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I would like some opinions on this situation:


I'm a phd student/candidate (if you want to be specific) in my last year and was hired as a lab TA at the end of August. The instructor is another phd student/candidate. I found out that I was hired, not via an e-mail from the department or instructor, but from a friend who the instructor was trying to convince to take the job from me. I e-mail the instructor on August 31 asking for the syllabus, as I wanted to know the lab times. I don't get a response until Sept 4, at which I finally get the syllabus and realize that I would be away for 3 of the 10 labs. For two labs, I would be at home for a friend's wedding (flight booked months in advance, flying out on Sept 8), and another lab a month later, where I would be at a conference (also planned/booked months in advance). So as you can see, I get the course timetable about 4 days before I'm set to fly across the country.


So I ask the instructor, who was a lab TA for the course (2 TAs run the labs, but the other TA has class when my labs are going on) for the last 3 years, if he could sub in for me.


I get called in to a meeting, with him and the other TA, where he proceeds to tell me, for about 10 minutes, about how inappropriate and unprofessional it was for me to ask him, the instructor, to cover a TA's lab. He had asked several other people, and his own supervisor, and they all agree that it was inappropriate/unprofessional. He told me that he was really shocked by the request. He also said that I should have, before taking on the job, checked with him to make sure that it was OK for me to leave, and that if it wasn't, I shouldn't have taken the job (i.e. decline the TA ship). He emphasized that he hired/chose me (although the department pays my stipend, and as you can read above, I don't think I was really wanted??). Anyway, I ended up paying $150 to change my flight/bus so I would only miss 2 out of the 10 labs, of which one was the intro lab, the "hello, I am your TA, you can go now" kind.


Today, the instructor spent about 45 minutes with a literal printed list of grievances that he had with me. His major issue was what I mentioned above, that I missed 3 out of 10 labs - I actually only missed 2, but he was really set on me missing 3 (I don't think he believed me in the end when I told him that I changed my travel plans to make it to one of the labs). In addition, he said that I treated him as a phd student rather than my "boss" ... I'm not entirely sure what that meant, but I assume he's referring to him running a lab for me? He had a list of issues (the major one was missing the 2/10 labs), and he said that mostly because that I missed 2/10 labs, he was considering making a formal complaint against me.


So - my questions:

-was I inappropriate for asking the instructor to run a lab session for me?

-should I have declined the TA-ship (and miss out on about $6000), or keep the TA ship but cancel my trips?

-was his behavior appropriate? i.e., the 45 minute talk about how he was "dissatisifed with my performance as a TA"?

-did he have grounds for a formal complaint?

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As to your first question, it would completely depend on how you asked them and how well you knew them as to whether or not it was appropriate. 


If you couldn't make 1/3rd of the schedule classes, I don't see how you could have done a reasonable job of the TAship. Personally, I would have seen if there was another you could take. 


I don't see anything that indicates him talking to you about his dissatisfaction with your performance that wasn't appropriate, but as with your first question, tone and manner is where it would really come into question anyway. 


As to his grounds for a formal complaint- what happened to the labs you skipped? Who covered them? Was that arrangement made and agreed upon well in advance?


I wouldn't let a student pass a lab course if they missed 2 out of 10 sessions. I don't see why it would be any different for a TA. 


It's a completely different matter if you were able to get someone to cover for you without disrupting their schedule, but I'm not sure that was the case here. 


Bottom line, TAing a class is a job that requires 100% attendance. If you can't make some of the sessions, you need to realize you're asking someone for a *huge* favor to cover for you. 2/10 classes at $6k per semester means that you're getting paid ~$1200 for work that they're covering for you on. That's a big favor. Similarly, having someone else cover your classes isn't ideal for your students. If you don't have someone you can ask to cover your classes without too much of an issue, than you really shouldn't take the TA. 


All that said, you're in Canada, and I have no idea what the difference in norms is up there. Some of our regular posters from north of the border might be better able to answer it. 

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"it would completely depend on how you asked them and how well you knew them as to whether or not it was appropriate."


'Would it be possible for you to cover for me?' was how I asked, in an e-mail. I knew this person for about 4 years. We weren't/aren't friends, more co-workers. We do occasionally socialize. We're also in the same program, same status - we're both in our last years.


"If you couldn't make 1/3rd of the schedule classes, I don't see how you could have done a reasonable job of the TAship. Personally, I would have seen if there was another you could take."


