Let’s Acknowledge that Managing TAs is Graduate Teaching

Published on: 29 Jul 2019

By Danielle Kinsey

I sat down to write about the hows of TA management, but quickly realized that the discussion can’t begin until we acknowledge a simple fact that would upset the metrics of teaching credit, program outcomes, and instructor remuneration operating in the Canadian academy today: working with a TA in your course is graduate teaching. It just is.

I did my PhD at a Big Ten school in the US. The year I started, the department hired two new Tenure-Track professors to, among other things, teach the big European surveys. In addition to being stellar researchers, both had had previous careers as stage performers–one as an actor, the other as a ballet dancer—and I’m certain they had to draw on every ounce of their performance training to deliver these monster courses. Class sizes approached a thousand students and featured a dozen TAs, all of whom led two or three discussion sections. The instructors were untenured professors; it was on them to make what might be characterized as a pedagogically-specious situation work. They, not the system, would be blamed if it didn’t. And they worked to make it work: TAs were prepped every week, classroom strategies were discussed, innovative assessments were formulated, and—because these professors were generous and kind—space was given for debating current and alternate course design.

Now that I think about it, this ongoing TA management constituted a practical graduate seminar on teaching , both in terms of modelling pedagogy and face-to-face instruction. I’m also pretty sure that no one got credit for this teaching or learning, except maybe the designated TA mentors here and there who taught fewer discussion sections in exchange for being the head of their cohort. But let’s acknowledge this TA management for what it was: graduate teaching of the now-coveted experiential, workplace-training kind. Whether as full-time professors, contract instructors, or “alt-academic” folks, many of the people I know who went through that program regularly teach courses and, I suspect, draw from the instruction they received as TAs.    

At my current institution, (and I’ve heard anecdotally that this holds for other institutions) TA management is all just a giant grey area of awkwardness. Teaching people to teach history, or at least assess undergraduate work, is – unbelievably -- not one of the learning outcomes of the graduate program. If it were, we might have to be a little more systematic and conscientious about how we teach these skills and graduate students might have to undergo formal assessment of their skill acquisition. Contract instructors do not get paid more to take on a fleet of TAs, so it’s unfair to expect them to invest a bunch of time in instructing graduate students. Full-time instructors don’t get credit for graduate teaching when they do invest time in working with their TAs, but teaching evaluations indirectly assess how well a course, including its TA component, hangs together; if that work isn’t done, instructor evaluations will reflect it. There are some who take a very hands-on approach to managing their TAs, while others work to sideline them as much as possible because it is a lot of work to fully integrate TAs. And each TA is different. So figuring out how to work with them in any given moment for any given course is definitely not a “one-size fits all” situation. 

This is not a new problem. The CHA website continues to feature the “Research Guide for Teaching and Marking Assistants in History,” which is a 2009 revision of a 2002 revision of the 1992 original. The guide was designed to instruct TAs on how to TA when their TA supervisors weren’t doing that. As the guide states, “Despite the pivotal role that TAs play at the undergraduate level, universities spend little time preparing them for their teaching duties. On many campuses, one-day generic seminars often constitute the only training a teaching assistant will receive before he or she steps into a lecture theatre or seminar. In recent years, however, universities, professional organisations, and individual instructors have sought to build upon the teaching experience of graduate students by offering workshops, pamphlets, websites, and seminars that seek to impart pedagogical skills to future faculty.” The guide, itself, was written to be one of these (out)sources and includes a section on questions the TA should ask their course director -- like, “are you responsible for making up assignments?” Other sections give advice on how to prepare lectures, lead discussions, deal with disruptive students, and assess student participation and writing. 

I’m not going to knock the guide because it contains lots of useful information and I’d recommend it for both instructors and TAs to sharpen their thinking on teaching and learning. But, the time is up for outsourcing this kind of support, expecting TAs to gain pedagogical knowledge on their own, and refusing to acknowledge the teaching that goes into managing TAs. As both undergraduate and graduate programs become rationalized through the metrics of assessment, we will have to face the gap between what we teach our graduate students and what we expect them to know and be able to do. Part of that reckoning will require acknowledgement of just how much labour goes into TA management. The other side of that coin will be to acknowledge just how much labour TAs do in our undergraduate programs and figure out ways to make the whole endeavour as non-exploitative, supportive, and enriching as possible.

I certainly don’t know how to solve this situation. But, as the cliché goes, admitting that there is a problem might be the first step. Acknowledging that we have a lot to think about when it comes to teaching graduate students, period, is probably an even more crucial first step. The TA management issue brings that to the fore in immediate ways, revealing the intersection of pedagogy, disciplinarity, and the dollars-and-cents realities of how universities operate.

Instructors: what do TAs mean to you? TAs: what does TAing mean to you? Let us have it in 800 words or less! Or, what are your experiences as a TA manager or a TA? What are your experiences with the CHA’s “Research Guide for Teaching and Marking Assistants in History”? Please feel free to get in touch with me at Danielle.Kinsey@carleton.ca to write your own post about this for our CHA Teaching and Learning blog.


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