Author Topic: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.  (Read 4171 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

LadyL

  • Hero Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 2848
Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« on: November 21, 2012, 02:02:21 PM »
I am a teaching assistant for my graduate school department. I am employed by the department, who then assign me to work with a different professor every semester. The professor is sort of like my direct supervisor, but the real "boss" is the department chair. This semester the professor I'm working with, Helen, is teaching two courses and is supervising 5 teaching assistant (two for the evening class, which I am assigned to, and 3 for the larger day class). Teaching assistants are responsible for teaching a weekly lab session where the students apply the concepts learned in class in a hands-on way, as well as grading exams. Helen is also teaching several other courses at a few other universities and generally seems frazzled and overworked, though she is pleasant and clearly cares about her students.

The problem is that the students don't seem to be learning the material at the rate they should because the way she has been teaching it is confusing for them (it's also confusing for us, the TAs, sometimes and all of us have extensive training in the subject material, so that says something). The clearest indication of this is the fact that over half the students in my lab section failed the most recent exam, even though it was entirely open book/open notes AND there were 7 points of extra credit built into the exam (so if the tests weren't already pre-curved, then 80% of the class would have failed). My section is generally motivated and reasonably bright so this isn't because the students are lazy or unable to learn or something - my impression is just that most of them are incredibly confused by Helen's course format.

Helen generally presents a large volume of information and spends a lot of time on certain details and not as much emphasizing core concepts. Many students got very, very basic concepts wrong on the test, and for the more detailed questions, many of them clearly copied answers directly from the textbook or otherwise clearly didn't actually understand the question.

Also, the lab exercises Helen has us do don't relate very well to the course material and are often inappropriately long, so that it is impossible to get through them in the allotted time. Myself and the other TAs have talked to her multiple times about this and she agreed to let us modify the labs, except that she has generally only been getting them to us a few hours before the lab starts that day, so we don't actually have time to do anything more than simple formatting changes (i.e., putting instructions in bold so students can find them more easily - the labs are kind of a "wall of text" the way she gives them to us). We have asked her repeatedly to give us more time to look at the labs and collaborate on ways to make them work for the class format but it hasn't happened. We have tried giving her feedback on the lab design so that she can make the length and content of them more appropriate in the first place but she is extremely stubborn about this and has not incorporated any of our feedback. I tried to arrange a weekly meeting with her when we could talk these issues out and we met once and it was moderately successful, but since then she has cancelled the remaining meetings, usually at the last minute (last week I showed up at the meeting time and she said "oh, I'm not ready to meet right now, so we'll do it next week").

After the day classes graded their exams and they were as bad or worse than my section's, Helen even tried to blame it on the minor modifications we've made to a few of the labs, saying that might be why the students don't understand the material. Without our modifications the labs were much more confusing for students to follow which compounded the problem of them being too long, and again the labs don't even relate very closely to the tested material because of how SHE wrote them, so this doesn't make sense. One of the other TAs responded via email defending us and Helen seemed to concede her points, but it worries me that she is trying to possibly blame us for the class under performance when we have so little control over what and how it is taught.

I know the other TA's share my frustrations and am wondering if we should bring our concerns to the department chair. Helen's course is a prerequistive for one he actually teaches next semester, so if the students don't have the core concepts they're supposed to it will impact his class. But this is slightly risky in terms of department politics - Helen is an adjunct, not tenured, so it's not as big a risk as going up against a tenured professor but it is still basically complaining about a supervisor to a higher-up. Would it be better to just let the truth come out when the students hand in their course evals at the end of the semester? The final is the only test left so there isn't much time for her to make many changes, but I also think that a consensus from all the TA's on the course quality probably holds as much or more weight to the chair than the student evals (he takes the grad student's feedback very seriously - he is really an excellent chair).

