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Grad School Politics in Assigning Course Sections


wildviolet
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*Disclaimer* I'm not sure if this post should go in this forum or the TA forum.

Anyway, during the past summer (and in my official assistantship letter), I was *promised* a 1/4 time RA position with my advisor and a 1/4 time TA position (this is for both semesters). I found out today (by my own sleuthing, not by the faculty member in charge of the TA position) that the TA position is in limbo because I was not assigned my original preference. The TA position in the spring involves travel and because I am a single mom of two elementary-school aged kids, I preferred to stay close to the university.

There are four TA positions close to the university--two of the course sections are being taught by faculty and two are being taught by long-time instructors (one instructor is a second-year grad student). The rest of the sections are in a city that is about a 1.5-hour drive away from the university. I don't see why they couldn't switch me with one of them. Do you think they assigned me to a position that I don't prefer (for what I see as good reason) because I'm a first-year doctoral student and obviously at the bottom of the pecking order?

However, there's one more piece to the puzzle--I learned in October that the Graduate School gave me an assistantship award that pays for my assistantships for this year (i.e., my advisor doesn't have to pay my salary out of his grants and the college doesn't have to pay me for teaching out of their funds).

So, my question is... what leverage do I have to say that if they can't give me my preferred TA course section, that I would rather not teach and perhaps do two 1/4 time research assistantships? How do you think politics plays into this?

My advisor has been fairly supportive so far, but I can't say how he'll advocate (or not) for me. He's out of town tomorrow, so this may not be resolved until Thursday or Friday.

Edited by wildviolet
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I am not sure where there are "politics" involved? I imagine that no one wanted to make the 1.5 hour drive, for the very good reason that it is a 1.5 hour drive. You, as you point out, are on the bottom of the seniority ladder in this case. That seems fairly clear-cut and not like any kind of personal animosity is in play.

I think requesting to swap out another quarter-time RA ship, or convert your quarter-time into a half-time position (that could be funky with funding, though if the school's covering it I imagine it could work) is a good place to start.

Edited by Sparky
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Well, there are other faculty assigned to this far away position, so I'm not sure what the politics are involved in terms of who gets preference. I also asked about politics because my faculty supervisor for the TA position didn't come to me to discuss it. I had to go to her. So, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I assume that she was trying to advocate on my behalf and was perhaps trying to work things out before coming to me since she knew my preference--I know some things are out of her control, too.

I think it's interesting how department politics works in terms of who gets what and why.

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I still don't see how that's politics--it seems pretty standard. They ask for preferences, make assignments, not everyone gets their first choice. That's how it works here, and they've certainly never consulted us for second pickings. I just don't see how there is room to see this situation as you being targeted in any way.

...They'll probably tell us our spring TA assignments sometime in January. If I get my first or second choice for which class, it will be the first time in four semesters (once they didn't even ask us our preferences!).

(I wouldn't be so quick to judge things based on faculty traveling to the far campus. Rotational teaching can be a required part of departmental service, required or "optional").

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Our grad students get no choice, at all, over what they TA. Even their PI's have almost no say.

And the same is true in most departments for teaching loads for faculty- they're largely assigned by the department chair.

The only time I've seen anyone successfully get a specific TA is by going and have a sit-down meeting with the department chair, and that was when it was one of his students. And it still only worked 1 out of 3 semesters.

It's not politics, it's about logistics. Balancing a large number of people with a large number of responsibilities and fitting them into course slots that work best for everyone, as a whole.

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I agree that logistics is a huge part of the process, but I also think that politics plays an important role (what we're learning in our intro to educational history course is that everything is political in the sense of who has the power and authority to make decisions and how those decisions are influenced by values, beliefs, and social relationships).

Anyway, I think the culture in our department is to ask students what they would like to teach and to try to accommodate those preferences. I'm sure some students have been simply told what and when they will teach, but I was actually asked for my preferences in terms of location and courses, which is why I'm a little miffed now. The implication, it seems, is that I need to temper my expectations.

Eigen--thanks for pointing out that most TAs don't have any voice in the process. It probably explains why most of my TAs in undergrad were so unhappy--particularly the physics TAs who had to teach the lab sections at 8 AM on Friday mornings.

Also, I just want to clarify, Sparky, that I don't feel as if I'm being targeted in any way. As a woman in academia, however, I feel that I have to advocate for myself in whatever ways I can. The implicit bias against women and minorities in academia (and our society) continues to be a significant issue that we all should address explicitly.

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Anyway, I think the culture in our department is to ask students what they would like to teach and to try to accommodate those preferences. I'm sure some students have been simply told what and when they will teach, but I was actually asked for my preferences in terms of location and courses, which is why I'm a little miffed now. The implication, it seems, is that I need to temper my expectations.

