Thursday, November 09, 2006


Sticky situation:

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.


Breena Ronan said...

Ok, I know we talked about this, but here are some more useful thoughts. If she doesn't want you to observe how can you help? Shouldn't the reviews have some suggestions in them about what the students would like her to do differently? If the students don't give her any useful suggestions and the comments are just mean, there's not much that can be done. Did she show you any evaluations? Maybe you could look at them with an impartial eye?

Anonymous said...

hmmm, here's my thoughts:
i think you should look at evaluations. observing discussion will most likely look to the students as though you are there to check up on her not them, and can further decrease the control/effectiveness that she has in the class.

if after looking at evals, you see that they are sexist/racist, and even if you don't see it -- you can't really say its not there since her reading of it is valid -- i would say a quick 5 minutes talk on the point of TAs, discussion section, how it differs in the humanities, etc. would be helpful for the entire class.

grumpyABDadjunct said...

I'm in a similar situation right now - dealing with something-akin-to-science-majors who are sexist - but I'm the instructor. I went to my supervising professor and I am meeting with him and the undergraduate program director to discuss the situation next week. My TA observes every week (we have a lecture, no tutorials) and she confirms that there is sexism and that the akin-to-science-majors are constantly challenging my authority because they don't think that this topic is 'truly' academic (read: not science or math) and that they are confused and threatened by the subjectivity of what they are being taught.

I have also had this experience in the course I team teach; the other instructor is a female and middle eastern (which is a whole other pile of crap at our Uni, let me tell you!). She is very sensitive about sexism and racism, including having to deal with some very tricky situations with other middle eastern students, particulary men, particularly Muslims...a huge can of worms. When things have been bad she and I and the undergrad director for that department have been in close contact so that everyone knows what is going on and we are checking to make sure that she isn't, in her own words, "being oversensitive." In one case I took one of her students out of her tutorial and put them in mine just to take the pressure off, it was uncomfortable but it worked.

Be straight with your TA/friend. Tell her what you told us, that you don't want to be all supervisory on her ass, but that you DO want to support her. These things can spin out of control fast and even if nothing "official" really happens it is an enormous drain on one's ego.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the various comments above - and wanted to agree that it's a difficult and unpleasant situation. One thing I wanted to mention was that while it may not be possible to transform the students in one semester (quarter?), you might be able to write a letter for this student explaining the attitude of the students and stating that the evals don't reflect the quality of the TA's teaching (if such a letter might be relevant/helpful in her file or something).

I also agree with justme - I think looking at the evals would help, and then, if they confirm that the students aren't getting what the course is about, a brief statement about what the course *is* about - probably in lecture, so it doesn't look like you're singling someone out - would be helpful. And perhaps discussing the paper grades again? (This may be something that would make more sense when the next paper comes up, or something like that?)

The other thing is that if you get a critical mass of students who don't (want to) get how American Studies is different from science, there may not be much that you can do, and it may not have anything to do with your TAs inexperience with American Studies. Sometimes you get a bad crop of students.

About teaching only to those who look like you: I had never thought of/heard that before. When I look back, except for a couple of notable exceptions, yeah, I've taught people who look like me - but then there are the age and class differences to take into account, too, so often they really aren't like me, even if they're the same color. Hmmmm. I actually find the idea a little unnerving, that this is something to aim for?

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a woman in the sciences, I've seen a lot of sexism go by; I would be surprised if that's not part of her problem.

Speaking as a former TA, I personally would not want the instructor to come in and scold my students (even if they deserved it) because to me, it would seem like the prof was saying I couldn't deal with it myself. As long as she knows you'll back her up, then she has the authority to deal with it.

I have usually taken a few minutes at the beginning of every section to address concerns or problems, and to take questions; having them ask in public, as it were, rather than after class, can minimize the unpleasantness of some students, and then they don't save up quite as many grievances.

Would it be possible for one or both of your TAs to get up and do a "quick 5 minutes talk on the point of TAs, discussion section, how it differs in the humanities, etc."? That way the message is a little more: you have to listen to these people, and I support this. One thing I have done in sections- though I think it works best at the beginning- is to tell the students exactly what they can expect from me, when I am available, and what they will not get; maybe this could be part of their lecture on How Sections Work. You could also add a brief statement on how unacceptable racism and sexism are, and against University policy, etc.

Best of luck, assertiveness, and strength to your TA.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what everyone else has said. Definitely ask her if you can read the evaluations, because then you can be more fully informed about the situation. And, I hate to sound cynical, but there may not be much you can do about your students' racist/sexist attitudes. In my experience (I'm white as well and have yet to encounter racism) students will continue to be sexist no matter what...its not something they can overcome in one semester. And I'm sure the same thing goes for racist students. I think the most important thing you can do is show your TA that you are supporting her, and make clear to your students that she is in a position of authority and is qualified for this position. I get a lot of age discrimination since I look like I'm about 18 and I'm only 5'1", so making sure my students recognize that I am qualified to teach is essential if I am going to be an effective instructor.