If you're with me so far, what would you do and how would you word a complaint? I have never taken or TA'd for a class where so many people were failing to learn the material and the professor didn't change their approach once that became apparent.



onyonryngs

  • Member
  • **
  • Posts: 362
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #1 on: November 21, 2012, 02:27:33 PM »
I think that unless specifically asked by the department chair, you don't bring up anything.  The students are old enough to put in their own complaints with the department chair on their own.  I would stay out of it lest you get the reputation as the ringleader for complaints.

Jones

  • Hero Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 2555
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #2 on: November 21, 2012, 02:38:19 PM »
This sounds an awful lot like the guy who taught my very first college class. It was an Intro to Chemistry class, very basic stuff. His tests became the stuff of legend; although open book and open notes, one student EVER got above a 90%, and that was his own daughter. She totally screwed up our grading curve in the beginning, but even she floundered and got lost pretty quickly (before midterms).

As an example, he would have a question that said "Which of the following is false?" and then put, word for word, four phrases from the textbook; sentences that had nothing to do with each other, unrelated concepts; and he'd change one word in one of them (change an "and" to an "or").

His TAs got together, wrote a letter together about some of the issues they'd seen (off topic lessons, unanswered questions, extreme confusion on very basic concepts) and all signed it together at the end of the term. Every student I spoke with gave specific examples on their evals. He wasn't seen again after the end of that term (except maybe by his daughter, but she was pretty mad at him for not listening to her mother's advise--Mrs. Teacher taught in another department). We counted ourselves very, very lucky that the class was graded on a curve. I had a B but my average would have been something like a 55% if it hadn't been adjusted.

If your chair is open to it, I definitely suggest working with the other TAs to come up with a concise letter with details of incidents and concepts muddled through. You don't want these students to be scared off from future classes in this department, and I'm sure the chair doesn't either.

SleepyKitty

  • Member
  • **
  • Posts: 576
  • Quid plura?
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2012, 02:58:44 PM »
I think both previous posters raised good points. If I was in your situation (I'm also a graduate TA, employed by the department and assigned to a professor), I would go to the department head and phrase this all as a question. Write down a list of your concerns - keep it entirely factual and objective. If there's a concern you have that can't be dealt with in a totally factual manner, leave it off. This is not the time or the place to risk your standing.

"I'm experiencing some challenges as a TA, and I know that the other TAs for my course are as well. I'd like to do the best job possible as a TA, and sometimes that means getting advice from different members of the department. *Tell him the challenges and your professor's response to them, and also how and why that response does not adequately solve the problem.* Is there any additional advice you can offer me? Do you have any trade secrets that might help me help my students?"

You absolutely don't want to look like a ringleader for complaints, and whether or not it is justified, you don't want to go to your professor's "boss" and criticize her as a TA. At least in my department, that is just. not. done. unless there is a serious issue like sexual harassment or student endangerment. If I were you, I would not phrase this is any way like a complaint, I would phrase it as asking for advice. That still will alert the dept head to what's going on in the class, and cover your back just in case the prof does try to make it look like this is the fault of the TA's, but it also protects you from looking like a troublemaker.

The clearest indication of this is the fact that over half the students in my lab section failed the most recent exam, even though it was entirely open book/open notes AND there were 7 points of extra credit built into the exam (so if the tests weren't already pre-curved, then 80% of the class would have failed).

This is a ridiculously high percentage of failures. I don't know about your department, but if mine saw this percentage in a professor's class, it (almost) wouldn't be necessary to complain because this would raise red flags regardless.

Kiwichick

  • Hero Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 1682
  • Is anyone else hungry now?
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #4 on: November 21, 2012, 03:30:50 PM »
Were any of the suggestions you got last time you posted about her successful? If they were do the same thing again.



LadyL

  • Hero Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 2848
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #5 on: November 21, 2012, 03:44:37 PM »
Were any of the suggestions you got last time you posted about her successful? If they were do the same thing again.

