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I am a PhD student in a social science field, and am on a teaching assistantship. My contract stipulates that TAs are to work no more than an average of 15 hours per week.

For my particular department, the past protocol was that 10 hours were devoted to teaching duties (class time, office hours, prepping, and grading), while the remaining five hours are devoted to research with an assigned faculty member. Overall, I do not think that is unreasonable.

However, that setup was determined when the PhD students mostly taught undergraduate courses. I have been assigned a graduate course, and have been told to expect an enrollment of "at least 30 students."

I have never taught before, at any level. I am also still taking a full-time course load of my own.

Does this seem like an unreasonably high expectation from the Dean and program director? Or am I just being a wimp?

I definitely want to teach, and I want to make sure that my students receive the best quality education from me that I can provide. And I would like to do this without sacrificing my own academic progress, nor what is remaining of my sanity.

Just curious to know what other people's experiences in this area have been.

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    Note that graduate courses are not necessarily more or harder work than undergrad courses, just different. You will probably spend more time preparing the material, but if it's close to your research area, you may not mind so much. You may spend less time correcting the students' spelling, or teaching them how citations work, or prosecuting cheating cases. – Nate Eldredge Aug 23 '14 at 3:20
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    Yes, I am the sole instructor. I have already put in considerable time designing my syllabus, selecting a text, choosing what to assign, etc. And the class assignment is a double-edged sword. Since it's an intro class, there isn't necessarily depth, but there is breadth, including in topics I am not overly familiar with. – geekgirl Aug 23 '14 at 3:56
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    It sound like happens with everyone. I had 14 hours / a week (just class time, no grading time or preparation) when i was a grad student. It is hard, but I wouldn't say unusual. – Greg Aug 23 '14 at 11:21
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    I'm a little confused: in your question you speak of a rule about TA's, and then in the comment you say you are the sole instructor for a (graduate!) course. That's not being a "TA", is it? – Pete L. Clark Aug 24 '14 at 4:38
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    @Ben: Fair enough, though the terminology is confusing. By the way, in contrast to a lot of the answers given here, I tend to think that the OP is getting a raw-ish deal: the very first course she is teaching is a graduate course? In my experience graduate students rarely teach graduate courses at all, and certainly not without a lot of seniority and prior teaching experience. I wonder what you think. – Pete L. Clark Aug 25 '14 at 8:41
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It is incredibly common for the number of hours devoted to teaching be woefully inadequate to deliver good instruction except possibly for highly seasoned instructors teaching the exact same course multiple times.

Unfortunately, I don't know any fair solution to this. You'll probably spend two or three times longer than the expected number of hours in order to do even an adequate job. From what I observe, people cope either by working far more than they're supposed to, or by delivering not-very-good instruction. It's a difficult spot to be in. (Alas, not the only difficult spot in academia.)

The bright side is that if you're really interested in teaching and put in way more time than you're "supposed" to, next time it won't be as bad (you'll only have to put in somewhat more than you're supposed to), and if you do well you will both help your students and be known as someone who is a good teacher (good if you want to do more teaching).

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I'm actually kind of shocked by the other answers saying this is normal. Maybe math and the social sciences are somehow different in this regard, but this sounds like an insane situation. I'm sure you're a wonderful person, and it sounds like you're trying your best, but it's totally unfair to the graduate students in your class to have them taught by someone with zero teaching experience. To me this seems like an enormous red flag about your department that they would do this. Where the hell are the faculty who should be teaching these courses?

That said, I'm not sure I have a course of action to suggest beyond doing your best in the assigned class (especially since it's presumably starting up quite soon), but I agree with you that it's unreasonable.

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    While I fundamentally agree with you, the question was "Is this normal?", not "Is this good?". I think most agree that this situation is all but optimal, but this wasn't really the question. And yes, I also think that this situation is not uncommon at all. – xLeitix Aug 25 '14 at 8:32
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    @xLeitix Again, maybe this is a disciplinary difference, or the fact that my experience is primarily at R1's (the OP doesn't say what sort of university they are at), but this sounds totally abnormal to me. I've certainly never seen a comparable situation. – Ben Webster Aug 25 '14 at 17:33
  • I have, sadly... – xLeitix Aug 25 '14 at 18:06
  • @BenWebster: My experience is also entirely at R1s. It usually comes to down to funding. Programs without grant or endowment funded RAs require teaching — frequently from day 1. If that describes your field (e.g., science or engineering) or school (e.g., wealthy private universities or business schools), congrats. Otherwise, this post describes something that is likely very similar to what you'll find. – Benjamin Mako Hill Sep 11 '14 at 5:20
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    @BenjaminMakoHill maybe I should have been clearer: I'm totally used to graduate students teaching for day 1. That's what I did as a graduate student myself. But it was for a freshman level course where I knew the material in my sleep, I had support as a first-time teacher (though still not as much as I would have liked), and I was doing the discussion section of someone else's lecture. It's the "graduate" aspect of this course that seems totally nut-balls to me. I don't see how that comes down to funding. – Ben Webster Sep 11 '14 at 11:28
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It is unusual, and probably disserves all parties, for a grad student to be assigned to teach a grad course, apart from considerations of alleged competence or not. For an advanced grad student to fill in for their advisor while the advisor goes to a conference is somewhat common in mathematics, in my experience, but that's not the same.

