43

As a former student athlete at the high school level who played football, the academic requirements asked of me were no different than that of my fellow classmates. I never asked for any special treatment and I rarely if ever discussed my athletic activities with my teachers. I would also suspect that if I had asked, no special consideration would have been given. I had to make decisions that affected my academics as well as limited my ability to pursue other extracurricular activities.

In college, I focused on research, work experience, and academics.

Now that I am in the process of applying to graduate schools where I presume I will be a TA.

  • How should I approach the situation?
  • Would I hold student athletes to the same standards in terms of deadlines and grading, or should I take into consideration the added-value and extraordinary circumstances that student athletes face at a university setting?
  • If I am asked to give special considerations, would I have the right to refuse such requests or would it be strictly the decision of the instructor?
  • If I am asked to overlook the actions of a student, whether suspected or flagrant, is 'rocking the boat' an action considered worth pursuing given the cost in terms of time and attention?
  • As an undergraduate, my professors had a 'catch-all' offering a case-by-case review of such requests but without explicit determinations, would this be the best course of action as a TA?

I approach the question namely to conceptualize different scenarios in case I find myself in similar waters, balancing the time and effort cost of pursuing such a case as a TA with the responsibilities as a graduate student completing my degree.

  • 80
    If your professor expects you to loosen criteria for athletes, you've found a bad professor. If your administration does, then you're at the wrong university. Almost no one on the teaching side of academia considers lower standards for athletes to be a good thing. – darij grinberg Nov 8 '17 at 3:16
  • 4
    I agree with the ideal, but I my goal here is to plan for contingencies. – Frank FYC Nov 8 '17 at 3:17
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    In my experience, you aren't likely to find the athletes to whom special consideration is given in your courses. They have special ones. There are some athletes who take a normal course load, and they generally neither need nor want any special consideration, other than perhaps some scheduling flexibility. – jamesqf Nov 8 '17 at 5:54
  • 17
    Is this very likely to come up? Of course I’ve heard the clichés about US college football but, with the exception of a few rotten apples, is this actually practiced nowadays? (Honest question.) – Konrad Rudolph Nov 8 '17 at 9:50
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    I work, raise my kid and study. Should I have easier exams? NO, and neither should you. A rather different thing is: "Should we have extra materials/guidelines for being able to compensate the missed classes?" and up to now every professor I met was on the YES side. – Caterpillaraoz Nov 8 '17 at 10:36
45

The following is specific to my university, the University of Michigan, but I would guess that the situation is similar at many other universities.

As far as I know, I am not allowed to apply different grading standards to different students in the same class, except that, if a class has both graduate and undergraduate students, then the graduate students may be held to a higher standard. (I've never used different standards for grad and undergrad students, but I believe it is permitted.)

Despite the general rule, there are oft-repeated stories about a particular professor (not in my department but in my college) who allegedly applied easier grading standards to athletes, over a decades-long career, and apparently got away with it. I don't know whether a tenured faculty member could get away with it nowadays, but I certainly wouldn't advise a TA to try it.

Apart from grading, though, athletes in major sports have one advantage, which may compensate for the time demands of their sports. The athletic department provides tutoring for student-athletes and tries to keep an eye on their academic progress (partly so that they don't become academically ineligible to play, partly to keep up a respectable graduation rate, and partly for the genuine benefit of the students). I once had two varsity hockey players in my class, and an assistant coach phoned me (this was long before email) to check on their progress and to ask me to let him know if they had difficulties in my class.

  • 3
    Sounds like there will never be a definitive answer to the question. The defacto policy is "no", while in practice it always varies. – Frank FYC Nov 8 '17 at 2:42
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    @FrankFYC: I have an impression that your "defacto" is a "de jure" ;) – darij grinberg Nov 8 '17 at 3:12
  • 9
    “de jure” = “by law”, and “de facto” = “in practice”. Neither implies the other. – JeffE Nov 8 '17 at 3:17
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    @kubanczyk Well, in the Middle Ages people started to write ‘two types of i’ (i and j). These were considered mere variants with no difference except in appearance for quite a while. In German blackletter, j would be used at the beginning of words and i inside for both /i/ and /j/ sounds. Only later, after the 16th century were the two distinguished depending on whether the symbol represented a vowel or a semivowel. Since jure would contain the semivowel, it only makes sense to write it with j. How you pronounce it depends on your flavour of Latin pronunciation. – Jan Nov 8 '17 at 13:25
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    @Mehrdad This might have been before FERPA, but even now certain university employees are apparently entitled to get such information. I regularly get requests from an assistant dean to provide information about students who are doing poorly, so that academic advisers can try to help. And of course, at the end of every term, the registrar's office gets all the students' grades. I would think the assistant coach and the athletic department's tutors are in the same category as the assistant dean and the college's academic advisers. – Andreas Blass Nov 9 '17 at 13:41
20

