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I have a problem with the courses I'm TAing. I am a math PhD student at a large (supposedly good) state university where the lower-division math classes are taught in the "discussion section" format (i.e. students go to a big lecture with clickers three days a week, and attend 30ish person sized recitation with a TA once a week). I teach three of these recitations.

When I first came here several years ago, I was shocked by the low quality of the courses I was assigned to. This was supposed to be a good school, yet the students are treated without respect, held to no standards, and come out knowing virtually nothing. Furthermore, there are strict limitations imposed on TAs, to the point where I feel that I am being actively prevented from teaching anything to my students. A breaking point came for me recently when my course coordinator made it mandatory for us to assign online quizzes through a third party "online instructional application," instead of administering handwritten quizzes in class. I have very strong objections to this, for multiple reasons that I could elaborate on, but they are not the point of this post.

The point is, I feel gross. I'm being forced to teach in a way that I find unethical and unreasonable, and every attempt that I have made to bring up an issue in the past has been met with complete inflexibility. It seems to be the culture of the department to dismiss the opinions of its graduate students.

I don't know how else to state my objections. I know I'm not in charge, and I don't want to be unprofessional, but I want to be heard. I have given serious thought to resigning with a public letter. However, even with that sacrifice, I'm not sure anyone would listen.

Is there anything I can do? How should I handle this situation?

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    Could you elaborate on the fact that teachers have no respect for students and have low expectations on them? Also, what is the audience of this course? Maths major or not? – Taladris Oct 16 '14 at 4:18
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    I would not recommend resigning with a public letter. It gives an impression that "There's a problem here, and I'm leaving rather than helping with it." – Compass Oct 16 '14 at 5:46
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    The prof leading the course is the person who decides the best way to teach it. You are not the one responsible for the quality of the course - the prof is. Your responsibility is to help the students understand the material with the guidelines and tools given. – sevensevens Oct 16 '14 at 19:24
  • @Taladris I think I need to leave out some details for answers to be useful in the general case. (and, also, to preserve my anonymity.) I will say that the audience is first year students of uniformly distributed majors, and that the school has discontinued honors / for majors calculus. – APOdTA Oct 16 '14 at 23:36
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    Regarding the online quizzes: politicians like "innovative education" and "new technologies" everywhere. This sometimes means doing the same things using electricity instead of paper, so they can tick an extra box in the form. – Davidmh Oct 16 '14 at 23:36
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I would strongly recommend against doing anything dramatic, such as resigning or publicly denouncing the course. I feel bad about discouraging acting on your beliefs, but I think it could actually hurt your career. There are two reasons for this:

First, the topic of how to teach low-level mathematics courses has become contentious and politicized in recent decades. Unless this is actually your scholarly specialty, it's safest not to get too dramatically involved, particularly as a grad student. The problem is that you can easily find people who will embrace you as a champion or martyr, whichever side you are on. Even if you are sober and self-restrained (which would probably rule out a public letter), other people on your side will say provocative things and attract negative attention while supporting you. Controversy is dangerous for academic careers, since it's generally easier to veto hiring someone than to generate an offer. So if you acquire equal numbers of friends and enemies, your enemies can hurt you more than your friends can help you. Plus, if you want a research career, being known for inflexible opinions about low-level teaching will distract attention away from your research accomplishments. That distraction can be a problem even for people who agree with you.

Second, you risk coming across like a worrisomely disruptive colleague. Most math departments contain at least one faculty member who regularly takes fervent stands on seemingly minor issues. They feel they have logically analyzed these issues, and they can't in good conscience cooperate with anything other than what they see as the logical option, since that would be a betrayal of the basic principles underlying mathematics. Coordinating with others or compromising play no role in the analysis, and it doesn't really matter how important the issue itself is (what matters is standing up for what's right). These people drive everyone else nuts, since they make it impossible to get anything done without either giving in to them about their pet issues or spending hours debating.

I'm not saying you are necessarily disruptive in this way. You have chosen an important topic to get upset over, and you might be completely right about it. However, if a hiring committee hears that you resigned in disgust upon being asked to administer online quizzes, they will wonder what else you might make a fuss over. This could put them off even if they agree with your concerns about teaching, and there's no way to reassure them that it's really just this one issue.

So what can you do while avoiding these dangers? One approach is to let the faculty handle this fight. If every faculty member disagrees with you, then your cause is hopeless in the short term and it's best just to calm down and finish your Ph.D. program without too much controversy. If some of them do agree with you, then it's not likely that publicly joining them as a grad student will shift the balance of power in the department. Instead, you can try to get your future TA assignments in courses they teach, while encouraging them behind the scenes in their attempts to change the department's approach.

