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?


One thought on “Codes of Conduct II: A Code for TAs and Myself

  1. Pingback: Life of an Undergraduate Biology Teaching Assistant | MSG

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