It's great that they ask for your preferences and hopefully you'll actually get your first choice when you're more senior but I still entirely fail to see how your not getting your top choice is anything other than a simple fact of life - you're junior and other people's requests trumped yours. I don't see how your being a woman or minority is related, unless you can point out a general tendency to grant white males' requests before other people's, regardless of seniority and other legitimate factors.

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It's great that they ask for your preferences and hopefully you'll actually get your first choice when you're more senior but I still entirely fail to see how your not getting your top choice is anything other than a simple fact of life - you're junior and other people's requests trumped yours. I don't see how your being a woman or minority is related, unless you can point out a general tendency to grant white males' requests before other people's, regardless of seniority and other legitimate factors.

The assumption is that seniority and faculty vs. grad student status determines course assignment, but I have no evidence that this is how they actually assign the course sections. In my limited experience thus far in this department, I was able to select the exact day and time. My mistake was to expect the same flexibility the second time around. Also, I don't see why one cannot at least challenge what some may consider to be the simple facts of life.

My reference to being a woman and a minority was made as a broader statement about how race, ethnicity, and gender influence real life in academia, such as hiring, salary, and performance evaluations. The way I see it, I can either shut up and accept my lot or voice my concerns. I find it interesting that my faculty supervisor didn't come to me with this issue--I had to go to her when I didn't see my name listed in the online course schedule. So I wonder what background dealings or discussions were/are going on.

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It's great that you got your first choice preference in the past, but I still fail to see how not getting it now is the result of some kind of politics. I also don't understand why you're making such a big deal out of not being asked or told before you were assigned a less preferred course. At the end of the day you're a first-year student and no one needs to get your permission to make TA assignments. I also don't think that ascribing this result to being a woman or a minority is particularly helpful. Indeed, there are many ways in which women and minorities have a harder time than white males in academia (and everywhere else) but you've yet to give me a reason to see this as an instance of discrimination.

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Two minor points:

1. My supervisor has no interest in or influence over my TA assignments. It's all done by administrators. Norms at other places might differ but I wouldn't get him involved in a TA dispute.

2. I'd be irritated if having kids trumped other concerns (e.g., seniority). It gets dicey when some people's personal lives (e.g., kids) are given priority over others (e.g., seeing my partner, watching TV with wine). It's not the TA-assigners job to make those kinds of judgments.

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I did mention that I have kids and that is specifically why I got my preference the first time around. I came to this school because it has a family-friendly culture in terms of how they treat their graduate students. I confirmed this before I decided to accept their offer of admission.

In the College of Education, the average age is about 30. This is probably a result of the requirement that doctoral students have experience teaching in K-12 schools. Many of us have been public school teachers, administrators, etc. So, lots of students, both male and female, have young children. Some people even have babies while they are in grad school. It seems as if the people who have posted here so far are either in fields or schools where it is not the norm for family/personal issues to be considered.

As far as Lewin00's points:

1. The decision to involve my advisor was made by my faculty supervisor. Here, our advisors work closely with us in deciding all aspects of graduate school, including RA and TA assignments. We're not a cutthroat institution where only the best can make it. The faculty here really try their best to support us in many ways.

2. In education we discuss the idea of equity a lot. Equity does not mean equality. Different students should not receive the same treatment. To treat everybody the same is to ignore their individual backgrounds, experiences, and situations. I think I should be treated differently because I have kids. My department must think so also because my TA assignment is still up in the air. If they were not considering it, they would have just told me my TA assignment outright and been done with it.

I think the opinions expressed on this thread so far are definitely a reflection of personal ideologies but also institutional practices. I like to think that I've joined a department, for the next 5 years of my life, that values graduate students as colleagues-in-training rather than low-paid-workers.

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wildviolet, I'm going to go against the grain on this. Honestly, departmental politics often plays a role in TA assignments. I'm a fifth year PhD student. I haven't gotten a TA assignment in my top three preferences at all. And it can't be a seniority issue because, I'm one of the most senior students around at this point and I *still* get assigned to things that I don't want and don't even list when given an option. Why? Because in my department, it's all about who the graduate program administrator likes. People sidle up to her and get assignments before the courses being offered for the upcoming semester are even announced. In that case, they even get to set the day and time! So yea, it's not always seniority and often other departmental things play a role, whether its logistics, personality, or other factors that you may not ever be privy to.

