Codes of Conduct II: A Code for TAs and Myself


[The following are rules to live by. They’re more context-specific, but arguably just as helpful as Wilson’s.]

Last week I wrote about the classroom rules. As part of that post, I alluded to the fact that I have a similar set of rules for my TAs, and that’s what I’m going to write about today. Those who have worked for me will attest to receiving said 2-page document, and being asked – as the first order of business – if they can agree to live by its terms. This catches a lot of them off guard, and I’ve been told several times that I’m anal retentive, scary as hell, or both.  I didn’t start out that way though, I swear. The document is something that has evolved over time as a way of heading off the various problems that I have run into in the past. It exists because I decided that if I spelled everything out, in writing, that it would be much easier for everyone to coordinate with one another, and much harder for any one person to shirk his or her duties.

I know what you’re thinking: How can I be worried about belittling my undergraduates with a code of conduct and have no qualms about imposing one on my TAs? Easy. Undergrads are focused on the classroom side of the university experience, unlike graduate students who experience the university as a research space. Graduate students are thus less likely to spend time considering what type of behavior is appropriate there. I don’t blame them, but I also feel like they need the occasional reminder about how to interact with the teaching side of things. Moreover, not only is a TA’s work tangential to their focus as a researcher, but some TAs are completely new to the process of directing the learning of others – this means they need explicit mentoring, some of which includes leading by example, and I let them know that the code applies to me as well. And finally, to put it frankly, I just feel like intellectuals can use all the reminders they can get that (1) people do not come out of the womb knowing the ins and outs of a discipline and being able to write literature reviews and (2) that sometimes we can be a bunch of insensitive, holier-than-thou pedants, and we need to keep that impulse in check.

Most Canadian schools have unionized TAs, so we already have to provide an hourly breakdown of the tasks we assign and describe, in rough terms, the nature of the work. This is incredibly valuable, and if you aren’t at a school that forces you to do it, I highly recommend drawing up such a contract by yourself. It helps insure that you aren’t over-burdening your TAs (since it makes you look at how much time you’re actually allotting per task) and it clarifies expectations. Beyond this, however, there are a few other rules I like to discuss.

1. Respect! Yeah, I know, big surprise. But as I said, respect goes both ways and too many of us forget that! I therefore tell my TAs on multiple occasions that they are not publicly to mock students under any circumstances. Blowing off steam in private in one thing. Posting quotes of the “stupid” things students say or write on Facebook, on a blog, or in any other public forum is another thing altogether. I in no way mean to imply this practice is just a TA vice. In fact, professors are often much more guilty of it. Whether it’s the “shit my students say” tumbler, or the “shit my students write” version, in my opinion, it’s not ok. Nor are the print versions, which parrot back wrong answers on exams or quotes from particularly bad papers.


[This is hardly the only book of its kind]

Those who have heard me rant will know that I can’t quite put into words how strongly I feel that this type of behaviour is not alright! I know that people are careful to ensure that quotes are presented anonymously, but what if the student who wrote it (or said it) happens to see the publication, only to discover that he or she has been publicly humiliated for an honest mistake made within the context of learning? How will that person – or any student that knows of these sites for that matter – feel comfortable offering what might potentially be wrong answers if they know that this could be the result? Many intellectuals I know have notoriously fragile egos and, were they to experience the same kind of treatment, would crawl into a hole and die. Thus, to get biblical for a moment, I would advise people to “do unto others as they would have done onto them”– for the record, I’m an atheist, but I maintain that this is still good advice.  And yes, I know that students contribute to those “shit my prof said” websites and regularly post nasty things on ratemyprofessor, which is almost as bad. But at the risk of sounding preachy again, this is not just cause for our own bad behaviour. Professors and TAs are theoretically the adults in the situation. I recommend we act like it.

