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In quite the predicament as a new TA

  1. Feb 5, 2015 #1
    This might seem like a silly thing to post on a forum, but frankly I'm at a loss. I've been TAing this one class for 5 semesters now, but this semester it's a new professor so things have changed, and I misunderstood one big instruction. I teach the labs and am pretty independent, so I'm not quite sure what to do.

    Basically, our university has a colloquium every week. The students in my class (physics I) can attend for extra points. The professor told me that the students can opt out of one lab (out of 8) and do an essay on the colloquium speaker some particular week. However, I misunderstood this to mean that instead of doing any of the labs, they can write essays over the different colloquia if they so choose. And that's what I told my students.

    My intention, of course, was to correct things this week (the 2nd lab), but I was appalled when only 10/25 students showed up to lab this morning because they thought they could just write essays instead! Not only that, but fewer than 30% of my students turned in their first lab report.

    I told the professor and apologized profusely, and he basically gave me the "It's your issue, fix it" spiel. I don't have my students' e-mail addresses, nor am I able to go in during lecture and clear things up (I have a class at that time), so I'm afraid that the ship has sailed for most of my students!

    What do I do?

    TLDR; Told my students they don't need to come to lab, but found out they do. Have no way of contacting them or apologizing or adjusting the gradebook. What do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 5, 2015 #2


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    Somebody must have a class roll somewhere on file. Does the instructor have a secretary? How about the administration office? Bulletin board? School Newspaper?
  4. Feb 5, 2015 #3

    Simon Bridge

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    The solution is: you need to get word to the students about the mixup before the next lab, and you need to give those students an opportunity to make up the class.

    I'm going to give you the hard word here:

    You will need to get this fixed even if it means taking time out from your classes to do so: you can make the classes up later. Presumably you are concerned that your grades will suffer - well what about theirs? You had a duty of care to your students and you failed - it was your fault, you are a grown up, these are the consequences: suck it up.

    I do not accept that there is no way to contact your students - you can skip a class and go to their lectures, you can contact their lecturers ahead of their classes and ask the lecturer to deliver the message and/or put a notice on the board. You can use student bulletin boards in hallways where they may walk. Presumably you explained the mixup to the students who did show up to the lab last time? Did you ask them to contact the others? (Probably they will anyway.)
    Talk to the secretaries, they may be able to get you a class role with contact details and they know you are a TA.
    (Always make friends with the secretaries - they are the most important people in a department.)

    To make up the grade means either an extra lab session, or fudging the future grades (if you are the one who grades the labs).
    Once you have everyone informed and attending labs, work out several methods the students may make up the lost lab time and then approach the prof with them. This shows you are not just running and hiding so your prof will be more inclined to help.

    Anyone can be a good TA when things are going right. Its how you act in a crisis that will show your character.
    Your prof is certainly watching to see how you react ...

    You know what resources you have: time to apply all that education you've been getting.
    Toughen up. Eyes on the target. Now get to it.
  5. Feb 6, 2015 #4
    I appreciate the advice, it's not harshly spoken at all. I screwed up.

    However, I should specify, I am not taking a class at that time, I am teaching one. But your idea to write a notice on the board is a great one, I'll definitely do that. At least here, the secretaries don't care about TAs except for the fact that they pay me, but I do have all of the students' names, and I can look them up in the school directory. Now I feel dumb :)

    Doing a makeup lab really isn't an option since the equipment for the lab is only out for 6 hours per week (the lab room is used for something like 7 other classes). However I'm willing to do pretty much anything grade-wise. I considered something to the effect that if they truly thought they could write an essay instead of doing a lab, I'll just accept the essay. I mean, it's not fair to the others (a 4-page double-spaced essay compared to a lab report that would take hours?) but I'm not sure how to make it fair.
  6. Feb 6, 2015 #5


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    I'm surprised at two things in this day and age:

    1. that you didn't have your students' e-mail addresses from Day 1. Isn't this something you try to get and straightened out on the very first day you meet with them, along with other information? Considering that you've done this work many times already, why haven't you perfected yet what you need to have when you first saw them? Maybe it is time for you to consider the things you need to do on the very first day you meet up with your students, 6 semesters after you first started teaching it.

    2. that you didn't think of looking up your students e-mail address till now.