By the time I found out about the scheduling conflict, I already signed the contract... I didn't get the class syllabus until afterwards and I was under the assumption that the lab would have been run differently. The lab portion had 3 "topics", where in previous years, 1 TA runs all the sessions for topic 1, and the second runs the sessions for topic 2, and both do topic 3. If It was done that way, as I assumed, I would have had no scheduling conflict. I only found out about each TA getting their own lab section a few days before I left. And when I found out about the scheduling conflict, I offered to change my flight so that I wouldn't miss a third lab-  which I agree, 3 labs out of 10 is really excessive.


"but as with your first question, tone and manner is where it would really come into question anyway"


Yah, that's the really subjective part. I just found it kind of off-putting that he was lecturing me in front of the other TA ... like why couldn't he have done it in private? And I personally would never print out a list of criticisms and lecture a TA. If I had issues with a TA, I'd frame it as "what you can do next time" ... which he didn't do. Even when I asked him what could have been done better, he said "I don't know". So, that's why I felt like the whole conversation was more an ego trip (on his part) rather than a genuine "hey, you messed up .. here's how to do better in the future". I just don't like how he made a big fuss on how he "chose" me out of a pool of suitable candidates, when the way I found out about the TAship was from people in his lab telling me that he was trying to get rid of me =/. How would you approach someone if you weren't happy with their performance? And as well, I think I would have talked to the person during the term and fixed it then.


"As to his grounds for a formal complaint- what happened to the labs you skipped? Who covered them? Was that arrangement made and agreed upon well in advance?"


The other TA ran the first lab I missed, no problem - she was free, and it was a five minute introduction lab. The second one, the instructor covered one, and the other TA covered the other (she only had a scheduling conflict for one session). We made the arragnements before I left, and I marked extra assignments for her (she got the better deal, trust me on that one .. that assignment was so painful to grade)


'It's a completely different matter if you were able to get someone to cover for you without disrupting their schedule, but I'm not sure that was the case here."


I don't think it disrupted the other TA's schedule ... I don't know if it disrupted the instructor's though. He wasn't taking any courses and it wasn't during class time, and he wasn't doing any research. So I don't know.


"2/10 classes at $6k per semester means that you're getting paid ~$1200 for work that they're covering for you on. That's a big favor. Similarly, having someone else cover your classes isn't ideal for your students"


The TA ship makes up part of my stipend and is worth $9500 or something to that effect. If I didn't take it, I'd get minimum funding (which is what my current stipend is with the TA-ship minus around $6000 ... that's why I said that I'd be short $6000). The $9500 covers 260 hours, of which most of it is marking assignments and prep work. The lab itself (of the two that I missed) would equal 6 hours out of 260, which is a bit less from the $1200 that you've calculated. It's more like $230. The first lab I missed was 5 minutes, where you introduce yourself. The second one was an actual lab, where the prep work was already done the prior week.

Edited by sleepyandtired
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I did my undergrad and masters in Canada and during my MSc, I was also the Department Steward for the TA Union at my school. It's hard to really say what is appropriate or not because that really depends on what your school's/department's policies are. Furthermore, most Canadian universities have unionized their TAs so if you have a Collective Agreement, that takes precedence over everything else.


If you'd like, you can PM me details that you might not wanted to share publicly and I might be able to answer some more questions. However, I think your best bet is to find someone local who knows the rules and policies at your school. If you have a union, please find a representative. Otherwise, you can also talk to the Graduate Coordinator or TA Coordinator in your department (usually a prof), someone from your school's Graduate Student Council, or maybe even an ombudsman. If you are worried that the profs will all "gang up" or intimidate student representatives, you might find it reassuring to know that union officers, even though they are students, are protected by the Collective Agreement and will be able to speak to faculty and administrators as equals when it comes to conflict resolution like this.


So, please do talk to someone at your school. If you're not sure what parts of your experience is "normal" at Canadian schools and what isn't, here is some thoughts:


1. The way you were informed of your TA position is VERY abnormal. The department or other University representative (not the other student) should have told you about your job AND you should have signed a contract for the 260 hours. 


2. The Department/University is your boss, NOT the other student (of course, local policies might change this though). Generally, most Canadian schools will view this situation where both you and the other student are employees of the school, but you are just playing different roles. Chances are, you are both part of the same bargaining unit if you are unionized. Although the department might have asked the instructor for his opinion on who they should assign as his TA, the Department is ultimately your boss, not the other student. 


3. It's pretty bad when a TA is unable to make 3/10 lab sessions. However, as you pointed out, it's not a huge number of hours lost because 9 (or 6 now, with your changes) out of 260 hours is a tiny fraction. In addition, in Canada, we spread our classes out through the whole 5 years and also might have to go out of town for research purposes (e.g. conferences), so it's pretty common to have to trade TA sections with someone else. Usually, it's an equal-hour trade so that no one is working for another student's stipend. But 3/10 lab sessions is a bit extreme. However, I think the instructor over-reacted.


