My TAs were assigned to my intro course before I was signed up to teach it. As luck would have it, they're both friends of mine from my grad program.
But there's a problem: One of my TAs is very experienced, but is new to American studies and is having some difficulty in her discussion sections. (She's perfectly capable of doing American studies research, but I don't think she's quite as comfortable introducing students to the discipline.)
She said she is used to teaching in disciplines where most of the people look like her (women's studies or ethnic studies courses), and she's not having a good go of it with her current crop of students.* She decided to do midterm evaluations in her sections, and they came back, she said, looking very ugly. She believes her students hate her. She hinted that some of their disrespect may be because of her gender and her ethnicity, and I don't think she's being oversensitive--racism and sexism may indeed be in play, based on the kind of comments she said she received in the evaluations.
I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to deal with racism directed against me (I'm white--no, really!) and I've been lucky on the sexism front, too. So I'm kind of at a loss as to how to deal with this. Do I ask to see the evaluations, and if there is overt racism, sexism, or another kind of disrespect, do I go talk to the sections? Would that just make things worse?
It's clear many of the students don't understand the role of a TA in the humanities. She has a lot of science students who expect TAs to help them find "the right answer." In American studies, that's not how we roll. Maybe students need to be reminded (again?!) that we're not here to spoon-feed knowledge to them.
In addition, things were made worse by the fact that most students (in all sections, not just hers) received Cs and Ds on their first paper, which they received back from us last week. Students may perceive that she somehow failed to impart to them the knowledge they needed to get an A on the paper. (Of course, I instructed my TAs not to give students the answers, and rather to guide them in thinking critically in response to the essay prompt.)
Anyway, I want to help her, and she's come to me to talk things through, so I know she wants my help in some fashion. But when I asked her what I could do to help, she said she didn't know of anything I could do. I offered to come observe section, but she declined the offer. Since she is my friend, I don't want to coerce her into accepting some kind of solution where I go in and (try to) "fix things." I don't want to turn this into a supervisor-subordinate relationship unless it really has to become one.
Any ideas as to what I can do to help her out and to get the students to play along, even if her discussion sections might not be meeting what they perceive to be their needs? She's got a lot of other stuff going on in her life right now, and I hate to see her suffering through the rest of the quarter with a lousy teaching experience on top of it all.
*I have mixed feelings about people teaching only to people who look like them. Solidarity is good, yes. It's good for students of color (or women in science, or anyone else underrepresented in a university environment) to see someone who looks like them leading the class. But at the same time, we all need to stretch our wings, don't we? There have been a few times where I've been the only, or one of 2-3, white people in the classroom, or the only straight person at a LGBT retreat, etc. And these were frequently challenging, but in the end very important, learning experiences.