to the student along the lines of "your English is very good" (the student has lived in the US for years).
  2. The TA asked if the students laptop was obtained outside the US when they were trying to determine why an online HW problem was not accepting their answer attempts.
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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Sep 27, 2023 at 2:13
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    Mod's Notice: Please note our guidelines on frame challenges. In this case, OP has posited that the "microaggression" was real but not intentional; unless you have specific cause to doubt this, it is usually best to answer the question as asked. Opinions (on either side) about the validity of concepts like "DEI culture", "micro-aggressions," being "privileged," etc. should be taken to the chat room above; comments containing these opinions will be deleted without warning.
    – cag51
    Sep 27, 2023 at 2:21
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    TA is your assistant, how often do you give them a feedback on how they are doing?
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 27, 2023 at 6:45
  • @EarlGrey I see the TA a few times per week (they are required to attend the course they are tutoring), but we do not have any formal meetings/feedback opportunities. They only help with homework and studying, so there isn't a huge need for regular meetings. Sep 27, 2023 at 13:48
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    @shoover There is some relatively informal training for TAs--basically a half-day crash course at the start of the semester. (Also, if it matters, the TAs are undergrads. I've also edited the question to say this.) Sep 27, 2023 at 19:12

8 Answers 8

33

As you say, you're not an expert in DEI; if your institution does have people that are experts on DEI issues, I would check to see if they can help you.

You mentioned in a comment that your institution has a DEI Office, so that seems like a good place to start; I assume most institutions do these days. Other readers may be at institutions that avoid that label due to political pressures, though. There may also be professional counselling resources that are more broadly targeted at helping resolve interpersonal conflicts or supporting teachers where you'll find people with more experience in this area even if they are not explicitly labeled as such.

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    Also useful to engage your center for teaching a learning, if one exists. In my experience, most SLAC have such an office.
    – Dawn
    Sep 26, 2023 at 17:21
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    Surely it is not necessary to be an "expert on DEI" to deal with such a minor incident (OP has described what the TA said to the student). Do we need to call in the authorities every time someone raises their eyebrows at something another person said?
    – toby544
    Sep 28, 2023 at 8:44
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    @BryanKrause OK, thanks. I am glad you seem to agree that the severity of the incident, and what the TA actually said, are relevant factors.
    – toby544
    Sep 28, 2023 at 13:45
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    Check if "experts in DEI" can help you... why though? Does this not feel cringeworthy? If a female student disliked the fact that a male TA complimented her intelligence, would you pull in "experts in women's studies" (or whatever the analogous experts would be...), or would you just try to handle it? Is the intent here to help the student, or to cover the instructor's rear?
    – user541686
    Sep 29, 2023 at 5:51
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    Unfortunately DEI is one of those things where ideological bias is pretty much impossible to compensate for, so what guidance you might get from the "experts" at your university could vary greatly depending on their personal biases. Sep 29, 2023 at 16:38
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Do not preempt the complaint process (especially with something as nebulous as an alleged "microaggression")

Unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary, complaints from students should be dealt with under the complaints process at the university, so you should read the relevant complaints policy to see what role and authority you have as the course lecturer. Even assuming it is your role to be the first point of contact for a student complaint, it seems pre-emptive (and administratively dangerous) to me that you have already formed a view on the alleged behaviour and communicated what is essentially a complaint outcome to the student. Going forward, you should look up the complaints policy at your university and be conscious of what role and authority you have in this process.

You are obviously free to talk to your TA about this matter, but you should bear in mind some reasonable entitlements that the TA has as a fellow employee at the university. Firstly, like yourself, the TA retains some academic freedom as a teacher at the university. They may disagree with your own personal conception of what constitutes a microaggression, whether or not the concept of a microaggression is valid and appropriate to workplace/educational interactions, whether a microaggression is bad/micro-bad/innocuous, etc. (Since you are using terms like "my privilege group" and other similar nomenclature, it is evident from your post that you are heavily steeped in DEI/identitarian ideology, so bear in mind that many others are not.) This could potentially lead to you being at loggerheads with the TA, if the latter views the behaviour in question as being okay. Secondly, the TA is likely to be protected by the normal due process requirements of the complaint system at your university. It is possible that by having already formed a view on the outcome of the matter and communicated this to the student, you have already failed to give due process to the TA.

