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loves2hike

TA Problem-- Advice Requested

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Hi all! 

I am a PhD student in the Social Sciences. I am a very experienced GTA as both a TA role and an instructor role. I've taught independently 7 times and TA'd 5 times (2 of those I had independent recitations). I've never had any issues or problems-I've only gotten good reviews previously from both students and profs I've worked for but this term doesn't feel like its going so well. 

This term I was assigned to TA and it has been super weird. The prof isn't giving tests or papers- just using TopHat for some in class assignments and Perusall for readings. All I have to do is make sure grades get put from tophat into blackboard and I originally was supposed to be moderating Perusall/gathering the main themes and e-mailing them to by 8am the morning of class. Simple enough and not a ton of work-- yay and a score for a term where I am trying to finish my comps.

Here's the problem. She has now asked me to 1) not give my assessment or interpretation of the main themes from the students Perusall, just their verbatim quotes because "she doesn't have time and it is too much" ok- so I'll just give her some random out of context quotes...that isn't an issue but--and 2) to no longer engage with the students not just on Perusall but through e-mail, talking, or comments in assignments I grade. Basically, I've been told not to speak to students.  Previously she had wanted me to comment and make sure I answered questions/kept their reading comments on track. 

This came after I redirected a student who went on a rant about illegal immigrants on a reading about housing segregation in the USA- trying to get her to at the minimum use a less offensive term "undocumented" and also to only use facts relevant to the readings- I also provided a couple sources to help educate the situation (she went on a safety net rant) and to redirect the comment thread in that part of the article. The student replied with a crazy reply- I showed the professor the reply and what I could have responded with (a point by point answer) but that I thought it was too long and might be better if she addressed it because the student didn't care what I had to say/wasn't going to listen to it and would probably just be upset if I said anything in response at all. The response I got was what I shared above with the only explanation given being that she wants to set the tone. 

I probably could have handled the first post a little better- been more specific (but I have to wake up at 5am to get these done by 7am when she wants the report and their readings aren't due til 6 so a lot of them do these late at night) so I was quick and brief and kept reading to answer other student questions/make sure everyone was on track and understanding the readings... After I included my concern about some of the somewhat racist posts that happened in the reading to the prof and she was ok with how I had handled it and said she wasn't sure what she wanted to do long term.

I am concerned that 1) she doesn't want me to engage with students and hasn't told me why- it makes me think she thinks I did something way out of line and 2) that she is going to blindside me with something crazy on my eval that will mess me up in my program.

She isn't on my committee/I don't work with her but I am just super confused by the way she is handling the situation because she's just asked me to stop doing things she told me to do as part of my job and didn't communicate why- especially when in one area I asked her to tell me how she would handle it. Everyone in the social sciences knows we deal with these kinds of situations sometimes and they are HARD so it is nice when you are in a TA role to see how they would handle it- just being told to not talk to any students- at all- doesn't feel like helpful or useful feedback. 

Did I do something wrong? How would you guys fix it? I am totally freaking out right now/I don't want this to destroy my reputation in my department so close to finishing and going on the job market/needing recs. 

I'll add I am a POC so I am additionally worried that she thinks I am being over sensitive or something (so much anxiety now- I don't think I am but I think it is an important factor in this given the problem is students racism whether intentional or accidental because of their background). 

Edited by loves2hike

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It is my guess that your professor understands that there are boiling pots on the stove and she has other fish to fry. I think that she's tasking you to keep things from boiling over and not in ways that you'd prefer.

Were I in your situation, I'd attempt to execute her instructions while documenting the steps your taking, and with frequent check ins to make sure you're on the same page. A thing to remember is that it is the professor's class and sometimes a professor makes decisions/judgement calls that are hard to implement and even harder to understand. The fact that what's going on bothers you means that you're not crazy.  The best that you can do is to execute the guidance you've received and to put your personal feelings in a place where you ride the horse and the horse doesn't ride you.

The following may be tough to read. Make no mistake, I didn't enjoy writing it. Please keep in mind that as an aspiring professional academic, it's not your job to fix a student's views on race relations and urban policy and immigration. It is your job to help your students develop their critical thinking skills and communication skills to present the best forms of their arguments, as anachronistic or as controversial as one may find them to be. 

Let your professionalism combined with your dignity and  your compassion as a POC be the beacon that leads your students and your peers to paths of thought that allow the reconsideration of personal viewpoints.

 

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Thanks. I know you are right- I am simply having a hard time knowing that I now cannot at the very least reduce offensive language they are using given the number of Hispanic students in the class who are exposed to it...I know what it is like to go to school and be confronted by racial slurs and have professors do nothing. I think that’s the only reason the professor’s decision to just not have me talk to students at all is killing me since she does not reply to their posts. I handled my reply e-mail to the professor and my outward attitude about it just as you said- professionalism first. As a POC in academia I’ve learned that I will never win here, there are only losses on my part to be had.

I’ll add that you are entirely right about our role. I do not seek to change the students mind, just to explain: 1) Why her language is problematic since it will most likely make a workplace difficult for her down the road- that’s a better lesson to learn in college than out. 2) Challenge her to express her conservative ideas in an accurate way. I am entirely ok with students expressing ideas that align with DT but I challenge them to do so using facts/evidence. When I teach my philosophy is that everyone is welcome to their opinions so long as they can back it up logically with sound evidence AND they do not use language that oppresses or others students of other backgrounds. You are right, however. This is not my class- I just need to be her tool this term and when I teach again I can set this tone/create an inclusive space for all students- I can’t make the professor choose to do that in her classroom. 