2. Deadlines apply to both students and TAs/professors.  Students have a due-date for their assignments. That means we have a due-date for getting those assignments back or we’re a bunch of obnoxious hypocrites (see my post on marking for more details on turnaround time if you missed it I expect that my TAs do what is necessary to accommodate marking deadlines, especially since I inform them when assignments are coming in and when I need them back as part of their contracts. This is not to say that I expect TAs to go over their contracted hours in order to meet my expectations – if they fear that I haven’t allocated enough time to a particular task, I encourage them to speak to me, and I take away some of their work. Rather, I emphasize a respect for deadlines because I expect TAs to plan vacations, research trips, and other moveable parts of their schedule with these deadlines in mind. TA duties tend to require dedicated chunks of time, while at other moments during the semester there is little or nothing to do. I expect my TAs to manage their time with this in mind, which is something I have to do as well.


[Don’t be that person]

3. Be available to students. As an instructor I have an open door policy; if I’m in the office, my door is open and students can come and see me. This is a personal choice and it doesn’t work for everyone, nor do I expect this level of commitment from my TAs. What I do expect is 1 hour of office hours per week, and the ability to answer student emails within 24 hours unless there are special circumstances, of which students have been informed. This is outlined in the contract as well, but I like to emphasize it separately in my guidelines because it reminds TAs that a good deal of the learning process actually happens outside of the classroom. While the majority of after-hours contact benefits the students, TAs and professors routinely learn things during these meetings as well, so it’s valuable for everyone involved and it helps us to get to know the people we’re teaching.

4. You don’t get paid enough to deal with the big problems. I wish I didn’t have to say this but I do. If you’re a TA and you find a plagiarized paper: that’s my problem. Likewise, if there is anything else questionable in that pile of marking: that’s my problem. In Quebec, since papers must legally be accepted in French as well as English (even if the school is Anglophone), if you get a French paper: that’s probably my problem too. Similarly, if a situation arises that you don’t know how to deal with in discussion group, or you are unsure how to mark something: come see me and I’ll help come up with a solution. TAs have other obligations, and they make very little money. There is a hierarchy in place, and they should be encouraged to make use of it so as not to take too much time away from their primary agenda as graduate students seeking their own degrees.


[Oh how I wish I could live in that little circle too]

As with my classroom rules for undergraduates, these guidelines get tweaked a little every time, but the core ideas are here. What do people think, especially in relation to my previous post? Is this idea good? Bad? Ugly? And if you do like the idea, but think it needs tweaking, what would you add or take away?

Codes of Conduct: Undergraduates

Codes of conduct are a fundamental part of the way that I teach, and yet, I continue to feel ambivalent about them. While I have a well-developed set of rules that I like to go over at the beginning of the year – actually, I have 2, the other is for my TAs – I always worry that perhaps the process is demeaning to my students or that they will feel infantilized by such a rudimentary exercise. I’m not sure I will ever get over this concern; however, I don’t see myself axing the “classroom rules” portion of my introductory lecture any time soon either. This is because it sets the tone for the semester. It helps me to establish my position as the authority figure, to define the place of technology in my class, and (hopefully) to create an atmosphere where students feel safe in asking and answering questions. So what are my rules?


Before I get into the rules proper, I always preface my remarks with a brief description of what students can and can’t expect from the course. This is all the stuff that faculty considers basic, but which is not necessarily obvious to our students. When teaching the modern western history survey, for example, I start by reminding people what a survey is. I tell my students that the class will be “an introduction to some – though by no means all – of the major political, technological, and social shifts from the period dating from 1600 forward, with an emphasis on state making and breaking.” I then explicitly state that the content of the course is based on my interpretations of facts. Students will be exposed to contrasting interpretations, and given time to express their opinions at the end of the lecture, but the core of the lecture is my construction. I finish this section of my spiel by alerting those enrolled to the fact that I do indeed run an interactive classroom, and that they will be given regular opportunities to get their hands dirty with the history. If this doesn’t sound appealing, now is the moment to flee.

Equally important, I tell my students what they won’t get. Sticking with my western civ example, I note that the focus on politics means that, by necessity, there will not be as much information about social, cultural, or economic history as I would like to cover. I also warn my class that they will not get to dig into the really interesting minor historical episodes, unless they choose to take up those themes in their research paper. Finally, much to their chagrin, students are told that lecture notes will not be posted online, and that my slides will go up after every class but not before. The latter is something I do to try to train them to deal with real presentations, which seldom come with a nifty set of Power Point slides that you can print off in advance.