To the extent you take direct action, I'd look for approaches that don't cause extra work for anyone else. For example, if you resign, then someone will have to find a replacement for you (so they'll automatically be upset about it). But you might be able to improve the course by strategic volunteering. Could you prepare optional handouts meant to deepen the students' knowledge? Could you offer a few additional review sessions before exams? These sorts of things aren't going to effect the fundamental changes you seek, but they could at least make you feel better about having done something rather than nothing, and they may build some goodwill with the lecturer by showing that you really want to help the students.

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    I should also say that the disruptive faculty that takes a stand on everything is not specific to maths - every engineering department seems to have one of those as well, and they are also almost universally disliked. – xLeitix Oct 16 '14 at 10:34
  • This is closely related to the ideal teaching recommendation for faculty applying to large public universities. At these institutions, one thing the hiring committee and chair want to hear is that the faculty member "won't cause trouble": there won't be a long line of students at the chair's office because of the course. Yes, the departments would love to have only "excellent" instructors, but most academics are only average instructors, so that's not realistic. What the departments don't want are average instructors who cause the administratiors many hours of extra work each semester. – Oswald Veblen Oct 16 '14 at 12:00
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    Thank you for the advice. I do frequently prepare handouts, answer keys, and hold reviews, extra office hours, etc. The problem is this behavior is often discouraged by administration, under grounds that it is uneven with the other sections. (The fact that this eclipses any quality concerns is one of the main thing that disgusts me.) Despite my semester evaluations being very good- often full of unsolicited, touching comments- I have never heard anything but negative feedback from the administration about my teaching. I admit this has built resentment, and makes volunteering hard to maintain. – APOdTA Oct 16 '14 at 22:53
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Many new graduate students have idealized ideas about teaching. You should ask yourself whether your opinions are based on a long experience of teaching at similar schools, or only based on your impressions as a new TA of "how things should be".

In my experience in the math departments at two 40,000+ student state universities, many new GAs have an idealized viewpoint that doesn't match reality. Here are a few important aspects of these schools that I didn't recognize when I first arrived at one:

  • The typical student at a large state university is not as strong as many incoming GAs imagine. This is true even at highly-rated institutions. Yes, the students can do something - they are decent students. But the university has no way to find 10,000 "graduate-quality" high school seniors each year to admit as freshmen. Many of the students they do admit will still struggle with calculus, organic chemistry, and other traditionally "hard" courses.

  • At a large institution, many of the students who don't struggle with calculus already took it and can place out of it, or will sign up for an honors calculus course if there is one to take. So the calculus classes aren't a representative sample of the student body, which increases the effect from the previous paragraph.

  • Especially at large schools, students complain about unequal treatment. If every section of the calculus course ran differently - especially if some TAs decided to impose stricter standards than others - the likely result would be formal complaints by the students, which the departmental administration would have to resolve. So it is often a goal of the course coordinator to prevent each TA from making their section much different than other sections.

A new GA only enters the program once, but faculty see a new crop of GAs every year. These new GAs are unfamiliar with the history of the department, and they do not attend the administrative meetings where the relevant faculty talk about how they want the courses to run. But the GAs often have opinions about how the courses should be run which the faculty know would be disastrous if implemented. The general tone of the question above sounds to my ear like the type of complaint permanent faculty have probably heard from many previous graduate students, so I'm not surprised if they quickly dismiss it.

From the outside, it sounds as if the coordinator of your class is doing things to try to maintain quality. Using clickers in lecture, and using an online quiz system, are ways to increase student participation.

With that said, let me answer:

Is there anything I can do? How should I handle this situation?

As a TA, do your best in the situation you are in, and learn from your experience. Once you graduate, the format of the calculus course you once taught will be a very minor afterthought. If you end up in a position to decide on how calculus is taught at another school, you can use your experience then.

If you take up a career in academia, there will be many irritating things that you have to do, with little flexibility. You can't win every battle, even if you think the other side is completely wrong. So you have to have a thick skin, and keep a focus on what is really important.

  • I appreciate the advice, but I really don't think I'm just being unreasonably idealist. It seems like the policies have crossed the line from practical decisions to lazy ones that come at the expense of the students. (One example is, there are no excused absences. No sick notes, no deaths. You just fail.) I TAd for five semesters during my undergrad (which was smaller, but still big) and I thought everything was fine. I recognize the challenges of organizing courses at a large university, but that means optimizing for shortcuts, efficiency, not that it's ok to just teach like crap. – APOdTA Oct 16 '14 at 23:17
  • (Seriously, though, thank you. I think this is how they probably view me, and it is sincerely helpful to hear it reasonably depicted.) – APOdTA Oct 16 '14 at 23:21
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A first important note before I answer the actual question:

I don't know how else to state my objections. I know I'm not in charge, and I don't want to be unprofessional, but I want to be heard.