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41 minutes ago, loves2hike said:

 As a POC in academia I’ve learned that I will never win here, there are only losses on my part to be had.

You win every day you show up, do your job, and work on your craft. 

While it may be (probably is) too late for this term, going forward you may benefit from putting together a syllabus that includes rules of conduct that borrow attributed passages from your school's code of student conduct. Ideally, you'd get the professor to sign off on it.

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23 hours ago, loves2hike said:

This is not my class- I just need to be her tool this term and when I teach again I can set this tone/create an inclusive space for all students- I can’t make the professor choose to do that in her classroom. 

What allies do you have at the school? Is there a supportive (usually POC) professor to whom you can talk? This is not something you have to go through alone, nor should you, and if you try it will burn you out faster than anything. 
Whether or not this particular case has a good and satisfying resolution (spoilers: it probably does not), use this as an opportunity to explore the kind of support structure you need to deal with this sort of bullshit, and make sure it's in place for the next time.

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7 hours ago, telkanuru said:

What allies do you have at the school? Is there a supportive (usually POC) professor to whom you can talk? This is not something you have to go through alone, nor should you, and if you try it will burn you out faster than anything. 
Whether or not this particular case has a good and satisfying resolution (spoilers: it probably does not), use this as an opportunity to explore the kind of support structure you need to deal with this sort of bullshit, and make sure it's in place for the next time.

We do not have a single POC in our faculty. I know that might be shocking for a Sociology department, but it is in Eastern PNW and I think attracting people to the area is difficult in general. This does, however, mean that I have absolutely nowhere to turn for help. 

I have watched other POC grad students in similar situations try the OEO, Umbuds, the department Chair, and even their own advisors with no positive outcomes for the grad students. In fact I've watched the department run 3 POC students out of the department and it is only my third year (did my MA elsewhere). This is why I say that there's nothing I can do. I am unwilling to put my neck on the line and am really just trying to do damage control. 

Yesterday I spoke to another grad student who has been the profs TA many times and she told me that generally this prof gets first years w/o MAs and has never had another TA who has independently taught before-- so my confidence in my ability to handle anything is probably a nightmare for the prof because the prof is, in the other student's words "extremely controlling and unpredictable" in addition to being "entirely unaware" of her behavior.  My peer also noted that she can't remember another POC student ever working with this faculty member. Ultimately I really wish I had reached out earlier. I made some assumptions from positive things I had heard prior to working with the prof, but if I had asked one of her students I could have avoided a headache/just known to keep my mouth shut. 

And yes, unfortunately in the setting I am the best move for me is to keep my mouth shut and head down I see something wrong. I have no power and no support to make things better-- even when it impacts students of color in the classroom. I want to get my PhD and if I say anything I will be their next target. 

I'll add this is my last semester I'll ever have to TA- I'll only be teaching moving forward (thank god). So I shouldn't have to deal with this kind of mess in the future. 

Edited by loves2hike

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2 hours ago, loves2hike said:

We do not have a single POC in our faculty. I know that might be shocking for a Sociology department,

Not that shocking. You'd have to look outside the department, most likely. 

2 hours ago, loves2hike said:

unfortunately in the setting I am the best move for me is to keep my mouth shut and head down I see something wrong.

I don't disagree, but there are other types of support here, one of which is just not being in this alone.

2 hours ago, loves2hike said:

I'll only be teaching moving forward (thank god). So I shouldn't have to deal with this kind of mess in the future. 

I think this is... very optimistic. There are other ways for similar structures to happen even if you're instructor of record.

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1 hour ago, telkanuru said:

I think this is... very optimistic. There are other ways for similar structures to happen even if you're instructor of record.

I am not blind to the problems that can come up as an instructor of record, I've dealt with some already. I think the difference is that in my own classroom I can at least make sure racial slurs and hate speech aren't used. That might be a small thing, but when you TA for another person that's the kind of thing you can only do if they let you (or at least that's what I've realized this term- I can't imagine anyone else I've ever been a TA for allowing this). 

Also suggesting that finding a POC in an other department suggests that every POC faculty member is going to be open to supporting/mentoring minority grad students from across the university...they are heavily burdened as is and there are so few of them! The reality is that I am in this alone- and other POC grad students will be in this alone until the institutions that are supposed to support and protect us from this kind of behavior (UMBUDS and OEO) stop acting as legal buffers for the university and follow through with their mission in good faith. I have support from the uni where I did my MA, I've talked to my previous advisor and some old committee members and they have all expressed concern but also told me to keep my head down and just try to get through unscathed-- that I'll be stronger for it. So in addition to posting here when I was angry I did reach out to my support group. Unfortunately no one has a good answer beside that it sucks and just to keep my head down for the rest of the term. To me that is sad. 

What I am experiencing is a well documented and, unfortunately, frequent occurrence for POC graduate students across the country- I just am beyond pissed off that it found me and was hopeful someone would have some brilliant solution/miracle story. Also I think it is important to share these kinds of stories so other people know they aren't alone when it happens to them. 

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