From here, I move on to my rules proper:


[There may be a little bit of this going on as well]

1. Respect! This is the rule which underwrites every other rule that I have. Respect can’t just be expected, it’s earned, and it’s the product of reciprocal relationships. I get that. Thus, I tell my students that – if nothing else – they can count on me always to treat them with respect. The catch is that I expect the same in return. Moreover, I demand that students respect one another as well. Since all of my lectures involve an interactive component, and many of my classes have semi-regular discussion groups attached to them, it is absolutely fundamental that students feel like they can share their opinions in a safe space. Therefore, I am careful to spell out the rules. Disagreement is fine, but differences of opinion should open discussion up, and not shut it down. Differences of opinion should be rooted in evidence, and must always be left within the confines of the classroom. Since I am apparently pretty terrifying, this mini-rant usually does the trick and students enjoy the freedom to speak their minds, challenge my interpretations, and get help with half-baked ideas from their peers.

2. No using cell phones. So, I stole this from a meme, but it’s true: I know you’re texting, no one just looks at their crotch that much! I do my very best not to be boring, so I ask that people who make the effort to attend lectures actually pay attention to my delivery of them. Some students have children, or are responsible for sick or elderly relatives. If that’s the case, as I tell my class, cell phones must of course stay on and be answered in case of a family emergency. But the rest of the world can put them on silent and put them away. And this is because, as you may have guessed, it’s disrespectful to me when a student texts through an entire lecture and then come see me because they don’t understand the material. Even more importantly, it’s disrespectful to the entire class when a phone rings and we all have to pause. What will I do if I catch someone texting then, you ask? As an early modernist, I will use traditional methods. I will not throw a fit, nor I will I kick a student out – I will simply make sure that every other student in the room is looking at the offender and getting progressively more annoyed while I pause and wait for them to finish. And yes, I know, I am evil.


3. Responsible use of laptops only. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not ban laptops. They do add some challenges for instructors – we all know what it’s like to compete with the alluring blue glow of Facebook – but I think the pros outweigh the cons. Thus, I encourage my students to bring their laptops or tablets. Moreover, since most classes are now wifi equipped, I even tell my students to use these devices more extensively. If a student desires clarification regarding terminology, or some more background information on a particular topic (especially during discussion time), I actively encourage them to “Google it.” I tell them in my best crotchety old lady voice: “When I was in university, if I wanted to know something, I actually had to go to the library and look it up; you have the sum of human knowledge at your fingertips, try to make use of it.” What I don’t tolerate is playing solitaire, watching movies, online shopping, Facestalking, etc… Once again, this is a matter of respect, and I explain to my students that my concern is that they will distract their peers, who have full view of their screen in a classroom with stadium seating.

4. Be punctual. This is my final rule, and like all my other rules, it’s based on my demand for respect. Coming in late is disruptive to other students and disrespectful to me, and I make it clear that I have a zero tolerance policy. That said, in reality, I’m often lenient (especially for 8:30 classes), but as I said, I think it’s important to set the tone. I do not enforce this rule by locking the doors – which is something my own professor’s used to do. Instead, I do it by employing the same public shaming tactic I use to deal with everything else. For the most part though, tardiness isn’t a problem because if one can successfully create a respectful environment, in conjunction with delivering engaging lectures, students make the effort to come, and to come on time. Oftentimes, if I’ve done my job well, those who come late even approach me after class and offer an unsolicited explanation for running behind.


[The stocks]

Depending on the class, I might add a few smaller items, but these rules are at the heart of the classroom code that I present every semester. I’m curious to know what my readers think. Are they useful? What additional rules do you have? And how do you go about setting the tone?

