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Tell students you're an MA/PhD student, or be ambiguous about it?


klader
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Hi y'all,

I couldn't find any other threads on this topic, so apologies if they do already exist.

I'm a new MA student and am the instructor of record of a course. I was talking with others in my program about this, but I wanted to pose the question here: should I come out and tell my students, "I'm a new MA student here and I'm excited to teach you all," should I just introduce myself as a graduate student, or should I not even say anything about that?

Obviously I won't lie and say I'm a tenured professor or anything, but I was just wondering what the best approach is. I am a young-looking female fresh out of undergrad, by the way. I actually met with one student already and told them I was a new grad student here, though I didn't say at which level. I'm hoping I didn't lessen my credibility already!

The consensus seems to be that it's a personal choice, but I wondered what others thought about it.

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I mentioned it to them, if nothing else it let them know I can empathize with them (though I am a bit older). I don't think it would have made a diff either way, but I did have students ask me about grad school and would like to think I helped them think about it. Those conversations might not have happened had I not brought it up.

On the flip-side, if you say nothing what do you think they would assume anyway?

I think its a matter of personal choice, and that you are probably thinking more about it than they ever will... :)

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I would recommend consulting with someone in your department about this. The answer will depend on the culture at your institution and I would just rely on more experienced people's insight here. My personal inclination would be that students don't need to know the particular details of their instructor's appointment, and it's not their place to understand or even worry about it. This is especially true for young female instructors who may have their authority challenged by students even before they find out that they are new and relatively junior. I think saying something along the lines of "I am a graduate student in the department of X, studying Y and Z." is a fine way to start, though again ask someone who knows what's common in your department for better tailored advice. You can always encourage students to talk to you about grad school or whatever else without talking to them specifically about when exactly you started your own program. 

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Oh dear... I feel like I may have already done too much damage by telling one student about it. They asked a question like, "how does that work? Being a grad student and teaching?" and I answered honestly - I work for the university as part of my admission to the program (and the university waives my tuition), and that this also pairs well with what I'm studying (composition and rhetoric).

I think I still maintained an "older" ethos and conducted myself professionally and talked about our class and my field. Maybe it's just the nerves and anxiety of getting ready to teach for the first time, but did I commit a faux-pas already?

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And also, I did talk to other grad students in my department and they were mixed. Some had great experiences with being honest and saying they were new to the whole thing, and others said they just kept their status vague.

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Hi Klader, perhaps you're overthinking this? I'm in the same boat as you and I haven't said anything. I teach undergrad courses and when I speak about this, most students don't hear me anyway.


Just do your job and grade fairly and treat everyone equally. No problema.

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56 minutes ago, klader said:

Oh dear... I feel like I may have already done too much damage by telling one student about it.

... 

Maybe it's just the nerves and anxiety of getting ready to teach for the first time, but did I commit a faux-pas already?

You have definitely not committed some serious faux-pas. Ask your advisor or some other trusted professor if they have advice on this. The fact that students are telling you different things suggests that it's probably up to you to decide. So you need to ask yourself if you are more comfortable being vague or giving all the information. The way students will interpret what you tell them will also partly depend on how you conduct yourself in the classroom. As a general rule, students will simply assume that the person at the front of the classroom is a knowledgeable authority figure. You can take that and run with it. It is totally fine to say you're new to this school (and therefore you may not know fact X or procedure Y but you'll find out and get back to them, just like you would with any question where you're not sure you can answer it on the spot). That by itself should not diminish your authority. It's more about how you behave and how you project yourself to the class. You can be a new but strong and confident teacher, no contradiction there. So do a bit more to find out if there is a norm, and then either follow it if it exists or choose whatever you are most comfortable with. It's going to be a whole lot more important that you are comfortable with what you share than the particular details you choose to share. 

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1 hour ago, fuzzylogician said:

 My personal inclination would be that students don't need to know the particular details of their instructor's appointment, and it's not their place to understand or even worry about it. 

Yes, exactly. Why would you compromise what little authority you have for no particular reason and to no particular benefit?

Edited by telkanuru
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I'm likely to mention it at some point, but I haven't had to worry too much about shoring up my authority to be wherever. I am a very friendly young female person, but I also have a sharky, toothy side to my personality that tends to shut down such questions toot sweet. So since I (usually) have capital to spare on that front, I figure I might as well do my bit to normalize "graduate school" as a thing for both instructors and female people to say. :)

Finding-Nemo-Bruce.png 

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I should probably get a plaque of that for my desk somewhere. Just wondering, does it also apply to the particularly interrupty kind of senior professor? I can't recall ever getting toothful at a student, to tell the truth—I like teaching—but, uh, I can't guarantee anything about the latter.

