During my time as an English PhD student at Duke, I served as a teaching assistant for experienced professors in both seminar and lecture-based courses. What I learned from my time in their classrooms, alongside other instructional opportunities and trainings, shaped how I approach instruction at Duke. Graduate teaching assistants are a key part to both instructor and undergraduate student success in the classroom. While Learning Innovation has worked with the Graduate School this fall to provide Online TA Skills training (the final event in the series will take place on October 2o) and developed the Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Flexible Teaching to provide additional resources, instructors of record should make sure their graduate teaching assistants have the support needed to perform their assigned duties. Learning Innovation suggests some best practices when interacting with your teaching assistants, despite departmental and discipline differences.
Clear Communication and Guidelines
This semester is the first time many graduate students are holding instructional duties related to online or hybrid courses — or holding instructional duties, period. This will also be true of the spring semester. The pedagogical training these students previously received varies based on their previous experiences before arriving at Duke, department, engagement in the Graduate School’s Certificate in College Teaching Program (whose curriculum includes the course GS 762: Digital Pedagogy) and other opportunities at Duke such as Preparing Future Faculty. Notably, graduate students’ training resources from the Graduate School are available to any graduate student; interested students can email firstname.lastname@example.org for access to the Sakai site storing these materials. Even so, these training opportunities should supplement, not replace, direct mentorship between instructor and graduate student.
As a graduate student with initially little experience in the classroom, I found it important as a TA to understand the exact expectations of the instructor. When faculty took the time to explain not only what duties I would hold in each classroom but how to perform these tasks well (such as grading), I was more confident in my ability to help undergraduate students. I also was assigned to act as a teaching assistant for courses outside my main field of study; I found this to be true for many of my colleagues across the disciplines. Just as instructional staff should not assume student knowledge, it is also important for faculty to check-in with their graduate teaching assistants about their experiences.
While not an exhaustive list, it is important for instructors to guide their teaching assistants through:
- What will be the responsibilities of the teaching assistant throughout the semester? (Grading, taking student attendance, holding office hours, attending class meetings, leading discussion, etc.)
- To effectively complete these tasks, what training will teaching assistants need? (Specific tools such as Sakai/Gradescope/Zoom, discipline-specific best practices, etc.)
- How might responsibilities be split between teaching assistants?
- What are the best practices for the instructional staff to communicate with students?
- How can the instructional staff best support their undergraduate students?
- What process should teaching assistants follow when they have questions for the instructor?
- How will the instructor provide feedback to the teaching assistant on their performance?
Providing your teaching assistants with course documentation, such as a well-crafted syllabus, and clarifying their roles in its implementation is also helpful. As many teaching assistant duties involve grading student work and providing feedback, implementing rubrics and other assessment strategies can not only clarify to your teaching assistants how they should be assessing students, but also make grading more equitable for your students.
Supporting graduate students in their pedagogical development through their teaching assistantships is arguably even more necessary this academic year. My best experiences as a teaching assistant were when professors spent time answering questions about pedagogy, discussing best practices for carrying out my duties and giving me feedback on my teaching. Unforeseen or difficult situations might arise in the classroom, and it is important that teaching assistants feel comfortable seeking help from their supervising faculty when necessary. Consistent communication between the teaching staff also made courses better for students, as we were all on the same page.
Respect Graduate Student Work Limitations
While this academic year is turbulent and uncertain, the concrete fact you should keep in mind when working with your teaching assistant is that graduate students with teaching responsibilities have strict work limits.
According to the Duke Graduate School’s guidelines and policies, “the university has strict guidelines on how much teaching graduate students may do so as to ensure that they retain sufficient time for other equally important components of their doctoral education.” These guidelines clearly state that, as the instructor of record, it is your job to provide the expected hours per week for TA roles in your course in advance of the semester start date. These required duties “must be limited to no more than 20 hours per week averaged over the semester in which the course occurs.” You should not ask graduate instructional staff to do anything that will result in unpaid labor, especially during a time of continued stress, economic hardship and political turmoil.
Support and Care
Remember that the struggles that affected how you taught since Duke went remote in the spring — questions of childcare, access to research and teaching resources, stable internet — also may apply to your graduate teaching assistants. The shifting learning environment at Duke is likely adding to the anxiety many graduate students already feel over moving to a new place, completing their dissertations, the uncertain job market, questions about visas and their personal lives. Learning Innovation’s Flexible Teaching resource How can I support student well-being? is mostly written with undergraduate students in mind, but many of the principles and resources can also be applicable to how you work with your graduate students and teaching assistants.
During the Spring 2020 semester, when I was preparing to remotely defend my dissertation and scrambling to complete my graduation checklist, what meant the most to me was when my mentors at Duke checked in, were concerned for my health and safety and offered me support from the possible avenues within their power. Providing support and care to your graduate teaching assistants will only strengthen the Duke community and your pedagogy.
Resources for Graduate Student Support
Make the Connection: Resources and Opportunities for Students This Fall (Duke Today, Graduate Student Specific Resources Included)
Remote Mental Health Resources for Students, Faculty and Staff During COVID-19 (Created by Duke Student Government)
Graduate Student Training Resources