In this situation, my recommendation would be to talk to your TA, but stress that the view that you are communicating (regarding the alleged microaggression) is only your own opinion, formed without the benefit of having spoken to them. Solicit the opinion of the TA about whether or not they agree with your view and whether or not they wish to do things differently in regard to his teaching. If they agree with your view, you will be able to proceed with a shared understanding of how to deal with this student. If they disagree then you will need to decide what to do next, but adverse action against the TA should generally be reserved as a consequence for a successful complaint under your university process. Finally, don't make promises you don't have the authority to keep: Are you absolutely sure that the student can maintain anonymity in the university complaints process? Are they still entitled to anonymity if they decide to pursue this as a formal complaint against the TA, or would this breach the due process rights of the TA? If the TA were to make a formal complaint about your own approach to this matter, would you be compelled by the university to reveal which student complained to you, and would the TA be entitled to know this? (I don't know the answers to these questions myself, but they are the types of questions that it would be useful to consider when deciding whether to make an assurance of anonymity to a student.)


Update: The question has now added specifics of the alleged "microaggressions" at issue. These details confirm the legitimacy of my initial scepticism towards the approach taken by OP. The first act decribed as a microaggression is neither rude nor aggressive, though one could argue that it could get annoying if it were heard repeatedly over time from multiple sources. The second act described is entirely innocuous and probably a helpful inquiry for a technical problem. The fact that these are classified as aggressive actions says far more about the DEI/identitarian ideology at issue than about the TA.

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    – cag51
    Sep 29, 2023 at 3:53
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    I agree that the update confirms your initial scepticism. But maybe we could also gently acknowledge that if a person is repeatedly told their English is very good, when they have been living in an English-speaking country for many years, then in some cases it could start to get irritating. Telling the student that is 99% innocuous but not 100%.
    – toby544
    Oct 1, 2023 at 12:46
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    @toby544: Agree --- edited.
    – Ben
    Oct 1, 2023 at 20:31
  • This question's conception of a "microaggression" is different from the one I have usually heard. (It's always a vague word.) Oct 2, 2023 at 2:44
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You are doing good in being supportive to the student, but to be fair to the TA, you should not take the student side fully-hearted.

From the description of the TA, you are actually describing a lose-lose situation, where students are subject of microaggressions, while the TA is doing some micro-oppressive acts just because of social pressure, to close the gap with the students or to make the lecture a bit more interesting (yeah, explaining the derivative of exponentials is as simple as boring, even more during evening hours when everyone, included the TA, is tired after a day of work), clearly failing their intended goal.

You should mention verbally to the TA that you received some complaints about them. You can say exactly what the student complained about, or something vaguely related to preserve anonimity, if the TA is dismissive of the complaint you can reinforce your statement telling them the act can be defined as micro-aggression. Try to keep an amicable tone and stress that you are not doing a review or evaluation of their job.

If mantaining anonimity of the student may be difficult, you may consider an embargo time, i.e. wait for the current batch of students finishing their activities with the TA.

It is up to TA sensitivity how to react to realizing how their actions are perceived, but do your best in being supportive to the TA as well while giving this feedback.

If the TA proves to be condescending or generally insensitive to your remarks, well, you can consider them being "well-spoken, sensitive, and caring" as a façade (I hope it is not).

However, in your question there is one point that need to be abstracted and that deserves more of your attention. You state that

TA has no formal training in education, and I could certainly see them making faulty assumptions

and at the same time

I am not an expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, nor do I regularly supervise teaching assistants

What about yourself making false assumptions? You have been thrown in this topic by a student complaint and you have been caught off-guard. Do not react only based on empathy and emotions.

