Teaching Asininements

I am fuming. I am about to teach for a new (to me) undergraduate course with large enrollment. This course is usually taught by people in an area other than my primary one, but I am helping out because the other area is temporarily understaffed. Now I find out that this course, which had traditionally always had TA support, will no longer have a TA at all starting next semester because reasons.

Great. I have a huge new class and no help in the semester during which I have travel once or twice every month and have a major proposal renewal due. Yes, I know, I can have my graduate students help me,  and I fully plan on having them help, but that’s not the point. First, my students are paid as RAs on grants to do associated research; if they are doing a TA’s job, a TAship should pay for that. Second, I feel blindsided.

This ordeal brings up another aspect:  who teaches undergrads. We are having increasing student enrollments (a good thing) and I am one of the people who does a good job with undergraduate courses, as per student evaluations; also, I like teaching undergrads, they are fun. As a result, I end up teaching undergrad courses a lot. More often than average, it turns out. It is now virtually expected that I would teach undergrads: when I recently expressed that I wanted a graduate course next year, I received “But we can’t staff required courses!” Well, maybe you should ask one of the people who always seem to teach advanced electives or graduate courses.

Being a good department citizen sucks, because then everyone expects you to continue to be a good department citizen, forever and under all circumstances. Rather, I should follow the lead of my self-centered colleagues, who not only routinely get out of heavy instructional or service duties, but when they do decide to grace the department with some of their good will once in a blue moon, everyone thinks they are just wonderful. 


  1. The worst department citizens are always the first to hassle you if you slip up even slightly on your own citizenship contributions.

  2. I hear you! I hate how universities have dropped the university part of their mission and taken on being a glorified research lab. (“Now with undergraduates!”) My own department is rediscovering this transition back to being a more traditional university department. (We’re a basic science department in a medical school and the grants are getting harder and harder to get…) It is interesting to see how some professors get it and some don’t.

    In most schools, teaching undergrads brings money into a department. (Often a lot of money. Often much more money than us professors realize.) It might be worth figuring out how much the class is bringing in and raise that to your chair as a bargaining chip to gain help (either in the class in the form of a TA or in the lab in some useful form – given that you are spending lab resources helping the class…). If your department is not getting a share of the teaching revenue, then you should calculate what portion of the students’ semester you are teaching (3 credits out of a typical 12?), figure out what portion of tuition that is, how many students are taking the class, and how much money the university is making because of you. And your chair should bring that up to their boss (presumably a Dean of some ilk).

  3. Ooh, if I were doing something as a favor and that happened I would kick up such a fuss. With evidence like qaz suggests is good, but also chairs have funds for all sorts of crap, and they need to prioritize a ta.

  4. I feel your pain. I teach in and administer a clinical grad program. My hands are full. So, because New President often forgets we have a graduate school here, I (in my infinite wisdom?) got a minor in our area approved. Guess who’s now administering it? With NO course releases, my usual other crap, and no help? As a result, I have declared (often and loudly, ask spouse and children) that the second I get full prof, I shall no longer do anything I do not want to do. Because.

  5. We (the graduate students) did something interesting when trying to argue with our department about how underserved the grad curriculum was: we looked at the registrar’s data for the last few years, made a list of all the courses on the books, when and by whom it had been taught. For a department that outwardly claims “no one buys out of teaching”, there were an awful lot of names missing from that list. Being able to pull out numbers was very helpful in at least convincing them to remove long-dead courses from the books.

    Is there a grad student you think would be interested in TAing that class? I know my department is very gung-ho about getting more of us to consider faculty careers, and a grad student saying “I was really hoping to TA ___ class to fill my requirement, because I think it would look better on faculty applications” would pretty much magically recreate that TAship. Noting, of course, that I’m aware of how incredibly dysfunctional my department is…

  6. Being a good departmental citizen wouldn’t suck so bad if there weren’t so many bad ones. As far as I can tell, there are no negative consequences whatsoever for our bad citizens (provided they are tenured) except a sense of shame for being such selfish losers. But this is a group completely lacking in shame.