Towards More Interactive Lectures

I suppose I should start off by explaining why I care about having an interactive classroom in the first place. There are actually 3 reasons:

1. I’m lazy. The reality of the situation is that giving a really good 50- or 80-minute lecture is unspeakably hard work and it takes me hours to prepare my carefully planned and tight-knit presentations. Therefore, anything I can do to cut down on the length of my lecture (and thus my required prep time) is a welcome distraction. Leaving space for meaningful student participation is a great way of reducing the time that I need to fill and of giving students a more active role in their education.


[Yup. Guilty. I will take the path of least resistance every time.]

2. I’m boring. Let’s face it, when I see a student nodding off in my class, I don’t get mad. Instead, I think to myself: “Yeah, I hear you. If I wasn’t up here giving the damn lecture, I’d be falling asleep too.” No one wants to listen to me prattle on for an hour and a half, least of all me, so why pretend that they do? If I break up my talk into smaller pieces, the learning process becomes less monotonous and the occasional change of pace makes absorbing the lecture content proper much easier to do. Most students like the break and the possibility of contributing keeps them off of Facebook and interested in the course material.

3. One of my mantras is to use all available resources. I’ve mentioned several times that my guiding principle as a teacher is respect. But my second favourite pedagogical rule is to always use all the tools at my disposal. Many of my colleagues also ascribe to this wisdom, but they often forget that this includes students as well as power point slides, white boards, online classroom tools, and other such things. Especially in large classes, students are likely to possess unique knowledge that they’ve gleaned from other programs, or from pleasure reading. Letting them share their insights helps make the material more personal.

I’m just going to assume that you find this convincing and that you too, dear reader, are interested in creating an interactive classroom. However, if I’ve failed to make my case – or even if I’ve convinced you, but you have something to add – I’d love to hear from you in the comments below! Either way, lecture-courses don’t naturally lend themselves to student participation and the bigger the class, the harder it is to get people talking. So you’re probably starting to wonder how one might actually go about encouraging dialogue in a lecture hall. I have a number of suggestions, but be warned: all of them require you to be comfortable with the fact that sometimes no one will want to participate, and other times you’re going to get questions that you just can’t answer. Running an interactive lecture opens the door to all sorts of new possibilities, but it also brings new problems. C’est la vie.

There are a million different ways of inviting participation, and I by no means feel like mine is the best. I have colleagues who integrate Facebook or Twitter, and I’ve heard that some of the Ivy League schools in the US use electronic clickers so that students can respond to questions. Being a humanist, and having taught at Canadian schools, I’ve chosen the low-tech solutions because I usual get put in the broke-down rooms where the wifi can be flakey and you don’t even know if the microphone will work. So, for what it’s worth, here is my approach.


[The desired response]

First of all, I always lecture to a question. This is an adaptation of a technique I have shamelessly plundered from my own undergraduate mentor who used to emphasize that she was teaching us how to argue, and even how to write, by presenting us with a verbal essay every class. She clearly divided the material into subtopics, and taught us how to think about the big picture. And she was never afraid to take questions. I simply do what she did, but even more explicitly, and I open every lecture with a question. I ask things like: “Were the mid-century troubles in Britain a civil war or a revolution?”; “How Transformative was the Industrial Revolution?”; or “Does the end of the Cold War mark the end of modernity and the start of a new era in history?” These questions are broad, and allow me to range widely through the narrative while still asking students to think about the significance of specific events and the terminology that accompanies their study. Such questions also allow me to introduce students to historiography, AKA the constructedness of the stories we tell about our past. A fact is one thing, as I tell my class, but what it means is an entirely separate question.

By opening the lecture with a question, I set a tone that encourages inquisitiveness from the outset. And although I do not immediately ask them to answer our overarching question, I do toss out smaller, more manageable questions throughout the lecture. These range from things like “what do you already know about Napoleon?” to terminological questions like “does anyone know what the word Bolshevik literally translates to in English?” As I said before, this breaks up the monotony of the lecture, and at least one student often has an answer. For those who like to engage with their instructor, this offers a unique opportunity to interact with the lecturer in large classes, and it’s a way for profs to get to know their students better as well. For other students, especially those who are shy and uninterested in making a spectacle of themselves, such moments are still valuable because they provide a pause to catch up on notes, a new voice to help wake people up, and sometimes a more memorable tidbit of information because it comes from a peer or with an interesting anecdote. The number of questions I ask varies from lecture to lecture, but it’s usually between 5 and 15, depending on the length of the talk.