4. What SHOULD have happened, in my opinion, was that as soon as you got the lab schedule, you should have asked the instructor to come talk to the faculty (both the prof in charge of the course and the TA coordinators) to set something up. I don't think the instructor has the authority to approve or refuse your request to take the 3 days off because you are employed by the University, NOT by the other student. In a reasonable department, the scheduling of TAs should have happened way earlier (most Collective Agreements would stipulate some deadline) and conflicts like this should have been sorted out before the TA list is finalized. What usually happens is that the TA Coordinator sets up the TA assignments, and they are sent out to the students. Any conflicts (maybe a class is happening at the same time as a TA lab slot) are dealt with and every year, one or two people move around. 


5. As to whether or not you should have taken the TAship -- ultimately, it would have been neglect on your part to take a TAship in a term where you know you will be unavailable for a large while. As Eigen said, TAships are a 100% time commitment, so when you booked the flights home for the wedding, it was your responsibility for immediately informing the department that you are planning to be gone for 2 weeks in September. Same thing with the conference. This would have allowed everyone to properly plan for the circumstances. For example, you might have ended up doing a double TAship next term. Or, you might have been assigned a marking TAship. Or just with advance notice, substitutions could have been made.


6. It should have been okay for you to ask your instructor about covering your shift, but you have to remember that by doing this, you are basically asking him to work your hours while you keep the stipend. The more appropriate thing would be to bring up the time conflict and say that you are working on TRADING shifts with someone, perhaps the instructor has any ideas. You could then suggest that he cover a shift and you take up extra grading (but depending on what his duties were, it might not be possible).


7. As to whether or not it was appropriate for him to criticize you in that manner -- it depends on the policies in place. Most Collective Agreements (and departmental policies) have a set of procedures in place for these events (and they increase in severity as needed, from verbal warnings to formal written complaints on your file). Maybe his 45 minute long list of grievances was just out of frustration, and not according to policy, but everyone is human. Make sure you count that time as "hours worked" though (any meeting regarding the course should count!). However, if you are unionized and if he wants to take steps to a formal complaint, make sure you get to know the procedure. For example, you are probably allowed to have a union representative with you to make sure things are going properly.


8. It's not unusual for a TA to take time off for personal travel or conferences though. I did this a year ago (combined a conference with a honeymoon and missed two weeks). But I told my supervisor months in advance and we worked together to minimize any negative effects. For example, we scheduled assignments around my absences and the prof teaching the course covered the lab (usually both of us are in the lab but the class size is small enough for one person to manage). I made up the hours by doing extra marking for the final projects as well as extra office hours for students who needed help on the projects. But when I brought this topic up, I asked permission for the time off. I didn't have a right to it, but we were able to work something out because of the advance notice. 


So, overall, I think the whole situation is a big problem because of poor communication. The Department didn't let you know about the schedule in a timely manner. However, it does not sound like you let the department know about your constraints so that they would have had a chance to correct it. Of course, you are not obligated to let them know about your personal travel plans, but a mutual respect and cooperation is beneficial for everyone. If you both stick to your rights and the books, that's fine and maybe necessary in some cases, but it's far from ideal. 


Finally -- whether or not you should have taken the TAship. In your position, if it comes down to it, I would have done what you had (except I would have tried to schedule advance notice). I would have accepted whatever consequences that might have came out asking others to cover 6 hours of my TAship for something that was important to me. It's not ideal because it sours relationships and lowers the quality of education, but accepting a TAship (in Canada) is NOT akin to selling your soul. Missing 6 hours out of 260 is usually not significant enough for dismissal (and the term is over so that point is now moot). In addition, even if a formal complaint is filed, it goes in your EMPLOYEE record, not your STUDENT record (most schools will distinguish between this). Any notes in your employee records are deleted after X months (usually 12 or 24) and everything in your employee record is wiped out Y months after graduation (usually 12). Of course, check your policies, but these are the usual terms I see in Collective Agreements and other school policies.


I take great pride in doing a good job of TAing and I really think that teaching is a vital part of being an academic. I try to do my job with 100% effort and commitment, sometimes going over the number of paid hours by a little bit too. However, no job would take precedent over important personal matters, and if the Department was not willing to be reasonable about the scheduling (i.e. if they had advance notice), then I would have followed your course of action.

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