General Etiquette > All In A Day's Work

Professor is struggling, and everyone suffers.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

--- Quote from: LadyL on November 21, 2012, 01:02:21 PM ---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).

--- End quote ---

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.

Were any of the suggestions you got last time you posted about her successful? If they were do the same thing again.


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