Thursday, January 15, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: Getting the Boss Fired

A returning correspondent writes:

Here's the situation: I worked as a TA for an intro level survey course for a truly awful adjunct. She was condescending, vague about my role inside and outside the classroom, unclear about how strict/lenient grading should be, and frequently imposed impractical deadlines. With the students in the class, she was vague about expectations, a truly harsh grader, thematically all over the place, and in particular, refused to explain to the students what she meant by "good writing" (probably just wasn't capable of, is more like it). She also was terrible about answering student emails/keeping the students informed about changes to the syllabus. All in all, pretty much your standard nightmare with a PhD.

As her TA, I struggled pretty much daily with what my role both in- and outside of the classroom. My suggestions for how to improve the class (like a suggestion for a session on improving student writing, which I even volunteered to organize and run outside of class time) were met with hostility and disgust. I helped the students best I could, but a lot of the time, there wasn't much I could do (since it was unclear what this woman even wanted from her students, outside of a textbook recitation of facts, etc)...

So, my question is actually two-fold:

1)What do you (and your readers) feel a TA's role, both inside and outside the classroom, should be? How/Should a professor communicate responsibilities with their TA?

and

2) How can you get a truly awful adjunct fired without making a god-awful mess of things for yourself? Our department is kind of all over the place in terms of knowing who to talk to about anything, but someone needs to know truly how awful this woman is. I'm afraid, however, that this will just look like bitching on my part. I know that this professor is a serious gossip hound, and she talks about EVERYBODY, including her TA's, and I know for a fact that she's had some not-so-nice things to say about me. I don't think she should be removed for my sake; I KNOW that there are hundreds of other smart, qualified people that would happily take a position at our institution.


There's a lot here, but I'll focus on what I consider the key point. (I won't really address #1, since we don't have TA's at the cc level. I'll leave that one for folks who work with TA's on a regular basis.)

It's not your job to get her fired.

Let's assume that everything you write is correct, and that she's a terrible teacher and supervisor. Not criminal, and not in violation of any of the basic canons of behavior (sleeping with students, accepting money for grades), but just a really lousy teacher.

Mere badness – as opposed to violation of law or canons of ethical behavior – falls under the category of 'professional judgment.' The professional judgment in question belongs to the hiring manager, typically a department chair. It does not belong to you.

To the extent that you can inform that judgment with relevant and verifiable facts, presented calmly, that may or may not be worthwhile, depending on personalities and local culture. But if you go on a crusade to get her fired, you will be perceived – rightly or wrongly – as part of the problem.

One of the really frustrating lessons I've had to learn in administration is that you never want to get into a point-by-point argument with a crazy person. They don't fight fair, and you'll get dragged into their mud. The way to handle them is to take the high road, stick to facts, and to trust that, over time, their nuttiness will discredit them. (If the entire culture of the college is nutty, you're probably best off finding another place to work.)

If you fight a gossip-monger by gossip-mongering, it's hard to imagine a positive outcome. At best, maybe you battle to a draw, reducing your own credibility to her level. At worst, you lose, since she has more practice at that game. Don't do it.

And that's without even addressing the cost of the battle in terms of both time and emotional energy. Both are finite, and both could be better spent doing almost anything else. You'd be much better off focusing on things you can actually control. For example, if it helps you sleep at night, you could go to the chair to deny her allegations, and merely take a classy and conspicuous silence regarding her. I'm not usually a fan of this approach – it's hard to defend yourself without sounding defensive – but it can make sense in some cases. Then learn what you can from the experience and move on.

(For the record, my advice would be very different if she were doing something clearly illegal or immoral. In those cases, I see an ethical obligation to blow the whistle. But that's not this case.)

If it's any consolation, it's possible to learn from lousy mentors and bosses, just as it's possible to learn from good ones. Reflect carefully on all that you've seen and experienced. To the extent that you can translate visceral responses into conscious ideas, you may be able to make yourself a more effective instructor.

Good luck. This isn't a pretty situation, but it doesn't have to get any uglier.

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on this one?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
That's a great point, DD, about being able to learn from bad teachers as much as you can from good ones. I'd say save the experience for interviewing when the committee asks about a "difficult situation that you were able to turn into a success" (but DON'T name any names of course). Good luck!
 