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2 hours ago, telkanuru said:

Yes, exactly. Why would you compromise what little authority you have for no particular reason and to no particular benefit?

Why? Because your university probably has a website and students could very easily see that you're not listed under faculty? The students that are going to challenge your authority are the same ones who will google you to find out your background. 

Also, it's pretty clear to most undergrads because the faculty with PhDs at most schools, esp with first-years, introduce themselves as Dr./Prof. LastName. If you're a TA going by Ms./Mr., then it's going to be pretty obvious that you're at a different level than faculty. 

@klader, I don't think you've mentioned any sort of faux pas. As you have in class discussions, it's likely to be plenty clear to them that you're new to campus/the area just based on things you say. It's never good to lie to students about things like this because they can find out the truth, in which case you've lost integrity in their eyes (which then can make it harder to do things like nail them on academic integrity violations). You are probably overthinking this, which is understandable when it's your first time in the classroom.

 My strategy when it comes to how much personal info I let into the classroom is to decide in advance what I am and am not comfortable with them knowing. So, I talk about my dog a lot and walking around town with her. I don't talk about my relationship status, sexuality, gender identity, etc. Last semester, I showed my undergrad transcript to help them get over the idea that without a 3.8+ GPA, you can't get into grad school. I tell a bunch of anecdotes (e.g., when teaching them how to read a journal article efficiently, I talk about people who read the end of a novel first) and pretty much always use "my sister" or "my brother" as the person who does that kind of thing. They don't need to know that she stopped reading the end of the novel first in high school, you know? 

As a result of controlling what personal info I release, I've found that I don't get a lot of questions about my personal life from students, which is my goal with all of this. And, for the record, students questioning your status/credentials can and does happen to women (particular women of color) even after you get the PhD if you're teaching as a postdoc or VAP or adjunct. So, this is something you may have to grapple with for the next decade, just fyi. 

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11 hours ago, rising_star said:

Why? Because your university probably has a website and students could very easily see that you're not listed under faculty? The students that are going to challenge your authority are the same ones who will google you to find out your background. 

Also, it's pretty clear to most undergrads because the faculty with PhDs at most schools, esp with first-years, introduce themselves as Dr./Prof. LastName. If you're a TA going by Ms./Mr., then it's going to be pretty obvious that you're at a different level than faculty. 

I don't think the overlap you postulate in the first paragraph is anywhere close to perfect. Yet even if they google, it remains substantially different than standing up before your class on the first day and saying, in effect, "Before we begin, it's important for you to know I'm not a real professor." 

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2 hours ago, telkanuru said:

I don't think the overlap you postulate in the first paragraph is anywhere close to perfect. Yet even if they google, it remains substantially different than standing up before your class on the first day and saying, in effect, "Before we begin, it's important for you to know I'm not a real professor." 

It's not perfect, of course. But students can and do google their instructors before the first day of class. If you're at a big state school, students begin to expect that their classes won't be taught by full professors because that isn't the norm at those institutions. Or, you know, they figure out really quickly if they ever come to office hours because they find that you're in a cube farm or sharing with 1-3 others, unlike the professors. Like I said, if a student wants to know your status (grad student, postdoc, TT/tenured faculty), there is ample information available, either online or contextually, to enable them to do so. Given that, why lie and say you're not a student when you are? Also, I tended to refer to everyone as instructors when dealing with undergrads at big state universities (I taught at three of them) because they're not always aware of what all the distinctions are or mean. Saying you've never taught before is probably not the way to start but explaining that you're a student, so you understand deadlines can be tricky and that sometimes you have a lot of things due all at once, can make you more human in their eyes. Is that a bad thing?

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Having been through this in a film/video production based program as a graduate TA (film students are brutal challengers), and then again in India as an MFA, not a PhD (regardless of Fulbright status, culturally, the MFA is not well recognized by students or administrators), I have to say it doesn't really matter. Anyone challenging you about "not being a real professor," has their own issues. My approach was always to seek out what their actual problem was and focus on working that out with them. Undergraduates often fail to realize that (generally) graduate students are gathered from the top 3% of their respective fields. You didn't get accepted and given support through a teaching appointment for no reason. The sexist challenges you allude to are a teachable moment and IMO should be called out when recognized-- and you should keep written track of them for your sake and the sake of the student. Academic challenges to authority are simple-- ignore them. If you feel your teaching needs work, look for the resources. The best thing I did for my in-class presence was to get a CELTA. The tools provided in an intense "learn-to-teach" experience were invaluable, and I use them everyday - even though I don't teach ESL classes. 

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8 hours ago, rising_star said:

Given that, why lie and say you're not a student when you are?

