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I have a colleague in my group who became TA for a course which we took together, which is taught by our mutual advisor. It is almost a policy that a student can't become TA unless he scores an A in the course, but he was chosen because he asked "first" and the professor is "nice", even though I was the highest scoring student, which usually gets the teaching assistantship. He also knew that I wanted to TA that course, yet he still asked.

Many students come to him for questions or help. He usually tells them to copy the homework (!) or to ask me or a colleague of mine for help because "he doesn't know and [me and my colleague] know the material much better!"

How do I deal with such a person? I mean, my colleague and I try to answer all the questions the students have, but the annoying thing is that we can't be doing half the job while he gets all the money. We spend our time trying to help others where he should do that. We are very busy people and we don't have time for this when we don't have to officially do it.

Should I talk to my advisor about this? I don't want to sound as if I'm envious.

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    I don't want to sound like the envious person here Well, you do. Get over the frustration and stop working for free if you think it doesn't benefit you at all. – Cape Code Oct 14 '14 at 14:27
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    This sounds much more like a rant than a question. – xLeitix Oct 14 '14 at 15:01
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    This is not a full-fledged answer but simply a suggestion that you should definitely talk to your advisor about this for the following reason: if your colleague was given this position because your advisor is "nice", it leads one to wonder what other unwarranted advantages others might get at your expense because your advisor is "nice". – Santiago Canez Oct 14 '14 at 17:42
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    If you don't have the time to help others, don't do it! Tell them there is a TA paid to help and if he can't THEY should complain about that fact. If a lot of people go to the professor for help because the TA is of no use, he will get the picture! (And he will help them if he really is "nice") – Josef Oct 15 '14 at 6:13
  • Some of your colleague's behavior is rude, but "He also knew that I wanted to TA that course, yet he still asked" isn't. Whether within academia and outside, if you want things in life you should be prepared to ask for them and to explain why you deserve them. – Anonymous Oct 15 '14 at 13:03
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Being nice is nice, but you also need to set your own priorities. You are not the TA for that course, so you are not obliged to answer any questions. If you happen to have time and feel like answering a question (notice the singular), then fine, answer it. When not, just politely say you don't have time and that they should go see the TA. Also, you are not responsible for (bad) advice given by that TA. Instead I would focus on getting your own research done, or do the TAing of some other course.

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    I would go further and say that you could actually be doing more long-term damage by helping these students. You should refuse to help on the grounds that you're not the TA. If a student is upset, let them know that they should take up issues about their TA with their professor, not with you. If you and your labmates keep picking up this guy's slack, the professor might get the idea that everything's going fine, and might continue to hire sub-par TAs to be "nice" in the future. However, if he gets a bunch of complaints from the students he'll know that he needs to hire a better TA next year. – DaoWen Oct 14 '14 at 14:41
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    @DaoWen So if a customer asks his waiter for a refill and the waiter tells the customer to ask the busboy, the busboy should say to the customer "no, that's not my job, go ask the server again" rather than the busboy informing the manager like a professional? ie the student's job is to learn - why is the onus being put on them to solve the behind-the-scenes academic drama? This person sees a problem that can be easily addressed with the professor and the answer is self-evident, he/she just doesn't want to confront it. – coburne Oct 14 '14 at 17:52
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    @coburne - Analogies only work so far as the analogy actually holds. In this case, I'd say a more accurate analogy would be that the waiter tells the customer to ask the guy running the burger stand on the corner about the refill. The key distinction here is that the OP is not in any way involved with the course in question, so why would it be his responsibility to deal with problems between the students and the TA? The professor should be the one dealing with that. – DaoWen Oct 14 '14 at 21:22
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    @coburne: As I explain in my answer, identifying problems that are not yours, and assigning them a lower priority than those that are, is a vital skill for success in academia. Frankly, I find your analogies inapt (graduate students are neither busboys nor Spider-Men) and your tone needlessly argumentative. – Nate Eldredge Oct 15 '14 at 14:48
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    @coburne - "colleagues" does apply because the OP and the TA are grad students at the same university, and even have the same advisor—but that still doesn't mean he's involved with the course in question. A big part of the issue here is that the OP really isn't in a position to fix the problem. It would be bad for him to go to their mutual advisor and say "the guy you decided to hire instead of me is lazy, so you should fire him and give me the job now." He wouldn't say that—but no matter what he says, that's how it'll seem. This is why it's on the students to take care of this. – DaoWen Oct 15 '14 at 14:59
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I agree that this is unprofessional behavior on the part of the other TA (let's call him X).

