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I am an undergraduate student at a university in the US.

Unfortunately, I have a concern regarding one TA of a class I took this past year. This individual insults other students in the university during his TA session, and I also found out from other people that this TA has been talking to other people (not just the professor and TAs for the class) about people's grades in the class.

My question is, is it within my power to lodge a formal yet anonymous complaint that will be taken seriously about this?

I am concerned about my identity becoming known because this TA is a strong student, and seems to have a lot of power in the department (and is close with the professor teaching the class).

  • 25
    check your university's privacy policy. I doubt that TAs are allowed to release student's grades to other people – Mark Joshi Sep 1 '15 at 0:14
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    @Mark In the US, that's protected information by federal law (FERPA), regardless of any additional institutional policies. – ff524 Sep 1 '15 at 0:30
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    A documented FERPA violation on the scale you describe would be a serious offense at a US institution, and would be much harder for a protective professor to ignore than the "trash talk" that you describe. – Corvus Sep 1 '15 at 1:35
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    There should be a student affairs dean if you have concerns about approaching the professor or department. I find it strange that a top institution would employee undergraduates as TAs. At the institution I am at, TAs must hold a Bachelors degree, at a minimum, and often they are PhD candidates in the department that have completed their first level comprehensives. If the student is a Post-baccalaureate Student, then they can be hired, even if there degree is in another field. The only exception I have seen is where students assisted in problem sessions where the Professor was in attendance. – AMR Sep 1 '15 at 2:37
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    @AMR: Undergraduate teaching assistants don't seem unusual to me, and a Google search suggests that they can be found at many universities I think are well-regarded in the US. You may have a different notion of "top university" than I do, though. – Vectornaut Sep 1 '15 at 4:40
124

When you have a complaint about a teaching assistant for a course, you should generally address it to the instructor of record first. Even if you believe the professor will dismiss your complaint, going straight over the professor's head will make you look bad.

Here are some suggestions for making a well-received complaint:

  • Make your complaint in writing (email).
  • Do not include any subjective judgment of the TA's behavior, only objective observations of what you have seen and experienced.
  • Give specific evidence to support your claims.
  • Phrase it as if you believe the professor is not aware of this behavior, whether you truly believe this or not.
  • Don't offer suggestions on what actions to take ("I think you should prevent this TA from working in future courses"), just describe what you have seen.
  • You can specify what steps you would like the professor to take to keep your identity a secret from the TA when discussing the complaint with him. (Only you or someone close to your situation can know how identifiable such a complaint will make you, and what details need to be omitted to anonymize you effectively.)

If the professor does not seem to take the matter seriously, you can escalate your complaint:

  • To the department head
  • To a student ombudsperson at your institution
  • 8
    I rarely want to upvote twice, but this one I wish I could. Good guidelines for reporting any bad behaviour in any situation. – Todd Wilcox Sep 1 '15 at 12:18
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    I disagree with informing only the professor in the first step. This makes it harder to decide to escalate the issue (which I'm sure would be needed in this case) because escalating it implies that the asker gives up on the professor resolving it satisfactorily. Instead the asker should send his/her complaint to the professor but CC to the head of department and explicitly request complete confidentiality. This ensures that the head of department is immediately aware of the issue and subsequently one can send follow-up emails if one is not satisfied with the outcome. – user21820 Sep 1 '15 at 15:00
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    @user21820 it depends on the situation. In my experience, some (not many) professors would find offensive that superiors are involved, and actively ignore you. – Davidmh Sep 1 '15 at 17:54
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    @Davidmh, I second your observation/opinion. Cc'ing higher-ups is rarely taken well. – paul garrett Sep 1 '15 at 22:10
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    I third Davidmh's observation. When someone sends a cc: to a department head (or university administrator) who is not directly relevant to the issue at hand in the first complaint, then it can easily be viewed as a kind of spammy behavior. But this case is kind of extraordinary, so I don't think it would be treated that way. – KCd Sep 2 '15 at 0:19
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It also does not really help that he is one of the strongest undergraduates in the major at my institution, and that he has and exerts a tremendous amount of influence on the community of my major.

Indeed; you have a classic case of a destructive hero.

I would follow the top upvoted answer meticulously, but add steps at the end. If you experience retaliation or consequences or failure in the steps outlined by ff524, I would file a formal FERPA complaint. People who retaliate against you for squealing might turn around really quick once they know the federal government is watching him.

4

You have the right to skip over the instructor of record and go straight to whatever level of administration you trust. This is to be recommended in this case, due to your fear of retaliation.

I advise you to leave out the general remarks. Your observations about the ill effects on the department and the community are your private motivation for blowing the whistle. So keep your complaint simple and specific.

If, after having selected the level of administration you wish to present your complaint to, you are still uncomfortable with your identity being known, then here is what you can do: create a new email account solely for this purpose. Use that email address to write to the administrator you have selected. Begin with a paragraph about how if anyone else opens the email message they should not read it.

In your letter, present an itemized list of unethical things the TA did. You may add one or two sentences about each item.

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    Put the actual complaint text in a Word document attached to the email - Word documents often have personally identifying metadata. Kind of a waste to set up "anon@gmail.com" and then have your name in the attached document. – ff524 Sep 1 '15 at 4:59
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    Even pdf files may have personally identifying metadata, such as paths, embedded in their properties. Use RTF or (better) TXT. – Federico Poloni Sep 1 '15 at 6:19
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    Regarding pdf, it's far worse than just paths. For example, a PDF created from Word will include the author's name (if using a properly licensed copy of word) in the "Author" field that can be viewed directly from the "properties" window in Acrobat. – Corvus Sep 1 '15 at 6:53
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    I really don't see the point of the whole "attach a file to the email" charade. Either the secretary in question is honest and will stop reading at "This is a confidential message for Dr. X", or the secretary isn't honest and will read the attached file anyway. – user9646 Sep 1 '15 at 15:22
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    An email with a subject in all caps starting with CONFIDENTIAL MESSAGE would go straight into my spam folder without me seeing it. – fkraiem Sep 1 '15 at 17:49
1

I found out later that the aforementioned TA was telling a lot of other students (beyond the professor and other TAs) on campus people's grades in the class and mocking those with low ones.

This is almost always against the university's code of conduct, and if you're really serious about getting rid of him this semester probably your best shot. If you can prove that he gossiped about student grades regularly, that will likely force the department's hand.

If at all possible, I'd suggest getting through the class first. Complaints by current students (with low grades) towards a TA or prof are generally greeted with skepticism by administrators.

If you have proof, I'd suggest going to the dean or provost. This is your best chance to avoid any sort of retaliation from the TA or prof, but be prepared.

0

This is a real moral dilemma because such a person is destined to become a really bad boss some day.

Here are some things to be careful of.

  1. If there is an enquiry then person X will turn up with friends ostensibly for moral support but in fact to back him/her up and probably knock you down. Make sure you have some allies to support your case otherwise you will lose.

  2. Once a complaint is out there, you lose control of anonymity. Your identity can get back by gossip or through a retrospective appeal to freedom of information or similar.

  3. Sometimes doing the right thing is just hard. Read about Gandhi if you want to be convinced of that. Decide if you are tough enough. You can be sure that X is.

  4. Speak to an official student counsellor. They are bound to confidentiality.

  5. Without gossiping, put feelers out to see who supports your point of view. Rather than making suggestions, ask questions like, Do you think we can do anything about it? Let them talk and gauge whether a joint complaint is necessary/worthwhile.

  • Once a complaint is out there, you lose control of anonymity. — [citation needed] Obviously that depends on the institutions policies for addressing complaints, even assuming that the complaint is not filed anonymously. – JeffE Sep 2 '15 at 21:39
  • @JeffE - I speak from knowledge of particular circumstances. I am not at liberty to give details. In any case we all know how unsecure information is these days. Lost and leaked data are everywhere. Even before computers, reliable confidentiality depended entirely on the integrity of individuals. If X is a favourite of someone in power then they may have like minds. Information could get back to X. – chasly from UK Sep 2 '15 at 21:43

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