Maybe the best thing you can do is to get her to proposition you :)....

I think that, if you are asked about your experience as a TA -- you should be honest. After that, there is little you can do and she probably realizes that.

Sadly, good teaching isn't valued and she'll probably continue this way until she gets herself fired.
 
Excellent advice from DD.

If this adjunct is as bad as the email makes her out to be, then she already has a reputation in her department. Since she is still there, there must be a reason for it. The reason could be sensible or it could be utter nonsense (or mere inertia), but you're unlikely to be able to overcome it with your complaints.

In general, as a TA, your complaints are not going to be taken very seriously (unless, as DD points out, you're dealing with a clear ethical violation.) No matter how valid they are. And frankly, why should they be? The question of how to get her fired is childish. It's clearly coming from someone who has limited workplace experience. Which is fine - a TA is still a student and not expected to know everything. But as a result, your impact on hiring decisions is going to be quite limited.

However, you could have some success moving the complaint up the ladder. You get nowhere in academia if you don't adapt to the rigid hierarchy. There are many many downsides of that, but in your shoes it is best to suck it up. If you have an advisor or other faculty member you trust and with whom you have a respectful relationship, it is appropriate to bring the situation to his attention. It may be smart to phrase it as, "what can I do if this happens again in the future, and did I deal with it appropriately at the time," rather than, "I need to tell you about this bad teacher!" The former paints you as a professional concerned about job performance, rather than a kid with a grievance. But either way, you get your point across; you tried your best but the students were not happy and expectations were not clear. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if your chosen confidant knew who you were talking about without even mentioning names.
 
I'm intrigued by the concept of an adjunct who gets his/her own TA. A TA-ship usually costs the school far more than an average adjunct would.

Anyway: DD's right that this is above your pay grade. If you're concerned that the higher-ups just have no idea how bad she is, there's one possible strategy:

I assume this isn't your first TA, and/or that there are faculty members in your department with whom you've talked about teaching skills. Go to one of them with the syllabus for the course with the problem teacher. Explain that students have been asking you for clarification, and that you haven't been able to formulate a response that you're satisfied with. Since you care about being a good instructor, you thought you would ask for advice from someone more experienced.

Your mentor, of course, will ask why you haven't asked your lead instructor for clarification. You then say you have, but that you're having difficulty applying her comments. If you have a reputation for being clueful, your mentor's next thought will be "That's funny....why would Grad Student X have trouble understanding Professor Y's comments? I never had any trouble getting Grad Student X to understand me." Mentor may well start asking questions.

Notice that you're not complaining about Professor Y, or criticizing her, or doing anything that could be held against you. You're sincerely asking for help in becoming a better teacher, which is something that a good grad student should do. If Professor Y really is a train wreck, your questions might get her looked at more closely. If she's actually not that bad, but just incompatible with you, then you'll pick up some useful teaching tips. Either way, it's all good.
 
Hi Folks,

I'm the TA who wrote in, and I just want to clarify a few things (thanks for the great advice so far! Keep it coming!).

Anyway, the part about "getting the Prof fired" is actually, for me, more a question of accountability within the University. Let me try to explain: as a TA, we get evaluated on our performance, but we don't evaluate the professor's performance as a boss or as a professor, which seems a bit lopsided to me. Wouldn't it make sense to have a really experienced student (which, was was pointed out before, is what we are: we're still students) give their take on what's going on in the classroom?

Adjuncts have a really tough gig, and I respect how hard it is to make it all work. But the fact remains that an adjunct's responsibility is still to his/her students as a teacher, and this particular professor was truly, truly awful in this regard. Obviously, it's the chair's call if he/she wants to keep employing a particular adjunct, and I wouldn't want that responsibility. I'm not looking to crusade, either. I guess my question really is: do I have a responsibility to say something to someone?

I'm really concerned with the first part of my question though: what responsibilities should a professor have with regard to his/her TA's? I'm interested to see how you all view that relationship.

Thanks so much!
 
I'm actually a little more optimistic here :). This happened to me as a TA, except that it was not an adjunct: the faculty member was tenure-track (but not tenured). A bunch of students (>20) asked me what could be done. After sitting in on a couple of classes and watching the interactions/faculty response to questions, I took the student complaints/requests to the chair. He went to see for himself, and the next week said faculty was no longer teaching class. She didn't last out the year, either.