The main difference between my athlete students and my non-athlete students is that I have to provide more regular feedback for the athletes, and provide accommodations for them to make up work when they have to miss something because of a scheduled athletic event.

I have been fortunate that my athlete students have been very good, conscientious students who were eager to ensure that they stayed on top of things.

Personally, I agree with the posters above in holding athletes to the same standards as everyone else. In the long run, it's best for everyone involved.

  • 9
    Re "provide accommodations for them to make up work when they have to miss something because of a scheduled athletic event": If OP is worried that this is extending special treatment to athletes, they could broaden this to any student who misses class due to a university-sponsored event (e.g. debate team, field-trip for another class). – PersonX Nov 8 '17 at 18:44
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    Or who misses any class for any reasonable cause. My wife gave birth to our 3rd child via scheduled c-section, which was during the exam window for a statistics class I was taking, prof was willing to let me take the exam the day before or a few days after. As a teacher, I've extended the same courtesy to my students who have had to travel for work, work weird hours to finish a special project, etc. Even had one student who couldn't make an exam because he is the nuclear safety officer for a reactor nearby and the NRC had scheduled their regular audit. Got some cool pictures to show too:) – ivanivan Nov 9 '17 at 19:56
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    @ivanivan I had a similar experience. My third child was due at the end of finals week, but the previous two were a week or more early, so it wouldn't have been a surprise for her to come at any time at the end of the semester. I let all my profs know of the potential conflict on the first day of class and all were willing to accommodate rescheduling if needed. Luckily she held off until the day following the last exam. – Mr.Mindor Nov 9 '17 at 21:15
13

I think it is a mistake to make rules for yourself ahead of time. When/if such a situation comes up, ask your colleagues at that institution how to handle it. (If you are a TA, then of course ask your immediate supervisor in the course: in that case you are perhaps not even authorized to act on your own.)

  • 7
    I agree with this answer. Two general points: (i) trying to figure out how academic culture works at level X / institution Y before you get there is most often more trouble than it's worth. (ii) The whole point of being a TA is that you are assisting the instructor of record. So when in doubt, ask the instructor. – Pete L. Clark Nov 8 '17 at 3:13
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    @PeteL.Clark The OP didn't mention his field. In some (many?) fields the GTAs are instructors of record. But granted, in that case, the statement only changes from "ask the instructor" to "ask the coordinator" :-) – guifa Nov 8 '17 at 4:12
  • 1
    This is useful only up to a point. Local academic culture isn't the only consideration here; you also want to have a sense of the "global" academic ethics on this question. That way, if your particular supervisor or institution turns out to be out of step with the rest of the world, you'll be able to recognize it and consider how to respond. So I think the other answers are useful as well. – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '17 at 20:22
11

I'm a former D1 athlete so I'll offer a bit of a different perspective here. During competition season I was often out for multiple days a week for travel and meets. I always got deadline extensions when I was going to be out but I don't think was ever graded on a different scale then other students. I think your ability to refuse to make accommodations depends on your university. I was always told that if a professor wasn't making reasonable accommodations; to let the support staff at the athletic department know. All of my professors were always reasonable so it never came up, but I got the sense there would be some pressure applied to the professor to be flexible on deadlines around school sponsored events.

I think the answers to a lot of your questions will depend partially on what department you're in. I was an engineering major in undergrad. A lot of the professors there didn't have a ton of athletes and therefore didn't have a ton of experience in dealing with the somewhat unique circumstances. I needed to spend more time with them communicating and negotiating reasonable deadline extensions than professors in some of my electives which had more athletes in them.