Last time I posted it was about how to request she send materials sooner. The consensus was that I shouldn't say anything because it would be too much like "calling her out." The other TA and I did try to schedule weekly in person meetings with her the day before the lab, with the goal of going over the assignments then (to also try to encourage her to have them done by then) but as I mentioned in my OP that worked for one week before she started cancelling the meetings (mainly because she didn't have the labs done - she makes them up each week, which is also baffling, because she's taught the course for years and you'd think she'd just reuse the ones from last semester or many make minor tweaks).

I like the idea of talking to the chair in terms of "what can I do differently/better." The other night TA has already said she is open to us both meeting the chair together because we both have the same concerns - feedback on whether that seems reasonable or not? I don't like the idea of writing an email or something and being the "spokesperson" for the complainers either.

Dr. F.

  • Member
  • **
  • Posts: 890
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #6 on: November 21, 2012, 03:52:30 PM »
I was in almost your exact same position once. There were weekly quizzes that were basically, "Identify structure X on Figure Y" where figure Y was a smeary photocopy out of an old book that pretty much looked like a grey blob. Averages were well under 50%. The teacher of that class was actually filling in for the usual prof., who was out after having a triple bypass.

What I did was to go to my advisor. I had a check-up meeting with me in which he asked how the TAing was going, and I'm afraid he got an earful. We had an excellent working relationship, however, so I don't know if that might or might not work for you.

Other than that, it really depends on dept. culture. I'd probably go to the chair mostly because, if I were the chair, I'd want to hear about it. I seriously doubt this would be the first time concerns were raised.

camlan

  • Super Hero!
  • ****
  • Posts: 8526
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #7 on: November 21, 2012, 05:30:54 PM »
Having been a grad student and a TA, I would take the TA issues, especially the bits about Helen trying to blame the TAs for the failure rate, to your mentor/adviser. If you don't have either one, then to the department head. You've got some legitimate issues--you only get the labs a few hours ahead of time so you have no prep time, the blaming thing, cancelled meetings. It would be best if a small committee of the affected TAs could meet with the department head, so that he can realize it is not one disgruntled TA having problems, but all of you.

If students complain to you about failing, then encourage them to speak to the department head, or the student ombudsman, if your university has one.

Helen is an adjunct. (I knew that before you mentioned it, because no way would a tenured or tenure-track professor be allowed to teach at so many other colleges.) She is teaching too many courses to keep track of everything or to prepare her lessons properly; I've seen this happen before. I'm sure she's doing it for the money, because adjunct pay isn't great. But that is no excuse to let students' education suffer. Alert the powers that be of the problems all the TAs are having with her. If they investigate at all, they will discover the other problems.

 
Nothing is impossible, the word itself says, “I’m possible!” –Audrey Hepburn


figee

  • Member
  • **
  • Posts: 466
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #8 on: November 21, 2012, 06:24:31 PM »
Welcome to the casualisation of education.  This is one of the consequences - not enough time to do adequate preparation.

That said, is she presenting a 'wall of information' to students via a lecture?  Is there background reading that students should be doing?  When I lecture I don't spent time dealing with basic concepts, I spend time applying them, because I've pointed students in the direction of the basics and expect them, in college, to be able to read and learn independently.  My lectures are then spend taking the concepts and applying them differently, in ways which might look like tangents, but might be very relevant.  And this goes double for grad students.

For your labs, I'd consider spending 10 - 15 minutes at the start giving a mini-lecture which outlines the basic concepts being applied and then explains how the lab exercises relate.  Then probably cut down the number of exercises you do.  But I'd also be careful complaining.  Because I don't think you can.  The best people to complain are the students and the fact is that complaints from TAs carry no weight at all.  It becomes a 'he said, she said' situation and you will not come out of it well.