So: not easy, but *if* your chair has reason to trust you then possible.
 
Your question about the prof/TA relationship is a good one, but it's hard to give a general answer. In my experience, each pair is different. For what its worth, here is my $0.02.

1.From a prof's perspective, TA's vary in terms of ability and work habits. I've had some TA's that I can trust with significant responsibilities, others that can't be trusted with any. I suspect she (even if incorrectly) put you in the latter category, which is why she reacted to your ideas that way.

2. Subjective grading is hard, and IMHO, TAs shouldn't be stuck with it. In my experience, I've had some TAs that can do it, but I've also had to do a fair amount of re-grading when I've let TAs do it. This isn't necessarily their fault, it may be mine for not making my expectations clear.

3. Maybe I shouldn't generalize, but I love it when TAs are good at being organized. If they can manage the gradebook, keep up with dates/details, remind me of things I need to be reminded of, drop by my office regularly to see if there's something to do instead of waiting for me to get around to emailing them, then I'm usually satisfied.

4. Most campuses now use Blackboard or Moodle or something. I'd love to hear a TA say "hey, why don't I be in charge of keeping the online grades are up to date, making sure all the class files are there, etc."

5. The instructor (hopefully) has a vision of what the course will be like, and no matter how brilliant a TA's ideas are, they may not fit. That doesn't mean your ideas or the course vision is bad, it just means it may not fit, or may take time away from something the instructor values, or be something that doesn't fit their teaching style. If the prof asks for input, great, but if not, when you have ideas like that write them down in a notebook somewhere and use them for your own course someday. If you see things that don't work, don't tell the instructor your opinion, just write it down in your notebook.

6. I try to find some way of integrating my TA's research interests into the course. Usually this is something small, like giving a 15 minute lecture on a class topic that relates to their interest, or involving them in a class activity, etc. On the flip side, I am happy whenever a TA takes the initiative here (e.g. looks over the syllabus and says "you know, I've read some interesting stuff about the topic for Day 13, do you want me to help with that?") Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. Mostly it works when the TA and I have a previous relationship from class, which might not be possible for an adjunct.

7. I don't ask TAs to attend class every day. When I did it as a TA for somet classes, though, I found a dramatic difference from the classes where I didn't, in terms of students approaching me, asking questions, etc. As an instructor, I'd be impressed if one of my TAs did that.
 
I can't really comment on the first part of the question. My (more than 30-years-ago) experience as a TA was unusual; we were responsible for the courses we taught, we ran them (using a departmental syllabus and a departmentally-selected textbook) ourselves, with a coordinator for assistance. So we were really more like adjuncts.

I have to say, also, that I'm as surprised as everyone else that X has TAs. That's not usual, unless X was hired at the last minute to fill in for a full-time faculty member (or unless "adjunct" is being used here to mean temporary, possibly full-time, but not tenure-track).

Whaat I can say is that it seems perfectly acceptable to speak to whoever coordinates TA assignments and suggest that you'd rather TA for someone else, because your approach to the course seems to conflict with X's approach. You might get asked for details, which I think you can provide, but circumspectly.
 
I approach the Prof-TA relationship as one of mentorship in the classroom (as opposed to the Prof-Grad Student relationship, which should be mentorship in research and academic presentation). I have tried to use courses with TAs as opportunities for co-teaching, so that we can learn from each other.

In any case, the relationship should be one in which both sides learn and grow. If a prospective TA has never taught, then it is the prof's responsibility to help them learn how to teach. If they will have to do subjective grading, it is the prof's responsibility to provide an appropriate rubric, guidance in using the rubric, and above all to work through the TA's grading with them, at least the first time, so they understand how to apply the rubric. In other words, as with all teaching, it is the prof's responsibility to communicate expectations to the TA and provide them with the tools necessary to meet those expectations.

I also think that, when practical, a TA should be involved in developing the syllabus, readings, classroom activities, etc. The worst situation for students taking a class is when there is a disconnect between what the TA does and what the prof does, whether that takes the form of the TA explaining what the students should have learned in lecture (so then why go to lecture...) or when, as I sometimes saw as an undergrad myself, when there appear to be two different agenda at work (and student have to choose which to follow). The best way to avoid those situations is to involve the TA in planning.