8

I played football in college (Full disclosure, Division III so not a money making system for the university and no one's going to the NFL, but still 20-30 hours a week in season between practice/film/travel, maybe more).

We never got nor expected any special treatment from our professors. At most, professors were willing to work out a schedule with us. I even recall coaches proctoring tests in hotels if we were traveling on exam day. Personally, I had to do Transport homework problems on the bus on more than one occasion. And there are support systems. We had study groups on the team. There's the study groups from the university. For those who really aren't there for the education, there's counselors who will help plot the path of least resistance with regard to course loads.

By and large, student athletes know what they're getting themselves into by committing to athletics. It's a huge time-commitment and you learn how to manage it. It's hard work and that's a big part of the appeal. Frankly, most of them know that they're in school for the education. Very few expect to make a living in their sport.

Do not do a disservice to the vast majority of athletes who want to earn their degree honestly and ethically and take great pride in doing so.

7

I don't really understand this question to be quite honest.

As a TA I don't even know or care who the athletes are. I go to a room that has students in it, answer homework questions, give a quiz rinse and repeat. Occasionally I get an email from some university department telling me to do something for some student and I do it.

As a TA you basically just do what you're told. If your superiors tell you to do something you find unethical then you can deal with it then. But this is not at all common. I have never experienced this.

  • I agree with your first two paragraphs, but completely disagree with the second. I didn't "do what I was told" as a TA. True, I had a job to do, but I was usually not prevented from exercising discretion regarding how to do it. In many (most?) universities it is not even the case that you're subservient as a TA to your Masters/Doctoral supervisor. – einpoklum Nov 10 '17 at 11:36
3

As a graduate student employee, you'll have a supervisor. If you're a grader, it will be the professor or instructor of the course. If you're an instructor, there will be an administrator who will oversee your work. When you're not sure about something like this, you should get in the habit of asking your supervisor. This is very important.

You can certainly read up on university policy, but checking with your supervisor is the most important thing.

Your title looks inside out. "Professors, and by extension their teaching assistants" would make a lot more sense.

Side note: as a graduate student instructor I had two members of the university tennis team in my class one semester. They were conscientious and well organized. They knew the dates they would miss and were proactive about requesting work ahead of their absences. I think the only type of student-athlete you might be pressured to ease up your expectations for would be in the money-making sports, in some universities where academic rigor is less important than bringing in the bucks for certain high profile men's sports such as football.

  • A faculty member's role as your supervisor is distinct and separate from his/her position as a teacher in charge of a course. – einpoklum Nov 10 '17 at 11:38
  • @einpoklum - I don't know what you mean. If you're using "supervisor" to mean "thesis advisor," then that's not relevant to my answer. I used "supervisor" to mean "someone who oversees your work." You could think of this person as your boss or manager, in some sense; however, you'll have more autonomy than one usually associates with a job where you have a "manager" or "boss." – aparente001 Nov 11 '17 at 1:11
1

There's one general rule that you'll find works well for all special cases, whether you're a TA or teaching:

If the student is making a legitimate effort to learn the material, you should be accommodating. If they aren't putting in the time, don't bother with yours.

For example, an athlete turns in homework late because of a game, but is otherwise to the standard of the rest of the class. Maybe they asked for permission in advance. I would tend to overlook the lateness and perhaps grade a little easier.

In contrast, if they submit junk but on time, I'd give them a poor grade.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Nov 13 '17 at 7:30
0

As a TA, you don't have much power. Stick to the policies of the class.

As a professor, you have more power, although you might (or might not) be beholden to the department or university for some of your course policies.

However, there is usually a way to hold athletes to the same standard as everyone else while understanding their special needs. Just have a generous policy toward assignment extensions and make-up exams. Athletes shouldn't really be treated differently from people who are traveling for the school debate team, or who have special assignments for their work-study jobs, or who need to take care of sick family members. If you want to, you can also give assignments and grades so students with many other commitments can still do well in the course. That way, athletes would be at less of a disadvantage without being treated "unfairly" well.

And no, you shouldn't be more lenient on athletes when they're found to violate the honor code. But you can probably decide what does and doesn't constitute cheating, e.g. you should be able to let students bring a piece of paper with the formulas when they take an exam.

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