I don't have a good sense of the situation for other disciplines, but in mathematics at my research university (and other places I've been) grad students might be assigned full responsibility for lower-division courses, but never for upper-division, much less graduate-level.

It's not only the workload, and perhaps not even the issue of competence in the material, but of mastery of the material, so that reasonable questions from students could be answered authoritatively, instantly, etc. A grad student's opinion might be harder to consider "authoritative", not because one would presume that they don't know, but because they lack a track record and credentials to allow people to effortlessly trust their expertise. One should be able to effortlessly trust the expertise of people giving graduate-level courses, in my opinion.

(And, yes, unfortunately, being "on the faculty", being "old", etc., are no guarantees of competence, much less expertise... I know...)

  • Agreed, I guess it depends on the field, but I never heard of a graduate course being given entirely by a grad student (in fact neither an undergrad course). If I were the student in such a course, I probably would complain, especially if I paid a hefty tuition. – Cape Code Sep 10 '14 at 13:18
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It varies but what you've described does not sound unusual.

In my social science department at a state research university, it's standard for graduate students without other support to have teaching and/or research responsibilities that include 20 hours a week of work and that can often involve teaching. This is in addition to taking classes on their own and/or doing research.

In my own graduate studies at a business school, all students started with two years of full fellowship that meant no TA/RA requirements at all for the first two years.

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    I don't think that the requirement as a whole is unreasonable. However, I do think it crosses the threshold when considering that I (and the three other students thrust into teaching grad courses this semester) have never taught before, so the amount of prep time will be higher, and the number of students is rather high for a grad course, so grading time will be increased. Our workload is lower than most other schools predicated on the expectation of more coursework. – geekgirl Aug 23 '14 at 4:23
  • It is not unheard of to have less other work assigned when somebody is doing both teaching and a "prep" (i.e., preparation because it is the first time teaching a class). That said, it's also not something you can assume. The first year is any new job is harder because there's always a learning curve and the expectations are much lower. First year as faculty is the same story. The upside is that it gets easier with time. – Benjamin Mako Hill Aug 23 '14 at 17:59
  • @geekgirl, Well, the grad class thing is a little unusual. Although the amount of teaching seems pretty standard, it would normally be undergraduates. – Benjamin Mako Hill Sep 11 '14 at 5:29
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I also believe this is not unusual (depends on your discipline though). Moreover, graduate classes have certain advantages, other than the ones already mentioned in the comments (such as more disciplined and capable students). The first one is, that you encounter a new pool of possible collaborators. You are a PHD student and those are possibly MSc students, so they may need to write a MSc thesis. By teaching this class (and doing it well) some of the students will be interested to work with you (on their MSc thesis), so you get to have collaborators / workforce basically for free. So, if you have some spare ideas that you cannot work at the moment, perhaps proposing a new MSc thesis is the way to go. Also, some times graduate courses may be graded strictly based on assignments, so you may recommend assignments helpful to your work, such as proposing to your students to write detailed literature overviews on the subjects that interest you.

The other advantage of teaching in general, is this is something you need to master anyway if you want a job in Academia. So, the sooner the better. It is better to do it in a more protected environment (you are still a student so some mistakes due to inexperience are expected), instead of having to do it later. So, although the task assigned to you might seem overwhelming at first, it is best to do it, as soon as possible. Also you will realize that the second year you need to teach the same class (many times the same graduate student teaches the same course for more than one year) things will be much easier, since you will already have done the bulk of the work, in terms of preparation. Also, doing it while you still have course-work is a valuable learning experience, since you get to compare your teaching methods with the methods of the course you are enrolled in, so you may improve accordingly.

Another subject that is not clear from your question is whether this course you are teaching is for one semester or an entire year. If it is for one semester and the next semester you do not get any other TA duties, it is very reasonable that for this semester you must devote more hours than the "10 hours devoted to teaching" that you are required to do.

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Doesn't seem unusual to me. Did you sign a contract? More importantly did someone in your department sign the contract. I find the term "contract" to be kind of meaningless in graduate school. We aren't unionized, so we're in the unfortunate position of needing to take the term contract to mean "loose policy."

Some students in my department were successful in the past in lobbying the chair for more pay due to more time spent working. Of course, this solution precludes that you'd be fine working that many hours for more pay. This doesn't seem to be the case? Therefore, the only reasonable thing to do is to adjust your mental and physical deliverables in accordance with the 15 hours.

I'd be more upset about the 15 hours. That seems like a nice way for the University to get cheaper labor in terms of teaching the courses and for your advisor also to throw money your way for 5 hours, which unfortunately means you have expectations to deliver on that front. 5 hours for research I would imagine ends up being more like 10 or 15, most unpaid?

  • You don't need to be 'unionized' for a contract to be legally binding. – Cape Code Sep 10 '14 at 13:15
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    @Jigg: Fair catch with that sentence. However, you have to acknowledge that there's a bit of a David and Goliath aspect to a sole graduate student disputing these contracts. I find abuse of TA work hours to be pretty rampant across most departments that I've encountered. Therefore, it does make you wonder how serious departments take these "contracts." – bfoste01 Sep 11 '14 at 14:45

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