Instead of thinking about possible punition for the TA (since you mention "this problem is not serious enough that the TA should be removed" I see that in the back of your brain there is already lingering the thought "what is an appropriate punishment for TA?"), do one step forward, put yourself in TA shoes: you are a caring person and you receive a feedback about your acts, who cares about the punishment you receive, how can you learn more?

You cannot protect the students from future microagressions, they will happen and they have to learn to defend themselves alone, nor can you undo past microaggressions, but now you have a golden learning opportunity for yourself and for the TA how to be proactive, to identify your own thinking that lead to producing microaggressions.

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    Folks: this is a Q&A site, it is very specifically not the place for debate about society's challenges. As advertised by the giant banner at the top of the page. If you must argue, take it to chat.
    – cag51
    Sep 28, 2023 at 17:40
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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Sep 28, 2023 at 17:40
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Seems like I have to be the one to address the obvious again. Let me quote:

To be more specific:

  • The TA made a comment to the student along the lines of "your English is very good" (the student has lived in the US for years).
  • The TA asked if the students laptop was obtained outside the US when they were trying to determine why an online HW problem was not accepting their answer attempts.

In what universe are either of those possibly deemed offensive let alone "microaggressions"?

For the uninitiated, the first one is what is known as a so-called compliment. You should try it sometime, it helps befriend people.

The second one clearly was a genuine attempt at troubleshooting a problem. This is a process where you often try to rule out different potential sources of a given problem, such as the one described above. A (university) website being inaccessible from outside the country (or even network !!) is an entirely realistic scenario. (For example, some of my university's websites are only accessible via a special VPN).

Needless to say, there is nothing to move forward about and nothing to be done. Except, perhaps, that the student needs to be kindly, and politely, told that the statements in question do not constitute any kind of offense whatsoever.

This will also help the student go through life with much more ease as they will hopefully learn to not suspect an ill-intention behind every other comment coming from other people.

And I say this as a student from a "minoritized" group.

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    – cag51
    Sep 28, 2023 at 22:00
6

Since the student has an issue with a couple things the TA said which are, perhaps, mildly offensive or annoying, the student should discuss this issue with the TA. There are two advantages to this approach:

  • it avoids making a mountain out of a molehill;
  • the student, who is presumably an adult, learns how to act like an adult and talk to people that he or she has an issue with.

Involving diversity tribunals or firing the instructor would be extreme over-reactions and would teach the student to not deal with his or her own problems but instead to always tell the teacher, so to speak. This approach may be appropriate in primary school but after that, people should be expected to be mature enough to at least make an attempt to work things out themselves.

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  • 1
    "The student should discuss this issue with the TA." I feel like—the merits of this aside—if the powers-that-be disagree with you on whether you should communicate this to the student, it might be asking for trouble as an instructor. (Welcome to 2023.)
    – user541686
    Sep 29, 2023 at 5:34
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    Maybe, just maybe, the student in question has already explained it a hundred times that compliments on their ability to grasp the English language even though they don't look like whatever the predominant group in the area looks like are not really compliments and just had enough. Sep 29, 2023 at 11:30
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    @Marianne013 GIven that there are only two complaints about this TA and they aren't the same, that doesn't seem to be the case. Sep 29, 2023 at 12:39
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    @Marianne013 Here’s what was said to me some time last week: “What is that f***ing German doing in my room”. Literal quote except for the ***. Reading this discussion, I could see heads exploding.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 29, 2023 at 19:04
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    As a general rule, I don't think it is helpful to add speculated facts to the situations described in posts.
    – Ben
    Sep 30, 2023 at 21:55
5

Most likely, this is just a thing you need to deal with.
Not a Thing that you need to Deal With.

