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Gender trouble as a TA


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I'm an advanced PhD student and have had several semesters of TAing under my belt. I'm one of the lucky ones in that I've only been assigned to teach courses in my general wheelhouse with content about which I feel confident and can speak with authority. As more time passes, however, I'm becoming less secure and way more hyper-aware of my authority in the classroom. It doesn't help that I'm female, five feet tall, and still get carded on a regular basis. 

I've begun to notice in particular that students challenge my grading exponentially more than the other male TAs teaching the class. I'm actually kind of impressed by how much of their own free time they spend trying to put me in my place, explaining why they're right and I'm wrong, or that they know how the professor would have wanted this essay graded and that they're certain I've failed to meet that professor's expectations. Hm...maybe they should tell the professor. It seems like something they would want to know... (Not true. The professor meets with the TAs weekly and grades a handful of assignments with us together so that our expectations and averages are uniform. I know we're all grading the same way, but my co-workers don't get all this flack.)

Up until now, I've been content to base my authority sort of indirectly on what I know, the detailed feedback I give them on their work, and my enthusiasm for the material. Unless I feel it's really justified, I don't budge on the original grades I've given. But I feel like most of my job now is justifying myself to them, being on the defensive about why I took off a point, even if I already explained it once. I try to be transparent about grading and will give speeches to the class about what sets an A paper apart from an A-, etc. etc., half because that's a valuable thing for them to know and half because I want to stave off their challenges before they start, but it doesn't seem to change much.

I really love(d) teaching, so I'm extra sad that I'm starting to think of my students as my adversaries. Maybe I'm just unlucky and got all the jerks, but I think it has to do with some factors that are out of my control. 

Has anyone ever dealt with something like this? How have you navigated it? Is it just par for the course? Certainly it is to some extent, but is there some strategy I haven't thought of?

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I'm sorry you have to deal with this. I have heard similar stories from other women TAs too so you are not alone. I don't have direct experience in the same way so I can't give personalized advice, but we do cover this a little bit in our TA training. There are some strategies that we have discussed for students challenging us on grades:

1. Don't be defensive. That is, you don't need to feel that you need to justify yourself to the student. In fact, the student has to justify to you why they deserved more credit. If you don't think their argument is valid, I think it's fine for you to just say, "No, I disagree." You don't have to explain why they are wrong. The process should be that the student makes the appeal and then you determine whether the appeal is worthy.

2. Transparent grading methods work well, but it sounds like you have already done this and it sounds like it doesn't help the gendered reaction you get. I like using a rubric and then just marking off which criteria scored at which level. I make sure that the rubric is worded in a way that clearly demonstrates expectations but also leaves room for subjectivity for me.

For example, one criteria could be for "showing work" and the levels could be

full points: "Each step follows clearly and logically from the previous.";
half points: "Some steps require the reader to do some extra math to go to the next step.";
no points: "Most steps are not related to each other."

With a rubric like that, the student know that they must explain each of their steps to get full points, but you are still the final arbiter on what counts as "clearly and logically". They can disagree with you on what it means, but it doesn't matter for their grade, because you are the grader, not them.

3. Find allies and help in your other TAs and the professor. Sometimes, especially those who have never experienced this before, are oblivious to the fact that this even happens. But if you let the others know what's happening, they can make sure to not do things that will undermine your authority, and they can also back you up when necessary. One potential path is to let the professor know about this beforehand, and if students still disagree with you after #1 and #2 then tell them they can take it to the professor. You'll let the professor know they are coming and since the professor knows about this problem, the professor can just back you up and support your decision. 

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Yeah, it sucks, and this happens far more often than it should. I know it's hard not to get jaded and think of everyone as jerks, but the jerks are really the minority. They are loud and take up more than their fair share of your time, but they are still the minority. Most students are decent and are there to learn, and it helps to remember that. If it's any consolation, with time you won't look as young and you will learn to sound more authoritative. You'll also stop being the TA and start being the instructor of record, and eventually the jerks will back off because the power differential will be large enough that even they can see it. 

