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It seems to me that the terms "Teaching Assistant" and "Instructor" refer to a variety of positions. At some places, a teaching assistant is responsible for things like helping the actual lecturer by handing out papers, grading homework, etc., and instructors hold recitation sessions.

At other places, I saw the term "instructor" referring to the lecturer giving the course, while a teaching assistant is the person doing anything else (recitations, grading etc.).

Is there some widely accepted definition of the two positions?

For context: The question arose because I wasn't sure whether I'm using the correct terms in my CV -- I am a math graduate student, and I would like to make a distinction between jobs in which I only graded course assignments/final exams, and courses in which I held recitation classes* (and also participated in grading the final exams). Is it OK to use "Instructor" for the latter? What should the former be referred to as?

*In the course I'm currently teaching, the recitations are planned and written by the ones giving them (without the professors' supervision). Also, the people giving the recitations are not necessarily grad students (some already hold a PhD). I'm elaborating on that because from what I've seen, some of it could be relevant for the definition of the job.

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    The type of instructor most similar to a TA is an adjunct faculty member. A TA is underpaid, gets no respect, has no control, gets no benefits, and has no job security. An adjunct, on the other hand, is underpaid, gets no respect, has no control, gets no benefits, and has no job security. – Ben Crowell May 18 '15 at 2:26
  • Most of what you said is sad but true, @BenCrowe. Except that "gets no benefits" is fortunately not always true -- some universities' TAs have unionized! – aparente001 May 19 '15 at 4:25
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No, there really is no universal definition of the terms; I have been a "teaching assistant" and an "instructor" at the same school for basically the same position.

The only thing that I would say is that the term "teaching assistant" tends to imply a position that does not have significant lecturing responsibilities, although she may be responsible for nearly everything else in the course (creating and grading homework and exam problems, interacting with students, conducting recitations sections, and so on). Note that this does not mean that the TA might not carry out a "spot lecture" or two; but this is not an expectation of the position overall.

In general, I would avoid this problem by doing two things:

  • Listing on my CV the "job title" that the school assigns to the role you carried out.
  • Provide a short list of the duties your position entailed.

In this way, there is no ambiguity or misconception that can result, since you're providing all the information needed to understand the breadth of your teaching experience.

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    Yes, avoid problems by using the school's language (for example, some schools use GSI - graduate student instructors) and giving a textual explanation. – RoboKaren May 17 '15 at 20:10
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To me, "teaching assistant" strongly suggests working under some other specific person who has more primary teaching duties and/or more control of the course content, procedures and grading, while "instructor" suggests (though less strongly) the person who does have those primary responsibilities. When my colleagues and I want to hit that last point more strongly, we often say "instructor of record". This means that when you look up the course in various academic records, someone is listed as "the instructor", and that person [or persons, sometimes] is the one who has the power to admit, forbid or withdraw students from the course, assign grades and so forth.

But in truth the terms are not used so unambiguously, even within one university. In my department (mathematics, UGA) we have an "outstanding TA award". This award is given for students for teaching responsibilities which are identical to my own as a tenure-track faculty member -- i.e., they write a syllabus, give all the lectures, choose all the homework, write and grade all the exams and assign the grades. (The only difference between what happens when I teach these courses and when a graduate student does it is that the graduate student gets more oversight than I do, in various ways: e.g. they should in principle be showing all of their exams to a faculty mentor beforehand.) I would be happier if this were called an "outstanding instructor award". In fact the issue of how much power and autonomy graduate student instructors should have is an active one in my department, and a minority of faculty members call graduate students "TAs" rather than instructors and use this as an argument for less autonomy in their teaching. So it's complicated!

Let me end by saying that many universities feel pressured to call graduate students "TAs": the extent to which graduate students serve as "instructors of record" varies a lot from one department to another. Moreover, in some cases it seems like it would be inappropriate to have all but the most senior grad students as instructors of record whereas in other cases it could even improve the teaching experience. (I regularly teach the same second semester calculus class that I taught as a graduate student. My understanding of freshman calculus is deeper now than it was as a PhD student. This is accompanied by less empathy for the students than I had when I was only a few years away from having learned this material myself, with the effect that I think it is likely that a majority of students would have been happier to have the graduate-student-me as an instructor than the present-day-me.)

I fear that at least in some cases universities call their graduate student instructors "TAs" so as to be able to report a larger percentage of courses taught by tenure-track faculty. Of course this is pure skullduggery, of which the graduate students are not the intended victims but rather collateral damage.

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Having read a lot of CV's this year, I can say that there's huge variation in what teaching assistants in mathematics do. I saw everything from TA's who just graded papers and held office hours all the way through a PhD program to students who had sole responsibility for teaching sophomore/junior level classes while they were in the PhD program.

You should definitely use your official title ("Teaching Assistant", "Graduate Teaching Assistant", "Graduate Teaching Fellow", etc.) You should also explain exactly what you did for each course that you were involved in (grading, office hours, led recitation sections, lectured when the prof was out of town, ..., all the way up to "sole responsibility for the course.")

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In the departments that I'm familiar with, "teaching assistant" has always meant a student, usually a graduate student. The meaning of "instructor", however, varies a lot. At one time it was a job title for what would nowadays be a postdoctoral position. My first job at Michigan, as a new Ph.D., was "T.H. Hildebrandt Instructor"; other math departments had similar "named" instructorships, like the Gibbs Instructorship at Yale and the Peirce Instructorships at Harvard. Not long afterward, though, many universities tried to make the meanings of titles uniform across departments. The new, centrally mandated definitions of titles didn't always match what actually happened in the departments; I believe Harvard used (and perhaps still uses?) the title "Benjamin Peirce assistant professor of and lecturer in mathematics" to indicate that the job is something like an assistant professorship and something like a lecturership. Michigan has "T.H. Hildebrandt assistant professor of mathematics" as the official title for certain postdoc positions (with less teaching duties than some other postdoc positions).

Having been removed from its previous faculty meaning, "instructor" became available for graduate students. Shortly after Michigan's teaching assistants unionized, their official title became "graduate student instructor". Apparently the union thought this title was more respectful, and the university administration was presumably happy to accept at least one union demand without any new costs. (Well, there was a small cost in the time of admissions officers like me having to explain to prospective graduate students that the graduate student instructorship we were offering them was essentially the same as what others called a teaching assistantship.)

All of the preceding refers to "instructor" as part of someone's job title. The word is also used in the context of "instructor of record" for a class, which Pete Clark explained, so I won't write more about that.

Another use of the word "instructor" is just as a general term for anyone teaching in the university, regardless of rank. For example, our end-of-semester teaching evaluation questionnaires ask students about their agreement or disagreement with statements like "the instructor is an excellent teacher." This terminology is the same whether the instructor in question is a graduate student or the provost.

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In my experience a teaching assistant is a student who is paid for services that may include teaching, grading, one-to-one tutoring, proctoring tests, and perhaps other things. "Instructor" can mean anyone who has the primary responsibility for teaching a course, and in some cases such an instructor is a teaching assistant. Teaching by teaching assistants is often done in a role subordinate to that of the "instructor", who may be a professor. Sometimes the "instructor" lectures before a classroom in which 100 or more students sit, and the students in the course also meet in smaller groups with teaching assistants.

However, at many institutions the word "instructor" also denotes an academic rank, lower than "assistant professor", sometimes only given to persons who have completed a Ph.D., and may be given in disregard of whether actual teaching is required of the person bearing the title.

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