As some of you may recall, I’m not exactly great at balancing TA duties with all the other parts of being a Ph.D. student even at the best of times. Therefore, this is mostly going to be a compendium of what not to do, based on my own many past failures, and hopefully this year I’ll finally be able to take my own advice!

  1. Don’t wait to start grading assignments. Yes, you’re probably a little burnt out after running a lab section or holding office hours or (blah), but if you have any time available at all you should start grading labs/essays/assignments the same day students start to hand them in. This will both help you get through them faster (as you’ve just been engaging with the material and so won’t need as much time to remember any details about the assignment), and also lighten the load on future-you, especially since not all students will hand in their assignments at the same time.
  2. Don’t wait until you’re already overwhelmed to reach out for help. Your instructor, your fellow TAs, and even the department admin staff are there to help make your life easier, and all of them are more than willing to work with you when the going gets tough. You should definitely start by seeing if you can resolve issues with your fellow TAs, and then escalate to the course instructor if necessary (department admins are probably only going to be involved with issues of academic misconduct or teacher/student disputes).
  3. Don’t show up late! Self-explanatory. (Also embarrassingly difficult… 😖)
  4. Don’t forget to track your time. If you’re anything like me, you’ll tend to put wayyyyy more effort into your prep work/grading/feedback than you’re actually allocated in your contract. While this can feel fulfilling to your self-imposed standards and integrity, if it means you end up using up all your hours, it can create headaches for both you and your course instructor (remember you also need to have time for all the other “jobs” in your program!)
    • And to balance out all those negatives, here are a few brief positive suggestions as well (that I’m also hoping I can keep in mind):
  5. Do ask for additional clarification on your duties if you’re not sure about them. The course instructor (usually) wants you to be as supported as possible—your success is their success! In the same vein as point #2, people are often much more than willing to help if you just say what you need. Don’t be ashamed of what you don’t know!
  6. Do treat your students with respect! Without mentioning names (ahem), in general students will show you the same level of respect back that you show them. They’re still human, after all, and if you ever feel yourself getting jaded towards people sending too many emails asking about their assignments or trying to copy each others’ work in their lab sections, just remember what it was like when all of this was new for you as well.
  7. In that same vein, try to put yourself in your students’ shoes. While the curse of knowledge plagues us all, and there is admittedly no simple remedy, your teaching can always be improved by trying to imagine the perspective of someone approaching the subject for the first time. And if you find yourself having trouble envisioning this accurately, get feedback! Whether officially through end-semester surveys, or informally by just asking students what topics or concepts they’re confused about, it makes all the difference in the world to be receptive and adaptable to the challenges of those you’re trying to help.
  8. Blow off steam. While bearing in mind point 1, we’re still only human, and working with your other TAs together in the same room to grade assignments or put together course materials can be a great way to get out any exasperation or frustration without having to make it the problem of your students. They don’t have to see it, you and your coworkers can have a little laugh, and hopefully you can keep yourself energized and motivated enough to re-approach the whole endeavour with a little more empathy afterwards.
  9. While you’re talking with your fellow TAs—do discuss your choices for how to grade! You will avoid many problems down the road if you all agree on consistent marking strategies, and while these should ideally be made clear by your instructor, sometimes it’s faster and more efficient for subjective tasks to just come to a consensus with your comrades.

Now, with all the big obvious intra- and inter-personal strategies out of the way, let’s tackle some of the thornier issues with fewer clear and simple answers.

One of the first is, of course, what to do about academic dishonesty. This is always a contentious question, and while my first instinct is in all cases to try to assume the best possible faith in your students and adhere to tips #6 and 7, inevitably cases will arise that cannot be overlooked or dismissed so easily. In this case, the best course of action is to follow your school’s Academic Honesty policies as best as possible—and make sure if you think it’s something serious to involve your instructor as soon as possible to help resolve the issue in a timely way. Of course, all of this has been made much more murky with the rise of tools like ChatGPT, but at least at Western the advice is to treat it the same as any other instance of academic dishonesty: try to anticipate what could motivate students to turn to these tools in the first place and try to avoid creating those stresses, and explain their limitations and what ways of using them are acceptable vs. unacceptable. Importantly, AI detection tools are not currently accepted as objective methods for determining the presence of AI-generated content, so do not rely on e.g. Turnitin’s built-in tool to make these calls. If you want more info about the use of these tools in an academic environment, the Center for Teaching and Learning has put together a fairly comprehensive set of slides explaining them.

Secondly, and this has (thankfully) never happened to me, but if you do develop good relationships with your students, you may find yourself being the first contact for students suffering mental health issues or revealing they have been in a sexually or physically violent situation. Thankfully, there are some university- and government-provided modules and online training courses to help you practice what to say in these situations, and what resources are available to direct your student(s) to.[1]Unfortunately, I think it is relatively difficult to learn these skills purely through online writing/multiple choice methods… Making this mandatory in-person training in the same way, e.g., lab safety exercises are would go a long way to improving this As always, empathy is key, but you’re not being paid (or probably qualified) to be a therapist or crisis support worker—make sure you let those who are take on this responsibility!

Okay, I think that’s all for this week. TAing is a job, yes, but also an opportunity and an important part of your graduate journey, and managing your own responsibilities in this position will create a positive experience for everyone.

Till next time,

-xoxo gossip grad