Will the lead instructor back you up? When I am lead instructor I make it clear to my TAs that they do not have to deal with any crap. If someone is giving them trouble, they should immediately direct them to me and I will take care of it. Will your professor do the same for you? If so, your best policy is to send complainers to the professor. Since you're doing a good job grading and you know you're not wrong, if he constantly gets unsubstantiated reports about you, at least someone will know about it, and hopefully he will protect you from the guys who are stirring up the shit. I don't even think you need to "warn" him ahead of time except perhaps before the first time you do it. I would bet that will take care of at least some of the complaints right there, because they might feel like they can bully you, but they won't want to take it any further than that. And those who think they can get you in trouble will hopefully be very wrong about that and will be put in their place. If you don't have your professor's support then it's much harder to deal with, and my own (unfortunate) experience is that it's then not worth the fight. Give them what they want and minimize the damage, and hope that you never have to work with that professor again. (And I say this as someone who didn't follow this advice (well, wasn't given this advice and didn't know any better) and did fight, and lost in a way that still upsets me now, nearly a decade later.)

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Thank you both so much for your very thoughtful responses!

I love the idea of rubrics and have done well with them before. This is something I can bring up with the lead instructor and fellow TAs so that we're on the same page, and something that I'll definitely implement when I'm teaching my own courses. 

I do feel assured that the professors have got my back. I'm in the habit of forwarding these complaints to them, even after I've responded to them myself, just to keep them informed  in case the student decides to appeal it up. I usually get commiseration or assurance that I've responded well, and most of the time the student never follows through. I also like the idea of inviting them to take it to the professor. It's a subtle way of letting them know that the professor is my advocate and not a card to play against me.

I think the basic problem is that I chose to prioritize creating a space for tossing around ideas and testing out interpretations at the expense of being more authoritarian.  If someone throws out a sloppy reading, or something from left field, my impulse is to have the class keep working through it, measure it against the evidence, work their way toward something more sound. Basically, I want them to feel like they can get there on their own and use the time in discussion to model how that's done. (I'm in Bible, so most of the discussions I lead are text and interpretation based.)  I do always try to be clear that some interpretations are stronger and more accountable to the evidence than others, or that almost everything is more complex than meets the eye and that solid arguments really do need to be laid, but I can definitely see how all this might make them feel empowered in the wrong ways, if they're inclined toward that kind of thing. I should probably rethink this, or find some better compromise, or maybe accept that I'm not in the position just yet to be this kind of pedagogue. Thinking in terms of gender, I may not be able to afford this approach if I need to be that much more conscious and intentional about staking out my authority in the classroom.

 

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Yes, I get it. It happens a fair amount when I TA: my students are often applying to med school (and care about their GPA) or this is the first course where they are being challenged and getting lower grades than they are used to ("I'm an A student. Why aren't I getting an A in this class?"). 

Some of my strategies:

  • Name-dropping the professor. "Oh, Prof X specifically told us that if the student didn't show __ to only give them a B+" "Prof X grades several of the essays with the TAs every week." That's a great way of shutting down students who are threatening to escalate. 
  • Telling the student to go and discuss it with the professor if they're still arguing in circles with you. "Look, I've explained this several times. If aren't happy with my explanation then I suggest you take it up with Prof X." If you're the one who brings in the idea of escalation, the students know it isn't something you feel threatened by.
  • Stopping the argument if it goes in circles too many times. Just tell them that the discussion is closed. Don't indulge an argument for longer than useful.
  • Thinking when I grade. Does this fit the rubric? If a student came back and argued about my grading, how would I justify myself? It makes me more confident in my decisions and ensures I've preformed my arguments before the student has seen their paper.

From my experience, students only argue with me about grades once. When they see that I'm not the kind of person who budges they tend to knock it off, or at least refrain from arguing so doggedly next time. If students are repeatedly coming back at you to argue about every single assignment, then there may be an issue with how you're presenting yourself to them. Or they're just obnoxious sexist jerks. Those exist.

