Working with GTAs: Advice from the Experts

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by Jolene Hubbs, Department of American Studies

What can we do to support our graduate teaching assistants in carrying out their responsibilities confidently and capably and in developing their own pedagogic repertoires?

To find out, I surveyed my own current and former GTAs, asking them to tell me about their varied experiences working with faculty members. They offered me a veritable cornucopia of insights into what made for stellar as well as, ahem, not-so-stellar experiences. Here are their top three tips.

Clearly Establish Your Expectations

Not surprisingly, GTAs want a clear sense of their duties in your class. Perhaps less intuitively, though, one of their foremost concerns involves expectations about emailing students. Before the semester begins, might it make sense to together determine reasonable and healthy email turnaround times with your GTAs and then state those on the syllabus or on Blackboard? GTAs described feeling pressure to respond quickly to emails from students; among other problems with this, it made it hard to establish a reasonable sense of how work-life balance might take shape in academe.

GTAs also appreciate clearly communicated expectations about grading. Providing grading rubrics can help with this. Meeting to collaboratively grade the semester’s early assignments can help with this. However it takes shape, GTAs appreciate when you clearly convey your scoring paradigms. And what about turnaround times? Before the semester begins, let your GTAs know how quickly you would like them to grade assignments.

Give Your GTAs Real Authority

Before your first meeting with your GTAs, consider the decisions you feel comfortable deputizing them to make. Can GTAs make decisions about extensions on the assignments they grade, or do you want them to run such issues by you? Can GTAs feel confident that the grades they assign are the grades students get, or do you sometimes change the grades they’ve given? If you do, can you prepare them by discussing the situations in which that might occur?

Across the board, my GTAs reported that being trusted with real responsibilities in courses — as opposed to being tasked with what one described as “busy work” — made them feel more integral to and invested in a class. Of course, being sensitive about the workloads of our graduate teaching assistants is important, and we must try to strike a balance between their own coursework and their teaching-related tasks. But thinking about how the responsibilities assigned to GTAs might help expand their pedagogic toolkits and engage their intellectual interests can help us design more meaningful work for them in our courses.

In some fields, faculty members offer GTAs the chance to deliver a guest lecture in the courses to which they have been assigned to work — particularly in cases where GTAs do not lead their own sections. Even though not all GTAs will wish to avail themselves of this opportunity, many appreciate the invitation, and those who seize the opportunity generally find it a worthwhile experience.

While GTAs who aspire to academic careers might wish to offer a guest lecture, those thinking about alt-ac careers might wish to enrich the class in other ways — maybe by touring or creating a museum exhibit with your students, or accompanying them to or participating with them in a creative performance. Think creatively about how you might weave your GTAs’ interests and areas of expertise into your course.

Rethink Office Hours

How many hours per week are your GTAs expected to hold office hours? Where do they hold them? How many students come on average? Are the meeting numbers pretty steady, or do they see a few students most weeks and a lot of students around exams or other big assignments?

Thinking through the answers to these questions might point toward ways to make office hours better for students and GTAs. For instance, if your GTAs meet with students in noisy cafés or jam-packed shared spaces, perhaps they’d prefer instead to hold online office hours. These can take a variety of forms, from being available via an instant-messaging platform during given hours to having students sign up for one-on-one video chat meetings.

In the same vein, if GTAs are being overwhelmed by emails on nights before assignments are due, perhaps they would prefer to move office hours to a set period of electronic availability on those nights. If your GTAs are spending long, lonely afternoons in unvisited office hours and then long, sleepless nights answering emails about assignments, they are putting in far more time on your course than they might if you worked together to devise a plan for availability that reflected the realities of when, and how, your students endeavor to communicate with them.

My thanks to Callie Jo Compton, Madeline Kennedy, and Professor Byrd McDaniel, current and former MA students in UA’s American Studies Department, for sharing their insights with me.

Jolene Hubbs is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies.