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Some background: I’m a TA for a low-level course at a major university on the US east coast. This is my second time TAing this course: the first time, I did it under a professor who has taught this a ton of times and knows his way around very well. This time around, the instructor is a second-year grad student who’s teaching anything at all for the first time.

(I’m a second-year graduate student as well. I was actually offered this course to teach this semester, but I said no and so they dropped me in as a TA, which is fine. I have a great deal of sympathy for the current instructor since in another universe that would definitely have been me.)

I’m seeing a noticeable difference between the two. As a TA, I’m getting a lot of feedback from students that they don't understand what’s going on, that the instructor doesn’t relay concepts clearly, that they’re leaving the class more confused than before. The difference is also clear in the homeworks: we’re reusing the old homeworks with minor detail changes, but they’re struggling a lot more in even basic concepts compared to last year.

My responsibilities in this course are grading, homework fixing, and office hours. I don’t have to teach in this course at all, and I do help those who come in during office hours. Even from my relatively isolated position from the students, though, I’m still getting a ton of pushback regarding the instructor. Should I do more beyond the scope of my duties? If so, what?

Edit regarding those who advised me to tell the instructor: they definitely know about their performance reviews. They pointed out their RMP link to me, and while RMP isn’t the end-all be-all of academic measurement, the feedback there is unusually negative and corresponds with what I’ve been hearing from students. I don’t want to kick the instructor while they’re down, because they already know pretty definitively, and they’re a good person to work with. Just not a good teacher, I guess.

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    A major university is letting a 2nd year postgraduate student convene a whole course? What is happening there? – orezvani Mar 14 '17 at 4:19
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    @orezvani: This happened to me as a graduate student; please see my answer. And please see my CV if you want to know which university this was (anyway, a good one). – Pete L. Clark Mar 14 '17 at 7:08
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    @orezvani this is standard in my field — in some places it's first year master's students (in my geographic area the accreditation agency requires 18 hours, so only second years can be the instructors of record) – user0721090601 Mar 15 '17 at 0:56
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    Look at it this way: 'There is a new web application developer who just took over for a senior developer with 20 years experience. The quality of the work has gone down drastically. What do I say?' Of course the quality dipped, and of course this grad student isn't teaching that well. If the university had another option, there is a good chance they wouldn't be teaching at all. The grad student can only do what they can: make the best of the situation, and teach to their best ability. They will be a better teacher in time. No need to compare to someone obviously more qualified. – EvSunWoodard Mar 15 '17 at 17:47
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    "Just not a good teacher, I guess" is a pretty condescending, low opinion on someone who took a job you refused to do, in spite you having more experience in it. Expecting that someone with no experience will make a full course perfect for the first time is pretty naive, as well as judging his overall ability on a first shot (where he may not have any useful feedback, unlike you). – Greg Mar 16 '17 at 2:55
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There's a lot of variability in a TA's job from one semester to another. Variables include amount of a bunch of things, such as drudgery, time put in, negotiation with instructor and/or administrators, initiative, background study, interfacing with students, etc. But it generally all evens out in the wash, over the years. Except that if you find that one semester's assignment is regularly taking more than the assumed number of hours per week (for me this was 20), you should bring it up with your supervisor (if it's not clear who this is, ask a knowledgeable secretary, or some department administrator). If it ever comes to this, it can be helpful to keep a log showing hours put in. (It doesn't need to be super detailed.)

For the rest of my answer I'll assume that's not the case here, but rather that you're concerned for the students. If you are seriously concerned for them, bring your concerns, with specific examples, to a department administrator.

Now for some ways you might consider providing more support as a TA (note I said consider; and please check specifics with the instructor and the department first -- there is no need to go into a big rigmarole about why you propose specific actions, just ask if it's okay if you do such-and-so):

  1. Give the instructor a brief feedback report after each problem set, to let him or her know which problems, if any, are giving difficulty, and what's tripping students up. You might want to xerox or scan a representative homework to include as an illustration.

  2. Post solutions to the homework sets (choosing the posting date with care).

  3. Prepare worked examples that will enable the students to do the homework assignments. Possible formats: handouts, post on your door, post on the web, record audio or video tutorials, distribute via email.

  4. Distribute your notes from the class as taught by the previous instructor (this would require approval from that person as well, of course).

  5. Select an affordable textbook, or a web resource, to recommend to students for supplemental reading.

  6. Attend lectures. This can help you detect the gaps, so you can fill them in, and also help you tune into the instructor's wavelength so you can complement each other's efforts. Also, sometimes it is helpful to model for the students how to ask a constructive question in class.

  7. Reserve a classroom if you reach standing room only attendance levels at your office hours.

  8. Schedule a weekly problem-working session.

  9. Assist students in setting up study groups (I'd suggest a maximum of five students per group).

  10. Offer students the opportunity to send you questions via email, with instructions to use a particular subject line (so you can sort them out automatically); check for questions at specific times of day. This is how online teaching works and it can be very effective.

  11. Make sure you understand the material well enough to demonstrate how to do the homework and to be able to answer the most common questions. Seek assistance from the instructor, some other professor, or a more experienced student, as needed.

Project a calm, supportive attitude to the instructor. If you decide to do anything extra, think of it as an investment in your karma. Be the kind of supportive TA you'll want to have when you are in the hot seat a few years from now.

Note: One semester, I had to do some of these things, and should have done more of them. It wasn't because the instructor didn't know what he was doing. He was very experienced and well organized, but his course was HARD.

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    These are all great suggestions! One nitpick: I'd consider #11 part of the core responsibilities of a TA, not something above and beyond. – Mangara Mar 15 '17 at 1:21
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I'd bet that the grad student teaching the course knows very well that his or her teaching competences are lacking, and that the students struggle to follow. After all, even if this person has little experience teaching, he or she has a lot of experience being a student, and is thus likely to recognize poor teaching, but unable to do something about it.

But alas, such is life sometimes. The grad student cannot suddenly, by magic, become a teacher with 20+ years of experience. Nor should they be expected to. The department, who already made the decision of putting an untried grad student in charge of a course, is also unlikely to suddenly allocate more resources.

It would be perfectly fine if you did nothing. Nothing is expected of you, you will not be paid for doing more than you are asked, and if you just do it, no one will thank you.

If you feel compelled to do something anyway, here's a suggestion. Go to the grad student and say that it is your impression that the students struggle way more with the material than last time you TAed the course, and ask if there is anything you can do. Prepare a couple of suggestions, stuff that you know could be improved by going over it a couple of times more in lectures. Don't pass any blame, but try to be as constructive as possible.

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    "the students struggle way more with the material than last time you TAed the course" - please don't say this. Comparisons with other teachers are just going to make the grad student feel inadequate. Just say that the students are struggling in certain areas and that you think they may need extra support. You don't need to say why. (Rest of this answer is great.) – user2390246 Mar 14 '17 at 11:32
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    Having been in this situation I understand both sides of the story. But unfortunately your right complaining wont help because the resource allocations are unlikely to change, besides the new teacher needs 10 000 hours of teaching under their belt to be any good. – joojaa Mar 15 '17 at 6:51
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    10000 hours of teaching is nearly 13 years. Total nonsense that a teacher needs that long to be any good - half of that is enough, and in some cases even less. – Nij Mar 15 '17 at 8:16
  • @user2390246: Good point! – nabla Mar 15 '17 at 8:54
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    @nabla I agree it is a good point--modify your response to reflect the fact that you agree. – msouth Mar 15 '17 at 17:29
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You don't say who you are, but if the course instructor is a second year grad student and you're the TA, I'm guessing you're an undergraduate at the university. I will assume so, and thus that you are academically junior to the instructor. (By the way, the person who teaches the course is called the "instructor." The instructor need not be a "professor" and a grad student cannot be a "professor" at a major American university. Your fogginess about this also makes me think you're an undergrad, in which case it is both common and forgivable.)

The course instructor is the one who is primarily responsible for the course, not you as the TA. If you want to help more, you can help more, but I would advise you to think of it in that way rather than as pushing back against the instructor. Here are some things you can do:

1) Encourage the students to talk to the instructor more, especially about their concerns in the course.

You're holding office hours, but so should the instructor be as well. It sounds like the students are more comfortable coming to you than the instructor. Half of that is fine -- i.e., they can and should come to your office hours if that's part of your job and especially if you're doing it well -- but they should also be going to the instructor. It's not just for them to get extra help from him: by seeing the students in person and listening to their questions, the instructor gets key feedback about how the course is going.

If, as I'm assuming, you and the students are all undergraduates, they are much more likely to want to talk to a fellow undergraduate, and they may even be much more direct in conveying their concerns to you. Every time a student expresses a concern (or makes a complaint), I would be clear with them that it is up to them to register this concern with the instructor, ideally during the course but certainly during the course evaluations. (If the instructor is really unresponsive they could go higher, but if they want help with that they should get it from someone higher up in the food chain, not a fellow undergraduate.) The TA is not an ombudsperson.

2) If your office hours are going well, you can promote them to the students.

Do your best to make sure that every student knows about your office hours and that many of the students find them helpful. And then of course really try to be helpful during your office hours. If you want to do a bit more, here is the most natural opportunity to do so: you could try preparing small amounts of course material and presenting them to students in your office hours. If a student cannot make your office hours, you could (if you want) make a point to meet with them outside of the regularly scheduled office hours. And so forth. But understand that if you go over and beyond the call of TA duties, your rewards will probably consist of student gratitude and an internal sense of accomplishment. You are probably not going to get paid more or formally recognized.

3) You can try to talk to the instructor about the course, but this is a rather advanced technique, and should be done only if you are confident it can be done non-adversarially.

As I mentioned above, it is not your place to criticize the instructor. However, if you gain information about the students and how they are learning, you can bring that to the instructor. So e.g. if students did very badly on part of a problem set, the instructor will probably appreciate your pointing it out. If you think you know why they did badly, you may want to take a shot at explaining why, but think in advance of a way to explain it that comes out in terms of the opportunity for things to be going better for the students, not in terms of telling the instructor what s/he did wrong.

Finally:

4) Understand that it's probably okay if the course is not being taught as well as it could be. However, if it is being taught truly inadequately -- e.g., if you have good reason to believe there will be many student complaints by the end of the semester -- then I suggest you convey this opinion to a friendly faculty member, e.g. your academic advisor.

Some courses go better than others, and some teachers are better than others -- sometimes much better. It is not always the case that the veteran professor is a better teacher than the first time grad student instructor, but the good veteran professor is going to be so much better than the not good first time grad student instructor that it's going to seem painful for you to compare the two courses. But keep in mind that the students are not comparing those two courses; they're just getting the one. (And there are a lot of other degrees of good and bad in courses that you don't know about.) Maybe the department is pushing grad students into teaching courses too early. (But maybe not: in fact, as a second year grad student at a major university on the east coast, I was the instructor of record for a course. I did a good job -- as the evaluations lay, about as good a job as I ever did in the 8-10 more times I've taught the course since then.) Maybe they are letting first time instructors hang in the wind too much. Maybe this particular student is a particularly bad teacher, or maybe he is a generally unhappy grad student and punching time in his last semester in the program. There are so many maybes, and most or all of them are well above your pay grade. There are faculty in the department whose problem this is. If the teaching seems really really bad, then you might try to figure out how to convey that message to the relevant faculty members, and I think you will have more than done your part by conveying your concerns to any faculty member in the department.

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    I had several professors that were fresh PhD's and going to talk to them during their OH about my frustrations with the course was supremely helpful. I'd guess that most professors are interested in helping their students learn - but if students don't come and say, "We're struggling with the material," then all the prof can do is guess that we were just too lazy to do the work. – Wayne Werner Mar 14 '17 at 13:36
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    the person who teaches the course is called the "instructor." -- It may be different at different institutions, but I've seen non-Ph.D.s called "professor" if they're the one teaching the course on numerous occasions (in the U.S.). I did it myself as an undergrad at least a couple of times. I've never heard any of my actual professors care one way or the other -- unlike some countries (Germany, I think?) it's not a protected title, so it's more about showing respect to the instructor. – tonysdg Mar 14 '17 at 13:44
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    @tonysdg: At major US universities, "professor" is an academic rank. You can be a professor without a PhD, and having a PhD doesn't make you a professor. But at no major US university (known to me -- what else?) can a grad student be a professor. Yes, undergrads call grad student instructors professors very commonly (it happened to me a lot). Undergrads say the darnedest things. This particular mistake is of no particular significance to them, but it is to others in the department. – Pete L. Clark Mar 14 '17 at 14:22
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    @FighterJet: Community colleges are different from major US universities. In fact one can be a professor at a cc and a grad student elsewhere. Not that this is so important to the question at hand -- that portion of my answer is parenthetical. However, that academics themselves are sensitive to fine nuances of academic rank -- much more so than undergrads and nonacademics -- is a real phenomenon. – Pete L. Clark Mar 14 '17 at 14:24
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    @MatterCat I think that if the TA were academically senior, they could offer advice to the grad student without seeming ridiculous. An undergrad TA without teaching experience offering advice to an instructor is annoying, a more experienced instructor offering advice is usually appreciated. – Johanna Mar 14 '17 at 18:21
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If it came to your attention that students have major issues with the professor, then I think it is better for everybody to talk with the prof. and let him know the problems the students are facing.