[What questions do you ask when writing your lecture? Why not ask your students what they think about these issues?]

Finally, at the end of class, I have a slide called “Conclusions?” The question mark, as I explain to my students, is intentional – it signals my willingness to have my narrative challenged. This slide reiterates the main points of the lecture (so it’s also a helpful study guide), and then repeats a modified form of our opening question. At this point, the floor is opened for discussion, and students get 10 minutes to talk about the lecture material even in classes of 150. I know, you don’t believe students will talk, but they do! And I have 2 peer reviews that will attest to my success in this regard, I swear! Oftentimes there is a brief pause before they get going, or comments are a mere reiteration of things on the last slide, but at least students get to dig in and get their hands a little dirty. Interacting with the material like this can help to make it more meaningful.


[A sample concluding slide, from a lecture on Napoleon]

The key to getting students to engage seems to be the successful creation of a safe and respectful environment. When I start a course, I go over classroom rules (I will write about these at some point, I promise), and these include a point about respectful disagreement and appropriate discussion. I also tell students point-blank that I don’t expect them to know the answer to any given question, so they won’t look stupid if they don’t know the answer. I even go so far as to give them my rationale – in much the same way that I shared it with you – because it makes the whole process seem more reasonable. And as I earn their trust, I will get up to 25 different students talking on any given day. As I said, there are sometimes problems, particularly when an assignment is due and people haven’t slept. But I think the pros outweigh the cons, and I’m not convinced I want to abandon the strategy any time soon. For the most part, my students appreciate my style, although I routinely get at least 1 review that says it’s obnoxious and the whole thing sucks. I’ll let you be the judge.

That Guy



While I have taken “That Guy” as my subject matter this week, I want to emphasize that the person about whom I’m speaking might actually be a member of either gender, it’s just that other phrases don’t have quite the right connotations. We all know That Guy: the person who interrupts at an inopportune moment to ask what seems like an obtuse question. In social settings, this person is the conversation killer, whose commentary elicits awkward silences while standing around the water cooler or sitting down for dinner. You know, the one who interrupts a lively conversation to share a depressing and highly awkward anecdote about their ex or something? In terms of teaching – or any form of public presentation for that matter – this is the person that breaks in right when you’re building steam towards your brilliantly witty finale. Perhaps they have an important insight or a truly probing question? Nope, they want to quibble over how many miscarriages Catherine of Aragon had, or to correct your pronunciation of an exotic place in order to prove that you are, in fact, an idiot.


The question is: how does one deal with this person? The power dynamic involved in the situation – which is what often seems to elicit the interruption in the first place – means that you can’t return the favour and engage in some good, old-fashioned, verbal sparring.  If you want to both maintain your authority and protect the classroom as a safe space where students feel free to share their opinions, you’re going to need to find other ways of deflecting the assault. Personally, I like to try to cut it off before it happens. My infamous 4-inch stilettos help with this (very few people want to mess with a woman wearing 4-inch stilettos, particularly in an environment where other authority figures tend to wear granny shoes). My general demeanor and organized presentation also help put me on firmer footing. But I think the most effective way of warding off snarky responses is simply faking it until you make it.


Intellectuals and professionals routinely end up in situations where we have to act as the authority on something outside our precise field of expertise. When this happens, imposter syndrome sets, especially because we have spent decades learning precisely how little we know about any given phenomenon. The result is that sometimes we can project our anxieties through our body language and tone of voice. But for the love of all that’s holy, if you are standing in front of 150 people, don’t let this happen! Regardless of how half-baked your own opinions might seem to be, formulate an argument and own it. This isn’t to say that you can’t accept legitimate criticism – I’ll get to that in a minute – but anyone who’s a performer or whose job depends on making presentations will tell you that you’re not going to sell the material, no matter how accurate it is, unless it looks and sounds as if you mean business too. This is easier if you remember that getting something wrong will not result in the end of the world. In fact, there’s a good chance that those listening to you talk won’t even notice a minor error. Channel your inner Saturday Night Live, and remind yourself that if you make a mistake: “So what, who cares?”