I realize that some faculty believe they have nothing to learn from graduate students, that some of them bristle at the thought of anyone else having a say on "their" class, and that TAs, being in the weaker position within the institution, have little ability to create this kind of relationship on their own volition. For TAs who find themselves in that position, all I can say is "welcome to academia." You can't force faculty to do anything they don't want to do--a lesson you will find extremely valuable in your future career.
 
One thing to keep in mind is that adjuncts usually do have a lot of surveillance on them. Most of us are observed every semester by professors who write letters that go in our files. We're often encouraged (or required) to do extra teaching training sessions, no matter how many years we've been teaching. And we are, absent any sort of contract, assumed to be "fired" every semester unless we are offered re-employment.

I'm not saying there aren't "bad" adjuncts who don't do a great job in the classroom, but re-employment is already a crapshoot for anyone. I've known adjuncts who had to move from college to college each semester because of a bad student evaluation here or a not-great observation there. It's plenty easy for adjuncts to lose employment, and if you're concerned about this instructor, my guess is that the department is already getting the feedback they need from student evals and observation reports.

I know being a TA can feel powerless, since you're supposed to be learning how to teach and here's this person who doesn't seem to be very good at the thing you're an apprentice in. But as a TA, you're there to learn, in one way or another, what to do or not do in the classroom. It's not unlike having an incompetent boss in any other job, in that it creates more work for you, you see the whole enterprise going poorly, and it can make you crazy that the boss is the one getting real paychecks.

The difference is, you happen to be a TA for someone whose employment is probably automatically terminated at the end of every semester anyway. I'm not saying you should feel sorry for her, but know that there is no job security to attack here. If they're keeping her around, it could be that she's usually a great teacher and was having a rough semester (this happens--a divorce, emotional or physical health problems, trouble with a kid, etc. can really affect your ability to teach as well as you'd like), or that she is irreplaceable for some other reason, like her ability to teach some needed subject.

I had a TA for the first time last semester, and I have to say, it made me paranoid as hell. As an adjunct, my life is always hanging by a very thin thread of decent observations and student evals, and now I'm going to have some student in my class writing down comments every day about my methodology? I was lucky that the student assigned to me was a previous student of mine whom I got along with well. He ended up reporting back to his teaching seminar that he really enjoyed my approach and learned from it. But what if he hadn't, and my "bad teaching" was being discussed in that seminar? I could lose my job, my health care, possibly my apartment. It's terrifying.

I know you are angry on behalf of those students, and I often feel that myself. Just know that there are already plenty of feedback loops in place on this adjunct, and they will do the work of ending her employment soon enough. But unless she is doing something truly disturbing in the classroom (like, I dunno, teaching plagiarism, or harassing minorities or something), I agree with the above that you can take this as a great negative example for your future teaching and tell anyone who asks that you don't think you were a good fit.

(About the email thing, I'll add that sometimes you get an insane amount of emails from students. Most of the time, yes, responding is totally possible, but there are students who will email you twenty times every day saying "GET BACK TO ME ASAP," asking for personalized explanations of the material. Adjuncts do not get paid for the hour after hour that we spend responding to emails, and doing so in the way students want us to can quickly turn a full-time job into half again overtime.)
 
"Anyway, the part about "getting the Prof fired" is actually, for me, more a question of accountability within the University. Let me try to explain: as a TA, we get evaluated on our performance, but we don't evaluate the professor's performance as a boss or as a professor, which seems a bit lopsided to me. Wouldn't it make sense to have a really experienced student (which, was was pointed out before, is what we are: we're still students) give their take on what's going on in the classroom?"

Ah Generation Y, I love you.

Welcome to the real-live-world-of-work. Why yes, it is lopsided. The thing is, if you were in a system where you gave 360 degree feedback – feedback on your supervisor – you wouldn't be evaluating your supervisor's performance in the classroom anyway; you'd be evaluating her supervisory role.

That's how accountability works. You don't go and take on reception over how they answer the phone, because they do not have a specific accountability to you.

If her supervisor asks you, then you provide information. Otherwise, no. Except if there is an ethical issue.