You should also ask the students to tell you concrete problems related to the course so that you can transfer concrete complains to the professor. You are not obliged to do so, but this is something that will benefit everyone, especially the students.

There is a good chance that the new prof. (who is a grad student) doesn't care at all (maybe s/he was even forced to teach the course against his will). But still, he should be aware about the major complaints the students have and then it will be up to her/him to fix the situation.

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    "There is a good chance that the new prof. (who is a grad student) doesn't care at all." You think so? I am the Graduate Coordinator of my department, and I've never seen a grad student instructor who doesn't care at all. "(maybe s/he was even forced to teach the course against his will)." I'm not sure I get what you mean. Students, like other instructors, teach (when they do) as part of their professional obligations. They might rather teach less or not at all. Me too, sometimes, but I'm not being "forced" to teach: I can quit at any time. So can the students (and sometimes they do). – Pete L. Clark Mar 14 '17 at 7:15
  • Being a bearer of bad news can be suicidal. – Vladimir F Mar 14 '17 at 7:19
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    @PeteL.Clark What I mean is that sometimes grad. students are forced to teach some course they don't want as an emergency solution. Then, the instructor takes a lazy and indifferent attitude which is hard to extract: "You forced me to teach something I have no idea about. Don't complain if I can't deliver a great course". And especially for a grad student (even PostDoc) it is not easy to just quit. – PsySp Mar 14 '17 at 8:41
  • Thanks for the explanation. In my experience, teaching is part of one's employment contract; one doesn't just wake up one day to learn that s/he is teaching one more course. Is this actually a common phenomenon in your experience (so that it is "a good chance")? And even if you're teaching a course that you preferred not to, you still get teaching evaluations and so forth, so "doesn't care at all" seems rather extreme to me. But maybe it happens in some circles. – Pete L. Clark Mar 14 '17 at 13:37
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    @PeteL.Clark It happened to me while at a PostDoc post on a contract that did not mention teaching activities and I was explicitly told during the negotiations that it is not required to teach, unless I want to do so. It was exactly like that: A month or so before the course I was asked to take a course that has absolutely nothing to do with my expertise. I was not even able to change the suggested textbook! And I saw it quite few times happening before and since. I am talking about Northern Europe, if that means anything. – PsySp Mar 14 '17 at 13:41
4

Pete L. Clark above offers a lot of good advice, though I would cation about talking to other faculty members first, since if this gets back to the instructor it may be extremely awkward if s/he doesn't take that well.

I would encourage the students to talk to the instructor as a group. This avoids one student taking the fall and highlights that the problem is with instruction and not a single student. Then you can offer suggestions about what you observed as working the previous semester or (even better!) encourage the instructor to meet with the previous instructor you TA'd for to get advice.

2

Sometimes you just have to be the change you want to see in the world.

I had a similar situation in grad school.

It certainly doesn't have to be a grad student in over their head. It can be an overconfident new professor, a doctorate angry over being denied a professorship, a retiring tenured who has lost interest, or just a professor too busy with other work.

The others are not wrong at all when they say that you don't have to do more, maybe even that it all "evens out".

But you can do more.

And in the end, it's your prerogative. As a graduate assistant, you definitely cannot fairly be expected to do more (indeed some unrealistic folks can send blame your way, but you cannot generally be driven about by fear of unreasonable potentialities).

It's unfortunately a common way in academia within science. We idealize it as this army of passionate professors teaching. But it's actually often people whose love is research being required to teach despite a great lack of interest/skill in education. Or a young professor forced to teach yet another course because the tenured folks don't want to.
And it's unfair on the student. Especially if it's an important major course. The fault may well ultimately belong to the university for not having enough faculty in (though that can take time). But the fault is unfortunately irrelevant to the students end result. They're not going to get what they need.

You shouldn't have to... and you don't have to!
Indeed, you likely won't benefit greatly from it, and it could make life a struggle.
But you're likely to be in a unique position to help. If you don't do it, no one likely does. So if you think you can see and solve problems, don't be scared to step up.