Slartibartfast

  • Super Hero!
  • ****
  • Posts: 11658
    • Nerdy Necklaces - my Etsy shop!
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #9 on: November 22, 2012, 05:35:46 AM »
I know it would be extra work, but is there any way you and some of the other TAs could make available a weekly "review session" for the students?  Something unofficial where you could go over the basic material in a less confusing manner?  I had a TA who did this (in response to the professor turning our course into a referendum on his pet sub-specialty instead of the broader course topic) and I learned WAY more from his unofficial review sessions than I did from the professor.  If there are five of you TAs, you could each take one week and that would carry you through the end of the semester.  You might have to clear the idea with the professor or the department chair, and if the students are doing that poorly this might be a valid way to bring it to the department chair's attention without sounding like you're tattling on the professor.

finecabernet

  • Member
  • **
  • Posts: 666
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #10 on: November 23, 2012, 11:16:54 PM »
I'm an adjunct and can get pretty frazzled and overworked, and while I can sympathize she should not be making the students suffer. In my community college, it would be the dean (not sure who you'd go to at a large university). To avoid potentially torpedoing yourself, try your own adviser first. It's actually pretty sad because Helen is biting off more than she can chew and totally screwing up her chances of getting a full-time job (let's face it, she's probably doing just as badly at her other schools). Eventually student complaints (if there's enough of them) will take care of the problem.


Deetee

  • Super Hero!
  • ****
  • Posts: 5505
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #11 on: November 23, 2012, 11:58:24 PM »
I was a TA and a sessional (adjunct professor) instructor.
Two things:

1) Her work load is ridiculous. 2 course plus making up the labs is a crazy amount of work. Plus she has other courses. At our university a full course load is teaching 4 sections. And you had better be on the the second or third time through on most of those. At the college I taught a full load was 3 sections lecture plus 3 sections lab, but the lab was out of the manual and prepped for you so teaching the lab meant a lot of marking but not much else.

2) That does not excuse her teaching AT.ALL. The previous is just to explain that she has way way more than she can handle.

3) I vote approaching the chair. This is not my first suggestion but you have already approached her several times and ways AND she seems willing to blame you. It is easier to deflect blame if you have already approched the chair in a non confrontational manner with your concerns and made it clear that you are trying to do what you can to teach this course and communicate with the instructor. (Much more believable to say "This is what I am doing right now" than "Oh I did some stuff a while ago")

4) This is the chairs job, not yours to make sure she is teaching adequately. (At the university, the chair came and sat in on random lectures by the sessionals when they first started to double check our style)

SPuck

  • Member
  • **
  • Posts: 973
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #12 on: November 24, 2012, 11:56:46 PM »
I say if you are going to approach the chair do it with a unite front with all the other TA's involved. If an unprecedented number of students are failing or dropping out across the board, it is not you it is the teacher and it is better for everyone if someone(s) with more power bring this situation up to the person in charge.

TZ

  • Member
  • **
  • Posts: 600
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #13 on: November 25, 2012, 12:28:29 PM »
3) I vote approaching the chair. This is not my first suggestion but you have already approached her several times and ways AND she seems willing to blame you. It is easier to deflect blame if you have already approched the chair in a non confrontational manner with your concerns and made it clear that you are trying to do what you can to teach this course and communicate with the instructor. (Much more believable to say "This is what I am doing right now" than "Oh I did some stuff a while ago")

This. Helen has already shown that she won't hesitate to throw the TAs under the bus when she is inevitably called out for her poor teaching. You need to cover yourself by preemptively going to the chair and raising your concerns.

When I was in grad school, I TA'd for a professor who provided a grading rubric for the final exam that resulted in most students getting a "D." The criteria for each question were so specific that our hands were tied when it came to giving extra points. A lot of students complained to me, and I let them know there was nothing I could do but encouraged them to take their complaints up the chain. The other TAs did the same.

The professor received so many complaints that he was forced to raise every grade in the class. We discovered that he had blamed the whole fiasco on the TAs when the department chair accidentally copied us on an email blasting us for grading too harshly and destroying student morale. They were shocked when they lost all their good TAs to another writing department the following year.

bopper

  • Super Hero!
  • ****
  • Posts: 12283
Re: Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.
« Reply #14 on: November 26, 2012, 05:31:16 PM »
Ask the department chair how to handle the issue.

Hint to the students that they should talk to their Dean.