  7. I should note that bad citizens aren’t always the ones who refuse to get involved. Sometimes they’re the ones who are most eager to get involved with whatever committees they aren’t assigned to. Alas, they can also be very good at delegating the work of committees that they are assigned to.

  8. Welcome to Academia. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. You either end up doing all the work for the (usually) better paid, bad citizens, or you learn to be like them. In my department (STEM) all the deadbeat/selfish profs are male, and all the “team players” are women. TAs preferentially go to the male profs too. I’ve had it. I haven’t taught a graduate class in ages, yet I teach the largest undergrad classes every semester. No more. they need to find someone else to carry their load. Screw ’em. I can be an asshole too.

  9. One thing that could help in a situation like this is to make the homework “optional”, in the sense that you prepare problems and solutions, but they are not marked. In North America, that will most likely result in students not doing it (which might not be the best for pedagogy), but that might be helped if you use very similar problems for the exam.
    I would say that this shows that where I did my undergrad we did not have to turn homework in. 🙂

  10. Your comment “Yes, I know, I can have my graduate students help me, and I fully plan on having them help, but that’s not the point.” is very much campus-specific. In the University of California, doing as you propose would result in a grievance filed by the TA union (which includes the grad student researchers and the undergrad tutors and graders as well).

    The teaching loads in our department are fairly balanced (well, I’m doing one more course than everyone else, but I’m the one putting the curriculum-leave plan together, so it’s my own fault), with loads being within 0.5 courses of each other. Our typical load is 1 grad and 2 undergrad courses, but faculty with funding are allowed to buy out of one course at 1/5 of salary, so usually do 1 undergrad and 1 grad course).

    TA funding is in short supply here—it is often cheaper to hire an instructor than to pay the stipend and tuition for a TA.

    You may have access to funds for undergrad graders, who are much cheaper than TAs (and sometimes do a better job, if you can select the right undergrads).

  11. I feel like this is a gendered issue, no? The administration would never do that to a male professor. But to a female? There’s something about being female that makes people think you must want to serve in silence. Infuriating. I like the suggestion about no homework.

  12. When I had my TA pulled (for NO reason other than the department chair, could, and did, because he’s kind of a jerk – none of his reasons made any sense and for each one there was a counter-example, with classes taught by my male colleagues), I said I wouldn’t ever teach that class in the future unless I got a TA. That announcement didn’t work and I taught the class without a TA – and then the chair was really surprised when I said I was not going to teach that class again. As if I’d been kidding. So we went for a year without this (important) class being taught because not many people can/will teach it. My position was that if the course was a priority, it should have a TA. If it’s not a priority, then why the hell would I spend all that time to teach it without one? (Give it to the guy who thinks you don’t need problem sets at all so no TA is needed.) Finally one of my senior (male) colleagues said, in a subfield course planning meeting, “Oh well that course should have a TA.” And then… magically… it was solved. But had I not been willing to say no to teaching without a TA, they wouldn’t have reinstated the TA. Of course, there was that one semester when I taught without one – but I found out about it too late to change anything and didn’t want to mess around with the students who had already registered for the class.

  13. Your comment “Yes, I know, I can have my graduate students help me, and I fully plan on having them help, but that’s not the point.” is very much campus-specific. In the University of California, doing as you propose would result in a grievance filed by the TA union (which includes the grad student researchers and the undergrad tutors and graders as well).

    This must vary from field to field as well. I never helped my advisor with his classes. I was a TA for one year, during which I worked with those profs for their classes, but never for my advisor. To be fair, he also never paid me (I was on fellowship for 5 years) but I don’t think it’s common in my field for advisors to ask their RAs to to TA work.

  14. I think you need to either make a ruckus or resort to multiple choice exams. Seriously, it’s not your students’ responsibility to suck it up because your department decides to screw you over, nor should you really put up with it. (Not feeling terribly hospitable tonight…sorry.)

  15. How can they get away with this? It seems to me that this is a completely unreasonable request and you would be justified in putting your foot down and refusing to teach unless TAs are funded by the department.

    Is there something I am missing, why would a professor put up with this?

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