Unfortunately, however, preventative measures don’t always work. So what do you do if your best sales pitch still doesn’t deter That Guy? There isn’t any one single answer, and honestly, you mostly have to think on your feet, even though every time it happens it’s a bit of a cold, hard, slap in the face. The hardest I was ever hit was my first day of teaching a year-long seminar, ie: that day that sets the tone for the next eight months of your life. We were talking about religion and society in the sixteenth century, and it was going pretty well when we got to the topic of witchcraft. While I was explaining the reasons why early moderns burned witches, someone put up their hand: “Excuse me, but are you justifying the Catholic Church murdering people?!?!” As this is a real story, let me assure you that a simple “that’s not what I mean at all, let me rephrase” won’t cut it if this happens to you. In the moment, I was frustrated and more than a little annoyed. In retrospect, however, I have to applaud the kid who did it. He forced me to explain why anachronism is bad and to flesh out the history. Because I didn’t panic – ok, there was definitely a little internal panicking going on, but I held it together on the outside – I was able to shift the discussion towards something more productive, and the class was given 20 minutes to debate the issue of historical relativism. I guess what I’m trying to say is that even if a student outright accuses you of being a bloodthirsty, un-evolved failure of a human being, it is possible to use that as a teachable moment… you just have to get a little creative.


[She’s a witch!]

There are also other, less abrasive, versions of That Guy. Some interrupt, even in very large classes, to ask about the smallest of details, to offer historical trivia that they feel is important, or to call you out when you mis-speak. Your internal reaction to these people is not going to be great in the moment either, particularly if you are already feeling like an imposter that day. But if you can handle the situation well the first few times, interruptions will become less frequent and you will maintain a better control of the room. If you feel knowledgeable enough, elaborate on why you neglected to mention a particular detail and re-emphasize the narrative. Or, if you mispronounced a term or mis-spoke on an issue, just acknowledge that and explain that your expertise lies elsewhere. Although I wouldn’t do it more than once a week, it is also OK to say you don’t know something. Even better, if you don’t know, but it may be useful information, have students Google it; most classrooms are now wifi equipped and many students have laptops.


Moreover, it’s important to recognize that although it always feels like That Guy is just trying to call you out, sometimes students behave in this manner because a) they’re genuinely engaged and curious or b) they’re autistic or have special needs which cause them to focus on minute details instead of the big picture (that said, autistic students will often wait until after the lecture to quiz you). The more you give people the benefit of the doubt and accept that their behavior may not be hostile, the better your response time and reaction to it. I’ve encountered all sorts of reasons why students might publicly test my knowledge during my time as a teacher. Ultimately, the hardest part of all of this has been not reacting with hostility myself – no matter how confrontational a student might be, I try to remember that respect is my governing pedagogical principle. If you can keep your cool, the rest is easy.


Finally, always remember that whether you have 20 students or 200, you can’t please them all, so some are going to push back and that’s OK. Different people have different tastes and different preferences for learning. I often quiz my students 3 or 4 weeks into the semester and ask them about their favourite and least-favourite readings, activities, or lectures (depending on the class), as well as what I’m doing well and what I’m doing poorly. Without fail, the most beloved and the most detested thing are the same. Actually, I highly recommend offering your students just such an informal survey, both for your own peace of mind and in order to present the inevitably incompatible results to the class later on. When students see that it’s not just the teacher with whom they disagree, but their peers as well, they often become a little more conciliatory.



I’ve pretty much covered my own experiences and ideas about how to respond here, but I’d love to hear from readers about what sorts of seemingly confrontational behavior they’ve encountered, and what strategies they use for diffusing it. It’s a difficult problem, and I’m always open to new approaches!