In my own circumstance, the teacher was passionate, just scattered and non-conventional. My co-TA and I were first year grad students who weren't connected to the professor but had a friendly working relationship with him (he was a longtime special topics teacher and staff member, but did not hold a PhD to my knowledge). During the lectures, we saw topics that we were passionate about, that are fundamental, and honestly some of the most interesting in meteorology, being mostly passed over. We'd had great professors in our own undergraduate work (at other universities), and we thought it was important that more be taught on the subjects.
So during the regular meetings with the teacher, we casually noted a few details we'd like to see highlighted, and offered upfront to teach a couple days of the course if wished. He happily welcomed it, and the students benefited.
Because of the wider struggles students were having with some of the other imperfections, we also added extra office hours, tried to grade the homework with plenty of detail, and did a final review pizza session. You're a recent student. You know what can help benefit and you can often have a friendly rapport with them. Use that to your advantage.

And because of your situation, you're also a comrade with the person who is teaching the course. I wouldn't stress as much about decorum or hurt feelings, like I might with a real professor. This grad student may well have gotten this class pushed upon him... or didn't recognize how challenging teaching would be... or hadn't yet learned to say no.
Sit down with him and talk it out. Since you say he knows the reviews are bad, offer to help. If you wish, offer to help him lay out his course structure/notes better, or even offer to teach some if you're available. You can also offer him the true reflection of the course he often won't get otherwise (often students, especially newer ones, are fearful/reverent of a teacher, and uncertain what this is supposed to work like. And so they won't approach the teacher). You can be the reality source he/she really needs.

You can only do so much. You won't change the world. But often in these type of scenarios, there's a not lot others can/will do. If you're passionate about the material, to see it taught better, to see people get the quality you yourself received, then feel free to step up. It's a tough choice, one that indeed could stunt your progress elsewhere, be it towards your thesis(?) or in your personal life. And it's far too often thankless. But in the end, if you know the reasons you're passionate to see, you'll know what you did, and that you did what was caring and gave your best, and that's what will truly matter. Once in a while someone needs to be the one to step up for others.

1

Complaints of any kind don't help much, almost everyone goes through hiccups in the first time they teach something. Teaching is a skill that often improves with time. As a TA, at the cost of your additional time, you may supplement the teaching: (a) conduct recitations just like what MIT and Harvard TAs do, (b) although scribe notes are usually prepared by students, you may volunteer to prepare them from previous semester notes, assuming of course, you took that class some point in the past.

0

My advice to the instructor would be to reach out and ask for help from the experienced professors.

As a second year grad student I taught a summer course when no other instructor was available. I know that I did not do as good of a job as one of the experienced instructors did, but I felt that my performance was decent. I got mixed reviews from the students.

I was able to do as well as I did because the department provided me with a ton of support. They had experienced instructors give me feedback on the tests before I gave the tests. I used a previous instructors powerpoints and notes. I audited the course that spring to make sure that I knew the material. The spring instructor mentored me in how to teach. I taught the course the way it was taught in the spring with minimal changes.

None of those things were my idea. The department basically told me to do things, and I willingly did them. I am guessing that your instructor of record hasn't gotten the same help and support that I did.

Sit down and talk with the instructor about who can help him improve. Avoid the temptation to give advice. You don't know any better than they do. They need to go to people who know.

0

Your job is firstly to help the students, and secondly to help the instructor. It is not your job to make sure the course is well taught. With this set of boundaries, you should wait for the instructor to ask you for help. And when they do ask for help, help as much as is possible at your pay rate.

Considering this, the biggest focus should be making sure that the students are taken care of. The best way to do this is to empower them to have a stake in their own learning.

I, as a TA who has seen variability in how instructors run a course, I have had to give advice to undergrads about how to cope with such a situation. The advice is as follows:

Specifically, there is a big difference between High School and Universities. In a University, it is traditionally the student's responsibility to learn the material, and the instructor's job is primarily to guide learning. With this attitude, it does not matter if the instructor has a very thick accent, or if the instructor gives horrible lectures.

In situations like this, a student should read and attempt to learn the course material prior to class, and arrive at class with questions that require clarification. The usual method of just taking notes and cramming before the exam is very ineffective for poorly prepared instructors.

When I have suggested this to students, who probably never considered why instruction in HS different from in a University, I always see the students eyes light up. I suspect that this is because the notion that they are in charge of what they learn, and they can choose their future is an empowering thought. I had one student send me an email several semesters later thanking me for this advice.

However, once I had a student who was only interested in getting the degree, and had zero interest in learning. I assume he copied all the homeworks, and did "what it took" to pass the exams. He very much disliked the idea of independent learning. I tend to let students who think this way complain; they have an issue I cannot address.

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