The students need to complain; not you. If they express this to you, you could guide them in how to give their feedback.
 
What Anonymous said -- your only role is to guide student complaint.

Your department has implemented a policy of allowing someone who you view as incompetent to teach. You have nothing to do with this, and it is almost certainly known and accepted. That's so far above your pay grade that about the only thing you can do in this situation is get yourself fired.
 
I'm actually surprised at some people's descriptions of what happens with their TAs - they don't attend class? They don't keep up the grading? They don't do subjective grading? I TA'ed for 8 semesters at my graduate institution, and basically ran my own show - we all did. Wrote assignments and tests, graded them, kept track of them, went to every single lecture without fail, dealt with students on every single level, from clarifying information to taking complaints about grades. I even wrote section syllabi for some of the classes. The prof/lecturer was basically there to show up for an hour twice a week and talk. What a difference.
 
As someone who has been in that same position (only with a tenured professor), I would say that you should explain the situation to your immediate supervisor (graduate student advisor, course head, department chair, etc.). They will do what's appropriate in the situation and in your department's culture, which could be anything from completely ignoring you, adding your complaints to a file, or following up on the matter directly. You don't have much power as a graduate student, but having an open stream of communications with your supervisor is always a good thing.
 
Too much here to chew into right now, so I will just hit one point.

I was a TA as an undergrad and a grad student. With the exception of the lab (where I had full instructor grade issuance authority before I had even earned one graduate credit!), I did not run a course. We handled recitations in a large lecture environment.

I had bad supervisors and good ones, good teachers and one truly awful one. I got my best evaluations when teaching with the best ones and with the worst ones. In the latter case, I was the only one doing any teaching!

I also witnessed something like what TA is talking about. It is futile and dangerous for TA to do anything other than tell the students how to file complaints, and do your level best to be sure none of them are about you.

I would, however, recommend doing something about false rumors that might reach your boss (the dept head or whatever who hired you). You are certainly within your rights to go to your boss and refute things that you have heard said about you. Be careful, and bring documentation.
 
I once was a TA for a new (but plenty experienced, "trailing spouse") professor who was just awful--not connecting with the students in the ways he seemed to think he was, going over readings paragraph by paragraph during large class meetings, kind of creeping the students out in a couple ways as well. The students were constantly complaining to me, and I did let them vent for occasionally a moment before I moved on to teaching section.

That said, a few students mentioned--independently of one another--that they were going to change majors because this was only their second or so class in the department and they thought this prof represented the quality of teaching in the entire department. Since the department had a decent showing of majors, but not exactly many to spare, I did share the students' comments with the very approachable and wise department chair. But I shared them not in the sense of "Jeez, this guy stinks," but rather "I'm not sure the prof and the intro class for the major are made for one another." The chair nodded, and the guy hasn't taught the intro course in many years, even though he mentioned at the time how much he enjoyed teaching it. I'm sure student evals influenced the chair's decision more than did my comment, but I felt it was necessary to plant a seed in his mind that this professor's teaching could be making the department lose majors. The chair seemed to appreciate the tip-off.
 
I see a red flag right off the bat. This TA must be really, really moral, with absolute, positive dedication to the students to go to these lengths to help them. Or, it could be that something else is going on. There is a personal reason for wanting the adjunct to be fired. The way this is phrased as being "for the students" makes me want to barf.

A bit of career advice. You seldom win battles with supervisors. If the students have concerns about the quality of instruction, tell that first to the instructor. Then, if the complaints persist, go to the department head. That's where it ends for you.

As for your first question, the answer is simple. You have to do whatever the adjunct tells you to do, subject to it meeting the department's rules. If you think you are being asked to do too much, contact your Director of Graduate Studies.

You seem like a perfect fit for a department with lots of politics. I can just imagine the high quality of the backstabbing you would inflict on your trusting colleagues at the earliest opportunity.

Not to be rude, but you seem to have advanced quite far in your fantasy about how things should be and who you are. It's just shocking when someone writes about problems with not being able to evaluate a supervisor. Wow.
 
TA who wrote in, here again. Thanks so much for the really helpful advice everyone. It's useful to see how things look from the other side of this, frankly, kind of tricky relationship...