 

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6 hours ago, EndlessAshley said:

I think the basic problem is that I chose to prioritize creating a space for tossing around ideas and testing out interpretations at the expense of being more authoritarian.  If someone throws out a sloppy reading, or something from left field, my impulse is to have the class keep working through it, measure it against the evidence, work their way toward something more sound. Basically, I want them to feel like they can get there on their own and use the time in discussion to model how that's done. (I'm in Bible, so most of the discussions I lead are text and interpretation based.)  I do always try to be clear that some interpretations are stronger and more accountable to the evidence than others, or that almost everything is more complex than meets the eye and that solid arguments really do need to be laid, but I can definitely see how all this might make them feel empowered in the wrong ways, if they're inclined toward that kind of thing. I should probably rethink this, or find some better compromise, or maybe accept that I'm not in the position just yet to be this kind of pedagogue. Thinking in terms of gender, I may not be able to afford this approach if I need to be that much more conscious and intentional about staking out my authority in the classroom.

EndlessAshley, please don't alter your teaching approach because of a handful of bad students. Think about it this way: if you were to list all the positive and negative comments you receive from students in columns, would there be more things in the positive column or the negative column? That said, you probably need to do more meta-teaching, by which I mean you probably need to explain to students what you're prioritizing in the classroom and why so they can understand it, especially if they are underclassmen. Students may not be used to classrooms where they can toss around ideas and work through interpretations so you need to make it clear that this is what you want, that evidence matters for enhancing the credibility of one's interpretations, etc. There's really nothing wrong with your approach so you just need to do a better job with the messaging of this approach when you're talking to students in the classroom. Also, depending on the kind of job you went after the PhD, that approach may be obligatory for getting a job so, I wouldn't throw it away because of a few sour apples.

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I've never dealt with this much until this semester as an adjunct instructor. I have worked in the past as a TA, even as a full-time instructor at other schools, and this is really just starting to rear its ugly head now. When I was a TA, my faculty mentor told us that if we are female, unfortunately, we will likely have to work harder to keep order in the classroom and to command respect from tough students. I believe this is true. My first strategy to combat this is to always show up looking like a professional. Some people would disagree with this advice, but I try to always dress at least a level higher than my students seem to, and I always wear makeup and style my hair. These simple strategies do go a long way. (I'm 5'4", 30 years old, and recently I was asked by a student if I just graduated from undergrad -- insert eye roll here). Secondly, it's always better to start off the semester by being strict and you can always loosen the reins as the semester goes on. Third, if a student questions my authority, I always let them know that they have an avenue to air grievances with the administration. However, I try to always make sure that I am being fair and offering clear instruction before using this backing. It makes me feel safe knowing that I have my bases covered and that they have someone to complain to in a way that they feel as though they are receiving fair consideration (not that I don't give them fair consideration, but sometimes they need to hear the hard truth from an unrelated party). Finally, when all else fails, commit to having confidence in yourself. If you know you are doing the right thing, ultimately that is all that you can do. Good luck!

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I'm a female graduate student under 30 who has never been challenged about grades or harassed by students in my classes, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm in the minority ... most of the other women in my program report things like this and I wonder why it's never happened to me. I don't dress particularly nice (I often wear jeans and T-shirts), and I'm wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that I'm quite tall, as it's the only factor I can think of that sets me apart from those who've reported difficulties. I'm one of those people who never get carded and was thought to be my real age or older throughout my teens, so maybe the height and the saunter scare people? Any other tall ladies had this experience?

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2 hours ago, maelia8 said:

I'm a female graduate student under 30 who has never been challenged about grades or harassed by students in my classes, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm in the minority ... most of the other women in my program report things like this and I wonder why it's never happened to me. I don't dress particularly nice (I often wear jeans and T-shirts), and I'm wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that I'm quite tall, as it's the only factor I can think of that sets me apart from those who've reported difficulties. I'm one of those people who never get carded and was thought to be my real age or older throughout my teens, so maybe the height and the saunter scare people? Any other tall ladies had this experience?