    The instructor is right. This is your problem, and it should have been something you should have handled better.

    BTW, didn't it strike you rather odd that, for a course that has a lab, a student could skip all the labs simply by attending and writing a report on the colloquiums? If that was my understanding of what they could do, I would have scratched my head and double checked if I heard it correctly, because that would not have made much sense to me.

  7. Feb 6, 2015 #6


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    Read Simon's words. Memorize them. Get them tattooed on your forehead backwards so you're reminded of them every time you look in the mirror. Your car might be flashy, but if it's got a crappy engine, you aren't going anywhere fast. The professors are the flash--the admins are the engine. They can make your life very easy or very very difficult.
  8. Feb 6, 2015 #7

    Stephen Tashi

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    Who grades the essays?
  9. Feb 6, 2015 #8
    This professor organizes the colloquia and has been known to require the students to write essays over them in lieu of taking a test. So it really didn't seem too strange to me.

    I grade the essays.

    In today's lab section, I made it very VERY clear what my mistake was and I told them to come talk to me if they didn't do a lab report because they thought they didn't have to. I'm also putting a notice on the board on Monday so people know to show up to lab. I had one student who said they didn't do a lab report because they preferred essays, so I told him he can just do an essay on the first colloquium and e-mail it to me and I will use that grade in lieu of the first lab report. Although essays are graded much easier, the first lab report was curved so that most people got A's, so I'm not too worried.
  10. Feb 6, 2015 #9

    Stephen Tashi

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    If the essays are returned to the students, you could attach a note to the essays - or collect the students email addresses if you get electronic copies.
  11. Feb 6, 2015 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    Wow. Good thing you've gotten some excellent advice- this is possibly the most spectacular FUBAR I've *ever* heard- so congratulations on that.

    Expect some angry students to complain to the professor, chair, possibly the dean... you may have to explain your error multiple times to ever higher powers-that-be. Own it and show that you are fixing it, and you'll actually come out of this with an improved reputation.
  12. Feb 6, 2015 #11

    Simon Bridge

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    Stop making excuses.

    Secretaries are the same everywhere... they don't care about positions or jobs or status, they care about people.
    They especially care about people who treat them well. (In fact, most people are like that.)

    Basically the secretaries run the University. They do this by knowing things. Remember this next time you speak to one: the word "secretary" means "keeper of secrets".
    They don't like people who give them extra work, who are self important, or expect everything laid out for them.

    So you have to be a person to them - say hi to them, look them in the eye, smile, thank them whenever they do something, even when you don't have to: treat them with respect. You know, like they are worth something.

    It takes a while ... in this case, you are starting from the back foot so your approach is that you are in trouble and you'll be really grateful if they could help you out.
    If you usually expect them to do stuff due to your status, then you may not get help. If they do, and it is likely that they will if you are respectful, apologetic and a bit pathetic, then be sure to return the favor ... this is not difficult, and there is no way to over-stress how important being in with the secretaries is to your career and future job prospects.

    As for the rest - basically all you are being told to do is act ethically and responsibly - do not make excuses, do not come up with reasons not to fix things.
    Andy Resnick is correct - do well on this fubar and you will actually come out better off than if you had never made the mistake.

    So lets see what you are doing:
    ... better, though I'm getting a sense that you don't want to look more foolish than you already do and this is affecting your decisions. You still may need to put yourself out, and you can expect criticism for not being very clear earlier on and for being slow off the mark.

    Which board, where? Is this where students who do not attend labs will see it? Why not put it on the board tonight - catch people who come in over the weekend?
    Are you putting notices on any other boards? Attaching a note to the essays you get is a good idea: you have to be able to return the essays (how is this done?) and students who did not get the message will hand in essays - so that will get everyone.

    If a student attended the lab, then maybe they can write an essay on the lab? Grade in between? Or maybe they can still write the lab report?
    Was "today"'s lab the second or third lab in the course? (i.e. how many labs to students have to make up?)

    You can balance how you grade with the contribution the lab makes to their overall grade for the course. I'm guessing that they cannot pass the course without a pass in the labs, but the labs are not a large percentage of their final grade. In which case you have a lot of leeway with grading.

    What I am showing you here is how people assessing your performance are seeing your actions.
    If you can live with that, fine: it's your neck.
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