That said, if the Graduate School is paying your salary, then you should leverage that into getting a position that offers you the most benefit. I see little need to kow-tow to the department's whims since it's not coming out of their budget. I would make it clear that the position being offered is one that you absolutely cannot take (don't even tell them why) and that another option needs to be made available, whether that's more hours on your existing RA, a new 1/4 time RA, or a different 1/4 TA position. And hold firm. Seriously. (I say this because I used to have a position like the one you're in and I did use that to get a position that worked for me and helped me advance my career.) But, you know, do it without burning any bridges.

2. "I think I should be treated differently because I have kids." We can agree to disagree :)

Why not? At least in my experience, faculty with kids are allowed--and even encouraged--to schedule their teaching so that they can leave campus by 5pm or even earlier. They don't teach graduate seminars or undergraduate courses in the late afternoon or evening. Those classes are taught by grad students, adjuncts, or the childless faculty.

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Why not? At least in my experience, faculty with kids are allowed--and even encouraged--to schedule their teaching so that they can leave campus by 5pm or even earlier. They don't teach graduate seminars or undergraduate courses in the late afternoon or evening. Those classes are taught by grad students, adjuncts, or the childless faculty.

Because I disagree that some aspect of one person's personal life (i.e., kids) should take priority over some aspect of another's (i.e., anything else). Favouring parents is not a neutral decision; it creates real costs for non-parents (e.g., the people now burdened with a 90 minute commute to their TA) who are, essentially, subsidizing someone else's decision to have children. Less applicable for academics, but I recently read an article arguing that parents should get priority for having holidays off. But wouldn't non-parents like to spend holidays with relatives too?

Mostly, I just want organizations with these policies to be aware of the consequences and make decisions in an informed way, not just make the assumption that "because I have kids" is an excuse that should be accepted without question. And I want parents to acknowledge that their kids don't necessarily have the same priority for me as they do for you, and that's not selfish or wrong somehow.

"[Evening] classes are taught by grad students, adjuncts, or the childless faculty." I totally support the first two groups from that list teaching all the evening classes. And there are ways to accomplish the same goal without explicitly favouring one group, such as paying mileage or a shift premium. If evening classes pay more, some people will choose that of their own accord.

(As an aside, on this issue, I do find myself sympathetic to arguments that by not favoring parents we're unintentionally harming women and contributing to gender imbalances.)

ETA: tldr: Parents spending time with their kids isn't more important than me spending time with my dog, or anything else I want to do.

Edited by lewin00
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I have to side with Lewin on this.

I'm sympathetic to those who have kids and have tough teaching assignments, but there's a difference between being sympathetic and having to take the less-optimal assignments because of them.

Children, like many other things you take on in life are a choice. If my wife and I are choosing to spend our time and efforts on something other than having kids, it's not fair to me to have to "cover" for someone else who made the opposite choice.

In this case, I shouldn't have to be the one to drive 90 minutes just because I don't have kids and someone else does. And when I have kids, I wouldn't expect someone else to make that drive for me just because I have kids.

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And when I have kids, I wouldn't expect someone else to make that drive for me just because I have kids.

It's easy to say that now (I say this as someone who is constantly surprised by how I thought parenting was going to be versus what parenting actually is). Anyway, I don't expect someone else to make the drive for me. No one is doing anything for me. The department will find somebody for this position, whether it's another graduate student or an adjunct instructor (many of whom are retired teachers in our case).

Well, I have a partial resolution to share...

My advisor and faculty supervisor did advocate for me with the department chair, and I don't have to teach this assignment. Instead, I'm doing two RAs. The reason this became an issue in the first place was that a junior faculty member bumped me out of the course section that I was supposed to teach--ironically, now I will most likely be doing my second RA with her. She's fantastic, and I'm looking forward to working with her on her new project. But, even she confided to me that it was a sticky political situation and that a lot of backroom dealings were going on.

I feel very lucky to be here (but then again I did my research before coming to this university).

Thanks for sharing, rising_star! I thought I was going crazy insisting that department politics does in fact play a role. Lucky for me, my advisor has a huge amount of social capital in this department (within certain university policy limits).

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Actually, I'm very aware of how much time parenting takes up. But that's why we've decided not to have kids until we feel like we have the time to take care of them.

And I don't know how you would look at someone else getting shuffled into a TA position with a long drive while you get one on the main campus as anything other than someone else covering for you, especially if the only reason it happened is because you have kids.

That said, I'm glad to hear the issue was resolved.

Also, I wanted to comment on this:

Why not? At least in my experience, faculty with kids are allowed--and even encouraged--to schedule their teaching so that they can leave campus by 5pm or even earlier. They don't teach graduate seminars or undergraduate courses in the late afternoon or evening. Those classes are taught by grad students, adjuncts, or the childless faculty.