Anon 6:11, I'm going to have to disagree with you on a few things:

"I see a red flag right off the bat. This TA must be really, really moral, with absolute, positive dedication to the students to go to these lengths to help them. Or, it could be that something else is going on. There is a personal reason for wanting the adjunct to be fired. The way this is phrased as being "for the students" makes me want to barf."

Look, I'm not some totally pious, moral, above-the-fray person. Here's the truth: undergrads are generally pretty clueless. Most of the students who were getting totally short-changed by this prof. had no idea that they should even be complaining; they thought that it was THEIR FAULT that they weren't doing well. And for us TA's, it's a difficult position to be in. Yes, I want to be pragmatic and fair, and not sneaky and backhanded towards this prof. Ultimately, it's the professor's name that goes on all of the official school stuff, and I respect the amount of pressure on professors, and how difficult it must be to trust their grading, their reputation, and possibily their jobs on the skills and judgement of a 22-26 year old. And frankly, it's a really difficult relationship to navigate for all parties involved, ESPECIALLY for a 22-27 year old kid with zero power but a TON of responsibilities and pressure in the form of managing the class, grading, etc. There's no real personal stuff going on here. I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of this prof., but that's more a function of our disfunctional relationship than anything else. That's not WHY I'm upset/confused.

"As for your first question, the answer is simple. You have to do whatever the adjunct tells you to do, subject to it meeting the department's rules. If you think you are being asked to do too much, contact your Director of Graduate Studies.

You seem like a perfect fit for a department with lots of politics. I can just imagine the high quality of the backstabbing you would inflict on your trusting colleagues at the earliest opportunity.

Not to be rude, but you seem to have advanced quite far in your fantasy about how things should be and who you are. It's just shocking when someone writes about problems with not being able to evaluate a supervisor. Wow."



I'd be really interested to hear Dean Dad's take on this section of your comment, but I'll simply say this: being a supervisor IS about accountability, and evaluation, and communication of what the responsibilities of BOTH PARTIES are. Am I looking to "evaluate" my supervisor? Sure. In a good employee/employer relationship, constructive advice and understanding should run both ways, no? I don't think that a supervisor gets a pass just because they're your supervisor and you're their employee. The part about "department regulations" is problematic, as well. At most of the institutions that I know (including mine) department "regulations" are pretty vague and useless. TA's have a weekly hour limit they're supposed to stay within sight of, but other than that, it's pretty open ended. So as long as I am being worked x number of hours a week, I can be asked to do anything, no matter how unreasonable? That doesn't seem quite right to me...
 
Not Anon 6:11, I meant Anon 6:22. You get the idea...
 
TA: Anon's comment above is exactly how you will be perceived by some folks in the department, which is why you don't want a piece of this.
 
I'm not a TA, but here's what I say to students when they hint that professor X is a train wreck: I'm curious, why is it that students won't hesitate to complain about poor service in a restaurant for which the amount paid is trivial, but they will suffer in silence about poor service in a pricey college classroom? Is it that students are unaware that complaining anonymously, preferably early in the semester, will almost always shine a light on the problem? Then I imagine aloud what would happen if students used their cellphones to record a professor's tantrum and then posted it to YouTube.

We want our student to behave like adults, so we should, too. Technology permits them too many ways to rat me out if I go astray from my real purpose, which is to create the proper learning environment.
 
"former" hits the mark above. Unless she just started, the department knows about her bad habits, and may even exactly how bad, in which case you have nothing to report.

If you're not sure, offer only some FACTS to the academic advisor or the Chair, depending who you trust more, and let them encourage or discourage you in any further steps.

Don't waste a lot of energy on a battle that is likely not winnable. (Some adjuncts are paid for reasons unrelated to current teaching ability.)
 
"Am I looking to "evaluate" my supervisor? Sure. In a good employee/employer relationship, constructive advice and understanding should run both ways, no? I don't think that a supervisor gets a pass just because they're your supervisor and you're their employee. "

No.

No, workplaces do not work this way.

It is true that some supervisors do this -- note who is initiating it. (As richard says he does.)

And it is true that some organizations initiate what is called 360 feedback; even where this is initiated, though there are serious, serious ground rules laid about who comments on which aspects of whose job.

But generally speaking: no. That's not how it works. Good luck. :)
 
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