I understand your instinct is to try to help the students when they come to you, and that's certainly generous of you. Unfortunately, this sort of thing represents a very common pitfall for young academics. Working with students is very rewarding, in the short term: it feels like something where you can make an immediate difference in someone's life. This is especially true in contrast to research, where work is often solitary and progress is slow and difficult to discern. So spending extra time with students, while helpful in itself, has the potential to become a serious distraction in the long run. Balancing one's time between teaching, research, and other activities can be one of the hardest thing for an academic to do (it certainly is for me).

So I think this is a good opportunity for you to practice "protecting your time". Helping X's students, even if you enjoy it or feel the students really need it, is not something that can take priority over other tasks that are specifically your responsibilities (e.g. your research).

I would suggest having a talk with X and tell him that you're not going to be able to help out his students, and to please not send them to you. If you feel you need a justification for this, you can just say it's distracting you from your research or studies or something similar. If X's students keep coming to you anyway, you can politely tell them "I'm sorry, but I'm not the right person to help you with this. I'd suggest that you ask the professor during her office hours." You don't need to get involved any further; if lots of students start coming to the professor and complaining that X can't answer their questions (and in my experience, believe me, they will), or even that X sent them to you, who couldn't help: she will figure out that something is amiss.

I agree with the other posts that you should not explicitly try to play this to your advantage as far as getting the TA position. That seems to have the potential to backfire. It may work out for you in the long run, but stay at arm's length while things run their course.

On a side note, you mentioned that you've overheard X encouraging students to "copy their homework". I'm not quite sure what that means out of context, but if you mean X is telling them to do something dishonest like copy from each other without attribution, then this is a much more serious matter that I think obliges you to step in - it puts X over the line from unprofessional to unethical. If you feel you have enough of a relationship with X to speak frankly, tell him that's a bad idea: it's likely to get students in serious trouble, and also him if they tell the professor he told them to do it. Otherwise, or if X doesn't seem to take you seriously, alert the professor.

  • +1 and I think you need to elaborate on the first few paragraphs in an answer to this question – ff524 Oct 15 '14 at 3:05
  • This is very sound advice, probably the least likely to backfire. – Davidmh Oct 15 '14 at 8:50
  • +1 for "talk with X and tell him that you're not going to be able to help out his students, and to please not send them to you", and if the students keep coming, say "ask the professor during her office hours." – mhwombat Oct 15 '14 at 13:59
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The biggest issue, I feel, is how you're handling the situation where your friend asks you for help. Whereas other people have addressed your bounds, I feel like we have to address how you are treating those bounds.

I'm going to say a statement that, up until a year ago, felt very alien.

"My needs are as important or more important than the needs of others."

Say that a couple of times in your head. It sounds selfish or wrong to say such a thing. And that's what I felt as well when I was told this statement initially.

But is it really wrong? Of course not. When we evaluate the greater good, we sometimes devalue our personal selves, even though we have a vested interest in it, in an attempt to remain unbiased. This works well in standalone situations, but not in this one.

Consider the scenario you've presented.

Your friend, knowing full well you wanted the spot, took it from you. Then he comes to you to ask you to help his students. And you've gone ahead and helped him and now you're complaining about why you have to do that.

You've, in short, placed his needs above your own needs. You don't get anything out of this relationship. You may have heard of this type of relation: a toxic one. It wastes your time and returns you nothing and gives him all the credit when his students succeed.

You're never going to get the TA job you want if he's in it. And you're helping him stay in it!

You may feel like you're doing people a service, but you're not. If this TA is bad, he should be removed. Your helping him will keep him there and impact the learning capabilities of other students, and waste your time for little to no benefit.

If you really want to help these students, you should be doing this on your own time when you feel like it, not because your friend asks you to help him do something he should be doing by himself. Instead, you're helping carrying your friend's responsibility for him when he accepted a role that traditionally bears all the responsibility alone.

You need to be willing to say no to this person.

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    Voted down, because it's pseudo-psychological gibberish, not actual advice. – Cape Code Oct 14 '14 at 20:27
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There are two separate issues here that you should mentally separate:

  • Your friend got a job you wanted.
  • Your friend is not doing that job well.

As for the first point, not much can be done after the fact. Perhaps make your interest in the course known to the professor who will teach that course next time.