Interesting. I once got in the "comments and suggestions for improvement" section of a end of year teaching survey this comment: "the TA is too short, can't reach top of blackboard." (yeah, thanks, I'll definitely work on fixing that for next time...) So, can't help you there, but I'm curious! 

I wouldn't be surprised if looking older in any way, height or otherwise, is a factor. This is happening to me less and less over the years, and I suppose has some correlation to how often I get carded these days. 

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On 2/29/2016 at 6:10 PM, maelia8 said:

I'm a female graduate student under 30 who has never been challenged about grades or harassed by students in my classes, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm in the minority ... most of the other women in my program report things like this and I wonder why it's never happened to me. I don't dress particularly nice (I often wear jeans and T-shirts), and I'm wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that I'm quite tall, as it's the only factor I can think of that sets me apart from those who've reported difficulties. I'm one of those people who never get carded and was thought to be my real age or older throughout my teens, so maybe the height and the saunter scare people? Any other tall ladies had this experience?

I feel like height may be a valid explanation for not experiencing gender troubles. If you're a short female (or perhaps just come across as quiet or reserved), I would think that's it's possible for some students to view you as more vulnerable or weak and may try to push you around. On the other side of the spectrum, if you're a tall female (or someone who is loud and speaks their mind), I think you might be a bit more intimidating.

I'm taller than average (5'8" or about 1.73 m to the rest of the world), but I wouldn't say I'm super tall. However, I've been told several times in my life that I am a bit intimidating. My karate sensei when I was in high school told me I had a very intimidating vibe, especially when I crossed my arms while standing. The dean of my college in undergrad told me I looked like a Norse warrior once (guess my height coupled with blonde hair and blue eyes made her think viking). I haven't TAed for too long (two semesters in my masters program, and so far one semester in my PhD program), but I haven't encountered any gender issues so far. Although one time when proctoring an exam, I handed a test to a guy and he told me I handed him the wrong exam - he was expecting one with the right answers on it. I just rolled my eyes and said "yeah right." 

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On 2/19/2016 at 6:34 PM, EndlessAshley said:

Certainly it is to some extent, but is there some strategy I haven't thought of?

@EndlessAshley, I am sorry that you have to experience such disrespect.

In the future, and with your professor's permission, design the section syllabus so that a significant percentage of their grade is based upon team assignments. Make clear that you will select the team leaders and the teams about halfway through the term. Group like minded students together. Name/number the teams sequentially with the jackasses being last. Appoint the biggest s-bird among them as captain.  Assign tasks that will really make them work together.

Have the groups work together towards the end of the class for a few weeks in a row so you can observe and offer support. By the time its their turn to present, the bad apples will know why they're getting the marks they've earned so far. (Or they will have learned the difference between self-esteem and self-respect and they will present very good work.)

What follows is a recommendation that may run counter to who you want to be as a person but may help prevent challenges to your authority in the classroom. Consider the value of never apologizing to students. In some circles, apologizing is a sign of weakness.

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I feel this. Ironically I have TA'd for two years now in my gender studies department and my students usually love me. I still get interrogated on my grading policies, especially since participation counts usually for between 25 and 40 %. It isn't until they're dissatisfied with their grades that I am suddenly public enemy number one. It also doesn't help that I'm a transgender woman who's been medically transitioning on the job. I can literally feel some of my authority slipping away from me as they begin to read me as more feminine, but I can simultaneously tell that they're more respectful of my gender ID as I transition before their eyes. REally strange shit.  But still, I'm lucky and currently teach in gender studies and am a white person so they take me seriously when I talk about gender, race, sexuality etc.

The way I combat this is I usually have specific instructions for how review of grades will go. IF they're dissatisfied they have to print out their assignment with my comments and come during my office hour to go over their grade with me first. Then at the end of that discussion they can choose to have me reevaluate or keep their original grade with the caveat that if I reevaluate it can go either up or down. I get very very few requests for reevaluation. And I've only ever been overly harsh to one student because her paper happened to be sandwiched between really terrible ones. So I don't often give out new grades.

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21 hours ago, hellatrangsty said:

The way I combat this is I usually have specific instructions for how review of grades will go. IF they're dissatisfied they have to print out their assignment with my comments and come during my office hour to go over their grade with me first. Then at the end of that discussion they can choose to have me reevaluate or keep their original grade with the caveat that if I reevaluate it can go either up or down. I get very very few requests for reevaluation. And I've only ever been overly harsh to one student because her paper happened to be sandwiched between really terrible ones. So I don't often give out new grades.

@hellatrangsty I love this reevalutation strategy! I will definitely keep this tucked in my back pocket.

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On 2/19/2016 at 6:34 PM, EndlessAshley said:

The professor meets with the TAs weekly and grades a handful of assignments with us together so that our expectations and averages are uniform. I know we're all grading the same way

Tell them this.

One of my professors had a TA who was constantly questioned because he was not in the department. He was a gender studies grad student and it was an English class. I swear it felt like some students were planning a mutiny against him because he gave them an A-. "It's an A paper," "he hasn't even read the book before," "he doesn't know anything about English," the list went on. Felt like they were dreaming up a class-action lawsuit.

The next time papers were graded, the professor made sure to mention that she convenes with all TAs before grading and that they graded the papers together to make sure they were on the same page. And most importantly, she said that if someone had any questions with a grade, they were free to go to office hours to speak to her.

The key is "go to office hours" -- most students will whine to a TA or in email, but it takes some effort to go to office hours, especially a professor's office hours.

Also, I had another professor who probably had some of the same problems earlier in his academic career. What he said was that if you think there is "a grading error," you can come to talk to him. But then he said that, in all his years of teaching, he has almost never found "a grading error" and that he sided with his TAs 99.999% of the time (he was a statistics in social science teacher).

You shouldn't have to alter your teaching style or even create avenues where the student can petition a grade. Instead, you should stress that it's the same grade the professor would give.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Just wanted to say "thank you" to everyone for this thread. I've been having a really hard time with this lately, so it helps to know I'm not alone.

This is my third semester TAing for Intro to Sociology. This semester, students didn't do too well on the first exam. The exam was four short-answer questions, and the exam was worth 100 points. If students missed and/or did not fully incorporate certain concepts into their answers, they received 10 points off, minimum. 

One thing I've used to combat negative energy from students who "aren't satisfied" with their grade (aren't satisfied AS IF they didn't EARN their grade), is a cooling-off period. Students must wait 48 hours after receiving their exam back before contacting me about their exam.

This has worked phenomenally in the past, until now. Students have waited 48 hours, but they seem to think that, after 48 hours, they're allowed to contact me to negotiate their grade. This isn't a marketplace where you barter for exam points!! They've been saying things like "I do not think I deserved 20 points taken off" or "I understand losing points but is there any way that I can get some points back and not lose 10?" Um. Excuse me. I don't give grades; students earn them.

I know part of this tendency to try to get me to change their grade has to do with my gender and age (26F), but I think it also has to do with the demographics of my students. I'm at a predominantly white, wealthy, male campus where there's "engineering, business, and then everything else." They call the College of Arts & Sciences the College of Arts & Crafts. So I think they go into this class taking it as a joke since it's (1) an intro class and (2) sociology (so it CAN'T be hard, right??? Right??).

I basically end up showing these students the grading guide that the professor authored and the TAs agreed upon and show them all the things we're looking for. If they email me about it, I copy and paste from the grading guide and make sure to note that they received these concepts in class, the prof repeated them OFTEN in class (students complain about her being repetitive), and that they've had half the semester to familiarize themselves with the material. So yeah, if they miss a component, 10 points is indeed justified on a 4-question, short answer, 100-point exam.

 I hope some of these strategies help you all, but I mainly just needed to vent. I hope that's ok.

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1 hour ago, gingin6789 said:

 I hope some of these strategies help you all, but I mainly just needed to vent. I hope that's ok.

Definitely ok. And since we're doing that: 

On the discussion board for the class, in the past couple of weeks:

  • Student A: can you clarify what to do in Question 3? Your question is very poorly written. (No. That's not the problem.)
  • Student B: When you say "for each of the following sentences, do XYZ", do I need to do it for each sentence separately, or for all of them together? I find this very confusing. (You used "each" in your question so I know you understand what it means. How are you possibly confused?)
  • Student C: I propose that Prof. Logician drop the lowest assignment score from our final grade. Many of my professors have done so in the past when assigning frequent work. It would help all of us get better grades. (Seriously??) 

Also, there is the student that a TA just caught cheating. Sigh. 

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2 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:
  • Student C: I propose that Prof. Logician drop the lowest assignment score from our final grade. Many of my professors have done so in the past when assigning frequent work. It would help all of us get better grades. (Seriously??) 

A story you will no doubt appreciate: 

In undergrad, I took a precalculus class. It was during the spring semester and we regularly get lots of snow in January and February and have snow days. So the professor's exam plan was for mostly in-class exams for each chapter, with I think 2 take-home exams planned. The policy in the syllabus was that the lowest in-class exam grade would be dropped (not a take-home). However, it also stated that in the event of a snow day on an exam day, we would be given a take-home exam in its place, and if this happened more than once, the lowest exam grade would no longer be dropped. It makes sense - you should ace a take-home exam since you have access to the book, your notes, and the Internet. So as it happened, we got nailed with a lot of snow and had several exams switch to take-homes. At the end of the semester, our last test before the final was a take-home, and for some reason, about 90% of students bombed it... one student even admitted to not even trying because she planned on it being dropped. So when the professor handed this last exam back, she mentioned that none of the exams would be dropped per the policy in the syllabus... and the class flipped out! Students were literally screaming at the professor about how unfair it was. The students even went so far as to go to the dean's office and complain about how unfair it was. Meanwhile, I was just sitting there like wtf? 

And since we're venting, I had a few students last term who just didn't follow directions and apparently didn't read their e-mail, either. There were several writing assignments throughout the term, and a few had very specific instructions printed in the lab manual, such as "grade your paper using the rubric in your manual and submit the completed rubric with your paper or lose 50%" or "turn in your answers to the brainstorming questions along with your paper for full credit." So many students forgot to attach these extras, and I would e-mail them the next morning giving them the opportunity to hand it in at their leisure before the weekend for full credit (and usually they didn't), and come the next class, they'd get their paper back with the lost points and they'd get upset and ask if they could hand it in now (NO!). For their final paper (which asked for the completed rubric), I told them about it in class twice and e-mailed them the night before about it, and they still didn't hand it in. As they were handing in their papers I reminded them to include the rubric and over half of them came back up, took back their paper, filled out the rubric at their seat with perfect scores, and then brought it back up.

One thing I am having a little trouble with as a TA is getting the class to quiet down when I want to speak (such as to start the class or continue with my lecture after they discussed a question in their groups). I don't know if it's gender-related or just because I'm not super loud, but it takes a good 10 seconds for the class to get quiet and I usually have to wave my hands around. I need a megaphone. 

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14 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

Definitely ok. And since we're doing that: 

On the discussion board for the class, in the past couple of weeks:

  • Student A: can you clarify what to do in Question 3? Your question is very poorly written. (No. That's not the problem.)
  • Student B: When you say "for each of the following sentences, do XYZ", do I need to do it for each sentence separately, or for all of them together? I find this very confusing. (You used "each" in your question so I know you understand what it means. How are you possibly confused?)
  • Student C: I propose that Prof. Logician drop the lowest assignment score from our final grade. Many of my professors have done so in the past when assigning frequent work. It would help all of us get better grades. (Seriously??) 

Also, there is the student that a TA just caught cheating. Sigh. 

*shakes head* unbelievable!! *huge sigh* Yes, they propose Prof Logician drop the lowest assignment because this class is obviously a democracy where students get to decide how the assignments are graded *sarcasm/eye roll*

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54 minutes ago, gingin6789 said:

*shakes head* unbelievable!! *huge sigh* Yes, they propose Prof Logician drop the lowest assignment because this class is obviously a democracy where students get to decide how the assignments are graded *sarcasm/eye roll*

Indeed. And since when are 6 assignments over a 14-week semester "frequent work"? Sometimes I just don't understand what these students are thinking. 