To be clear, I would in no way advocate this. But that's not the same as an unforced disclosure. 

8 hours ago, rising_star said:

can make you more human in their eyes. Is that a bad thing?

It depends, but I think it can be. It depends enough on individual dynamics that I would be very wary of doing it off the bat.

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My department and teaching situation makes this very easy for me - I teach the lab component of science courses, and the professors who do the lecture component have all made it clear that graduate teaching assistants are the instructors for the labs. We even get our pictures on a wall with our programs, research areas, and fun facts about us. I don't think this has much of an impact on how the students view me or if they are more likely to challenge a grade. However, the lab setting where a large chunk of the grade comes from just showing up and doing the work is a bit different than TAing a composition course where virtually all of the grade comes from writing assignments. 

That said, I think it's perfectly ok to not say anything about being a graduate student if you don't want to, just as it's ok to inform the students that you are. You might get a few students who won't take you as seriously I suppose, but as previously mentioned, those students probably have some issues of their own. If you do encounter any challenges to your grading, stand your ground. Of course you should be able and willing to explain why you assigned a certain grade, but never feel pressured to change it. One thing that maybe I wouldn't do is mention that it's your first time teaching (or that you're new to the school)... I think that could open yourself up to some grief depending on the personalities in the classroom. Granted, if someone directly asks you in your office or something, I don't think you should lie, but don't broadcast it.

As a few posters already mentioned, being female might result in more issues than being a graduate student. Personally, I have seen very little sexism from my students, but others here on the cafe have. TakeruK also hit it right on the nose about women of color, too. My current school is extremely white in terms of the student population, and this past year we only had two people of color on our teaching team of 20 graduate students. One was a woman, and she told us about her first day and all of the whispers when she walked up to the front of the room to load her lecture on the computer. The students apparently had difficulty believing that a black woman would be their TA. Hopefully their attitudes changed over the course of the term! 

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45 minutes ago, shadowclaw said:

My department and teaching situation makes this very easy for me - I teach the lab component of science courses, and the professors who do the lecture component have all made it clear that graduate teaching assistants are the instructors for the labs. We even get our pictures on a wall with our programs, research areas, and fun facts about us. I don't think this has much of an impact on how the students view me or if they are more likely to challenge a grade. However, the lab setting where a large chunk of the grade comes from just showing up and doing the work is a bit different than TAing a composition course where virtually all of the grade comes from writing assignments. 

There is a difference between being a TA, where it's entirely expected that you are a student, and being instructor of record, which is the OP's situation and where I think students' expectations are probably very different. 

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Thanks for all the insight, all! I appreciate it.

Since I am the instructor of record (and a younger female), I do want to preserve any authority I may have, but I also want to be seen as approachable and have an easygoing class atmosphere. So, while I won't blurt out on the first day that I'm a first-year MA student teaching for the first time, I think I will introduce myself as a grad student and tell them a little about my research interests and share a fun fact or two. I agree that students do react positively to confidence, so hopefully that along with my passion for the field can balance out any doubts about my "credentials" as a new grad student :) 

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  • 1 month later...

I was always just upfront with my students and told them I was a doctoral student and invited them to ask me any questions they might have about graduate school, getting their PhD, life beyond college, etc. I never had any issues in the classroom, multiple students took me up on my offer, and my summer 2014 classes were dismayed when they couldn't attend my dissertation defense. (It was a private defense per our departmental rules, which was probably a good thing, otherwise I wouldn't have been surprised if 30-40 curious and supportive undergrads had showed up.)

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This is an older post, but I'll chime in anyway:

I tended to be upfront with my students while I was in graduate school. I think it's good that they have more, not less, information about who's teaching them and how the university is structured. Like, I guess I think they deserve to know that the university has entrusted a lot of their more basic courses to graduate students rather than tenured faculty. And like, I wouldn't tell them that they were getting "ripped off" or something, or what I made, but I would explain to them the different "ranks" of professor, and what "tenure" is, and then I would explain that I was a graduate student who was getting my tuition waived in exchange for teaching. YMMV on this, but I found that it often made them more, not less, sympathetic, and that they then seemed to be forgiving if I wasn't the quickest in replying to emails. 

When I first started teaching, I tried to hide it from them (and I was in my late 20s, so I wasn't necessarily super obvious as a young grad student), and I would occasionally get bad evaluations that would say things like, "She doesn't deserve the salary she makes here!" or "She doesn't deserve to teach at a university as prestigious as this one, you should fire her!!!!" These made me laugh, but I did feel that evaluations like that went away once my students knew I was a grad student, not some professor raking in tons (lol) of money. 

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