A student who regularly attends these sessions recently confided in me that the TA has made two statements to them that they perceived as microaggression

Note that there isn't enough context to discern what's going on here.
There are lots of possibilities (not all equally likely). For example:

  1. The TA genuinely meant this as a compliment, but the student was offended/genuinely upset.

  2. The student isn't even actually upset, but they Saw Something, so they Said Something. Likely because some entity (like the university) has taught them to report such things.

  3. The TA disliked the student and intended to insult them, and the student (rightly) reported it.

  4. The student disliked the TA, and so is trying to get revenge somehow.

Your response to the student seems to have been as if this was (3), but your response to the TA seems to be with the feeling that this was most likely (1)... when in reality it could be either, or something else entirely.

It's likely too late now, but what I would have done is to follow up as follows:

"I'm sorry about that, I can look into that. To help me understand this better—from your perspective, did you feel this was an innocent/well-intentioned misunderstanding on the TA's part? Or do you feel the TA already understood that this would not be received as a compliment?"

This has a few important effects:

  • It helps you distinguish which of the above possibilities (or others) you may be dealing with, which is important in deciding how to handle this.

  • It helps the student do the same if they hadn't already, which they might find useful to think about in future interactions with this TA (and others).

  • It helps the student see that you won't immediately overreact or underreact.

Specifically, I am looking for advice about what to say to my TA.

Obviously this depends on which situation we're dealing with. Since (1) seems like the most likely from your description, this is how I'd respond:

"Hey, so I just had a small bit of student feedback I wanted to relay to you. From what I understand, you complimented one of the students at some point. I'm sure you genuinely meant well... but unfortunately, they didn't seem to have appreciated it, so I just wanted to let you know so you can be more mindful of it moving forward."

  • If the TA asks what the incident was, you can provide details as much as you feel you're able to.

  • If the TA is genuinely surprised and doesn't realize why their comment may have come across poorly, you can reply with something like: "My guess is that the student might have already grown up speaking English (which you might not have realized), in which case the compliment would've seemed out of place."

  • If the TA still seems genuinely confused at why a compliment can come across negatively (not too likely, but possible): "I'm not sure, but say, if you can imagine being complimented on counting correctly from 1 to 10... perhaps that's kind of similar to how it might've come across?"

And honestly... for something like (1), that ought to be more than enough. Someone made a well-intentioned comment, someone else didn't appreciate it, you communicated the problem, and everyone (hopefully) understood what went wrong and things will improve.

4

Most answers are addressing how to interact with the TA, and have offered a variety of fine suggestions.

Aside from that, I believe your first consideration needs to be to the student, who needs to be directly asked if there's anything that is preventing them from getting the help they need with the course, and if they feel that there is, work with them to find them the support they need and are entitled to.

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I am not an expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, nor do I regularly supervise teaching assistants.

Your first step should be to seek training on how to supervise teaching assistants. I do not know about your field, but training materials are available for my field.

the TA has no formal training in education

Your university is failing your students by providing untrained TAs. The place to "start the conversation" is to speak with administrators about fixing this.

To directly address this particular incident, you might follow my previous answer; question the TA about their comments with an open mind and then educate them.

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    "Your university is failing your students by providing untrained TAs" This seems like a strong exaggaration, based on a very specific perspective on tertiary education. Sep 27, 2023 at 18:21
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    @JochenGlueck I have been taught by the untrained TA, I've been that TA, I've been taught by the experts on TA training, and I've read a few of their journal articles (in PRPER). I am not aware of any scholarship supporting the use of untrained TAs. Some data sets suggest the TA is the most important factor in student success. Sep 27, 2023 at 18:29
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    Please note that I'm not saying it were better to use untrained TAs. I'm saying the claim that using untrained TAs would fail the students is a strong exaggeration. For what it's worth, I've also been taught by untrained TAs, I've also been that TA, and I also had such TAs for courses I taught. I did not get the impression that this would fail the students. I wouldn't object against getting the TAs some training, though - it might make a bit of a difference. I'm just not confident that, given realistic conditions for such training, the difference would be large. Sep 27, 2023 at 18:48

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