From what it sounds like, you were heard (you have been given the chance to voice your objections on multiple occasions). The persons in charge just decided to not follow through with your suggestions, which is, in the abstract, completely ok for them to do (they are in charge, and you are not).

I feel this is an important distinction to make - from what you have written in the post, there is nothing that rings a big alarm bell of grossly unethical behaviour to me. Yes, the thing with the commercial provider could be due to somebody personally profiting from the contract, but it could just as well be that the persons in charge honestly think that handling quizzes electronically will improve class. There are strict limitations on what TAs can do and teach in many big courses in many universities, this is often simply required for coordination between different recitation groups. That you feel the students are treated without respect and "come out knowing virtually nothing" sounds dramatic, but I am not entirely sure whether this is a fact or just your personal impression.

One interesting question would be how other TAs and the undergrads see the situation. Are other TAs also of the impression that the quality in the courses is much lower than it could be? Do the students also feel treated without respect? If you have not done so yet, I would suggest you to verify that your opinion is indeed shared by a majority of the other involved stakeholders - and, if this is not the case, reflect critically whether you are just overreacting.

Is there anything I can do? How should I handle this situation?

It sounds like you did what you could do (bring up your concerns with the responsible persons), and they decided to dismiss your concerns. At this point, you have basically two options:

  • Quit TAing - some statements in your (well-written) question sound like you have reached a level where you cannot justify working on the course anymore. In this case, the best thing to do is to leave. However, don't make a big fuss with a public letter etc. - I have seen similar things happen on multiple different occasions, and they never led to any substantial change and they always led to a plethora of public shaming and scapegoating of the letter writer. Don't put yourself into that position.

  • Go on - you have done what can reasonably expected from you in this position (notified the higher-ups, argued your objections), and they have decided to not change. You do not need to have any ethical concerns about leaving things be for now, and just move on teaching the course even though you personally would do things entirely differently. You are, as you say yourself, not in charge, so you don't need to beat yourself up over decisions which are not yours to make.

If you select the "go on" option, you can either resign from your cause entirely (and give up all hopes of change), or play the political game. As you are probably well aware, politicians everywhere (not only in congress, but also in companies, faculties, and any other collection of humans) are able to influence decisions that are not actually theirs to make by slowly swaying over the formal decision makers to their cause. This will only work "from the inside", so if you quit, this door is pretty much closed to you.

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    +1 This. You either quit or go with the flow (since you did everything humanly possible to change things). Public letters of resignation will sound like a rant and will be treated as such – Alexandros Oct 16 '14 at 9:36
  • While I don't think it's necessary to say that the OP sound dramatic (some people feel strongly about good teaching), I concur that OP should talk to the other TA to verify his feeling. – Heisenberg Oct 16 '14 at 17:19
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    @Heisenberg I said "dramatic", not "overdramatic". Maybe just an unfortunate choice of words on my side. – xLeitix Oct 16 '14 at 17:52
  • Thank you for the advice. If I quit I will not leave a public letter. I guess that was partly a frustrated fantasy. – APOdTA Oct 16 '14 at 23:47
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I would recommend two things:

  1. Don't take responsibility for what you don't have authority over. For example, if the students ask why they have to take their quizzes online, the answer is "Because Prof. X said so." If they complain, don't try to justify Prof. X's decision. Just say "I have been explicitly told that I don't have any authority over this matter. You should go talk to Prof. X."

    Indeed, you have an opportunity to play good cop - bad cop. The powers that be have set up a system and a series of hoops to jump through. Become an expert on how the game is played. If old exams are publicly available, study them carefully and explain to your students what sorts of questions are likely to appear. If you present yourself as the students' ally against "the system", they will believe you when you give them advice and tell them that they really, really need to do their homework.

  2. Keep this in mind in your job search. A lot of small liberal arts colleges pride themselves on offering an experience opposite to what you describe. Do a good job even in an environment you hate, and when twenty employers ask you "Why do you want to work at a liberal arts college?" in ten-minute interviews at the Joint Math Meetings, you will have a very convincing answer.

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    Point 1 is worth a downvote for me. Whatever you do, don't undermine your own course by passive-agressive statements in the sense of "well, I know this is terrible, go to Prof. X to complain". If you feel like doing that, then, by all means, quit. And, never, never, never play Good Cop / Bad Cop by making the other involved persons look bad. – xLeitix Oct 16 '14 at 14:03
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    I never once advocated complaining to the students about "the system", Prof. X, or anything else. I am saying that TAs should not defend superiors' decisions if they disagree with them. (And, I was once specifically encouraged by a professor for whom I was TAing to play good cop to his bad.) – Anonymous Oct 16 '14 at 15:16

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