As for the second point, you are well within your bounds to refuse to help students since you're not associated with that course. You can tell your friends that you're too busy with research and other TA duties to help his/her students. This dissociates the prior TA-assignment incident with the actual matter at hand.

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It strikes me that the underlying cause of your unhappiness is not the professionalism or otherwise of the person that got the TA position, or the impact of his behaviour on you, but the fact that he got the position you wanted and that seems unfair to you. Here's a lesson that will serve you well I think: life is not fair. The world of work is not fair. Career progression, in particular, is not fair. Good things do not automatically go to the most deserving. If you want something, do not sit back and wait for it to fall into your lap because you think you deserve it for working hard or whatever.

Rather than focusing your anger on him, you should ask yourself: who or what is responsible for this state of affairs? Some helpful information would be to know whether you made your desire to be TA known to the advisor - if you didn't then you must have been hoping the advisor would simply offer it to you. Your colleague meanwhile made his desires to be TA known. Why shouldn't he? Did you really think that he should not pursue his ambitions out of some sort of deference to you because you have better scores? If he (or you or anyone else) adopted that policy they would never get anywhere in life. If you think he should not have been made TA and you should AND the advisor knew of your desire, then the responsible party is the advisor for picking someone else. If the advisor did not know of your desire then either you are responsible for not making your wishes clear, or your advisor is responsible for not asking you whether you wanted it before giving it to someone else. In either scenario, your colleague is not responsible for "depriving" you of the TA position.

So, if you feel something is amiss with him being made TA, talk to the advisor.

With the day-to-day behaviour of the TA it's a different matter - if you are not happy having work pushed over to you in this way then talk first to the TA about it, and if that has no effect talk to the advisor about it. Sitting there complaining and making accusations behind someone's back isn't particularly professional either. If you want things to change, start asking for what you want.

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I would try to quantify the manifestations which are objectively problematic. How often are you interrupted by students? How many tell you (in so many words) that your so-called friend could not or would not help them? What other tasks suffer because of this, and by how much?

Collect data, black on white, until either (a) you can convince your professor that something is wrong, even if not to the point where you can get things your way; or (b) you convince yourself that it may not be worth your time and effort after all -- I know it seems preposterous now, but my experience is that sometimes that's what happens when time passes.

Don't wait too long to make that decision. Sounds to me like maybe you should give it a week, maximum.

You might not need your data, but it's a good starting point for objectively assessing the situation, and if somebody should ask you for numbers or other proof, you know you are prepared.

Strive to remain professional. Try to reason about what's beneficial for the students, the department, the collective, in the long run; not yourself or the problematic TA. Still, if you are doing unpaid work, I would consider bringing up the topic of fair compensation.

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Honestly, your question could be (and probably should be) shortened to:

I'm really good at subject X, and students keep coming to me for help on subject X. How should I respond, given that I don't have time for this?

I'd advise the following response:

"I really wish I could help, but I don't have time. You really should ask your teacher, or teacher's assistant if you have one."

And you're done. There is no need to be concerned about how they came to know of your skills, or become involved in petty politics or whether someone is getting a free ride or passing the buck.

If the student indicates that they've already tried those resources, you might remind them that they are paying students, and if their teacher or TA aren't meeting their needs, they may have to have a discussion with them, or bring it up with their guidance counselors. Also suggest that they might want to form study groups with others in their class.

Lastly, if you enjoy teaching them, offer tutoring services. This will give you the ability to receive pay for your work, without all the overhead the TA has to deal with, and you're already receiving free advertising.

Regardless, there is no need to carry bitterness and acrimony into these situations. Treat it as though you hadn't been hurt, and as though the TA and teacher are both acting in the student's best interests, and then decide how to act from that point. The answer should be obvious once you ignore your personal baggage.

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If you have to answer most of questions from students, it seems to me that the TA does not prepare enough the material he suppose to teach and this is a totally unprofessional.

Answering students is not helping them, since you can answer particular questions (about a particular homework,...) but you have no time to teach how to have a global understanding on the material. In this situation, you should speak to your advisor. If you want to make it smooth and keep a friendly relation with the TA, you may warn him first that you cannot continue to answer the students questions and that he has to prepare thoroughly the material.

Of course, noone has a perfect knowledge of everything, so you probably should keep yourself available to answer theoritical questions from the TA, not homeworks questions from the students. The TA validated this course, so he knows well part of the material. By ponctually answering the question of the TA, you help him to master it completely and to answer himself to students questions.

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