In my experience, this is usually counterbalanced by said faculty taking classes at another time. That's a different situation than someone getting to teach a class on campus, and someone else being forced to make the long drive to a satellite campus. Most of our faculty with kids take the early classes, and the childless faculty take evening classes. No one really wants to do either, so it works out well all around.

There's a difference between splitting up unpopular tasks to best fit everyone and giving broadly unpopular tasks (long drive) to someone childless over someone with children.

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Actually, I'm very aware of how much time parenting takes up. But that's why we've decided not to have kids until we feel like we have the time to take care of them.

And I don't know how you would look at someone else getting shuffled into a TA position with a long drive while you get one on the main campus as anything other than someone else covering for you, especially if the only reason it happened is because you have kids.

There's a difference between splitting up unpopular tasks to best fit everyone and giving broadly unpopular tasks (long drive) to someone childless over someone with children.

Good luck with the first one! Seriously. Parenting nowadays is crazy, scary, and rewarding all at the same time, and I have two fairly easy-going and "good" kids. The people I know who seem to have the best time with it have extended family around to help.

My department needs people to teach their course sections. I don't think anybody is "covering" for me--it doesn't matter that I was originally assigned to teach it. Right now fifth-years are waiting to hear if they've received a dissertation completion fellowship for the spring semester, in which case they will no longer teach and the department will then need to find instructors to teach those sections. Do you consider that covering?

Some international students in my department barely even teach and they receive the same stipend I do (usually because their spoken English isn't comprehensible enough). They "shadow" another instructor (i.e., sit in on the class). Is that fair?

The far away location is not necessarily undesirable. Many instructors and grad students live an hour or more away (mostly locals in the PhD program), so they may actually live closer to the other location. The issue is that it's a problem for ME because I live practically next to the university, and I have two kids. It's unreasonable to expect me to travel just like any other grad student or instructor. Context matters.

Edited by wildviolet
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The far away location is not necessarily undesirable. Many instructors and grad students live an hour or more away (mostly locals in the PhD program), so they may actually live closer to the other location. The issue is that it's a problem for ME because I live practically next to the university, and I have two kids.

Fixed that for you. If other people prefer the other TA because of its location then it should be easy to switch without using children as the reason. But now you're equivocating. Your original post said: "...because I am a single mom of two elementary-school aged kids, I preferred to stay close to the university." It's unreasonable to expect someone else to travel if the sole reason is that you have kids and don't want to travel yourself.

And nobody was suggesting you shouldn't decline the TA if that choice works better for you. (I'm glad you're getting the RA's instead!) The option to decline a TA should be open to anyone regardless of reason. But if you're arguing that you deserve a local TA (which unarguably means that somebody else needs to take the far one) because of children, I don't accept that reason.

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I have to say that the rest of you must be in idyllic departments where departmental politics don't come into play and the childless faculty and grad students don't sometimes get the shaft. Seriously. All sorts of preferences are given to people with children, whether you know it or not. That's just how things work. That said, I have seen that as a grad student without children, my personal needs are not always taken into account. Does that mean I resent those with kids? Maybe a little. But, I'd resent them less if they didn't make excuses semester after semester. Everyone has to take one for the team, at least once or twice.

To clarify, my earlier comment, I want to be clear that in my department, the faculty with children basically only teach in the middle of the day, such that they can either drop off or pick up their kids from school. And, this leads to a complete clusterfuck when it comes to grad students because their grad seminars often overlap with our large undergraduate courses that the grad students are TAs for. It's sorta difficult to both sit in on a lecture and attend a seminar simultaneously, you know? But I'm the first to admit that my department isn't super progressive and totally plays favorites, as many people are aware.

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Oh, I'm not saying that isn't how it happens. I'm saying that isn't how it *should* happen.

I know cozying up to the department chair will get you a better TA assignment, a better office, your favorite beer at department seminars, etc.

I know childless people end up with the short end of the stick more often than not. But I usually see there being at least some give and take where those with children try to take on some extra responsibilities mid-day when they "have the time".

I was commenting that I don't think it's fair when that happens, nor do I think the accommodations should be so one sided.

I actually don't see anyone in this thread saying department politics don't happen... Just that they didn't see direct evidence of that happening in the OPs case.

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But if you're arguing that you deserve a local TA (which unarguably means that somebody else needs to take the far one) because of children, I don't accept that reason.

I'm glad you're not my department administrator. :blink:

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So you think that, because of a factor that is completely external to your job, you should be given preferential assignment? That you shouldn't have to be the one to drive 90 minutes simply because you have chosen to have children at this stage of your career, but someone else should have to because they haven't?

That really doesn't make sense to me.

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