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I have very little sympathy for students who can't be bothered to read emails or come to class, or somehow manage not to hear an announcement that the professor made several times, and then think they are entitled to something because they didn't know some rule or regulation. I hope the students weren't successful in their appeals, @shadowclaw!

12 hours ago, shadowclaw said:

One thing I am having a little trouble with as a TA is getting the class to quiet down when I want to speak (such as to start the class or continue with my lecture after they discussed a question in their groups). I don't know if it's gender-related or just because I'm not super loud, but it takes a good 10 seconds for the class to get quiet and I usually have to wave my hands around. I need a megaphone. 

Getting a large class to settle down can take a moment, though 10 seconds sounds like it's on the long side. Sometimes it helps to make a loud noise, like clapping or banging something on the table. Waving your hands could be a solution once in a while, but it's probably not good if you have to do it every time you want to start class or have a discussion.

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  • 1 month later...

I just start speaking quite loudly and slowly over all of them and walk around the room slowly so that I finish in front of the last ones who don't appear to have noticed that I've started talking. They always look up ashamedly and it works very well at getting silence and all eyes on you quickly.

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 2/28/2016 at 8:10 PM, maelia8 said:

I'm a female graduate student under 30 who has never been challenged about grades or harassed by students in my classes, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm in the minority ... most of the other women in my program report things like this and I wonder why it's never happened to me. I don't dress particularly nice (I often wear jeans and T-shirts), and I'm wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that I'm quite tall, as it's the only factor I can think of that sets me apart from those who've reported difficulties. I'm one of those people who never get carded and was thought to be my real age or older throughout my teens, so maybe the height and the saunter scare people? Any other tall ladies had this experience?

I had the same experience, so I'm always confused when other TAs encounter these problems. Most of my students were no more than 2 or 3 years younger than me when I started as a TA and I'm not particularly tall (5'5"). I dress pretty casually as well (dark jeggings, blouse with cardigan, flats). Students would sometimes ask me about why they received the grades they did and always seemed satisfied with the explanation, even if the grade was poor. 

It could potentially be a body language issue? Ten or so years of martial arts have made me a pretty confident person in the face on conflict. That may cause me to subconsciously assert my authority more in my physical presence than some other women do. Above average height might cause others to do this without trying, as well.

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  • 2 months later...

With my TA position, my height and gender had posed some major issues. I'm five feet or a little under that and I have a young-looking face. No matter how much I dressed up or tried to look professional, I faced a lot of discrimination against my height and gender. However, not from my students, but rather, from my supervisors.

I was frequently harassed about my looks, told to dress up more (I was already wearing nice skirts, dresses, blouses, etc.) and wear more make-up. No matter how much I look back on the experience, I don't know how much more I could have done to change my physical appearance or act more professional. When it came time for reviews, I was told my work itself was fantastic, but I was warned about my young appearance. I think it really came down to my height, something that prior to my position as a TA, I had never felt all that insecure about.

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On June 24, 2016 at 3:16 PM, Paloma said:

I had the same experience, so I'm always confused when other TAs encounter these problems. Most of my students were no more than 2 or 3 years younger than me when I started as a TA and I'm not particularly tall (5'5"). I dress pretty casually as well (dark jeggings, blouse with cardigan, flats). Students would sometimes ask me about why they received the grades they did and always seemed satisfied with the explanation, even if the grade was poor. 

It could potentially be a body language issue? Ten or so years of martial arts have made me a pretty confident person in the face on conflict. That may cause me to subconsciously assert my authority more in my physical presence than some other women do. Above average height might cause others to do this without trying, as well.

5'5" is actually slightly above average height for women. I know a five inch height difference might not seem like a huge one, but I think being visibly shorter than your students, colleagues, and peers can make someone appear younger or immature.

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