Care and Feeding of TAs

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The following information is sent to the faculty each year regarding the appropriate responsibilities and treatment of TAs. It is included here to provide TAs with information on departmental expectations.

Memo to the EE Faculty

The faculty and TAs generally indicate that the TAs are being used effectively, but several problems have occurred in the past which can be mitigated if the information in this memo is used. Please let this memo be an explanation of the role of the TA to those who are new to the faculty, and a reminder to the old hands. Before outlining the role of the TA, let us thank you for your response to the questionnaires regarding the performance of your TAs. The results are essential in reassigning TAs to new assignments and getting well earned awards to the best of the TAs at graduation time.

By a "teaching assistant" or TA here is meant any of the several student positions with responsibilities for assisting instructors in teaching their classes. The most common official appointment in the EE Department is as a Course Assistant (CA). TAs are matriculated Stanford graduate students who assist in the preparation of class materials and of homework and exam problems and who often conduct problem, lab and review sessions. TAs may teach an occasional lecture.

Some additional "care and feeding" information and some suggestions for better utilization of TAs are listed below.

  1. A Teaching Assistant and a Grader are fundamentally different. The responsibility of graders is only to grade homeworks accurately and promptly for which they receive hourly compensation. TAs can also grade [and typically do so in a laboratory class], but grading should not be their principal responsibility. Grading programs has occasionally proved an onerous and extremely time consuming chore for TAs and should be minimized.
  2. The TAs should spend most of their time with students in office hours, review sessions, problem sessions, demonstrations, or laboratory supervision. This contact makes the class far more personal, and the students can get the individual attention they deserve. A good TA takes some of the load that would otherwise have to be spent by the faculty during office hours.
  3. The TAs should have specific well-defined areas of responsibility. They can generate homework assignments and solution sets, prepare demonstrations, create remedial and enrichment material, etc. It is important that TAs be supervised, but they should also have a degree of freedom to create and initiate. They are, after all, learning from this experience, too. The official TA policy provides some guidelines on typical TA time use.
  4. Keep good lines of communication between you and the TAs. The TAs must have your instructions, and you should use your TA as a feedback path. Regularly scheduled weekly meetings help guarantee the feedback path works.
  5. TAs can give formal lectures to assist you if, for example, you must be away for a brief period. The TA should be given the material for the lecture and its presentation should be discussed. This provides an excellent teaching experience for the TA and is usually preferred by the students over a taped lecture.
  6. Encourage the TA to use the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The center provides individual and group programs to help both TAs and the academic community and has been a great help to both TAs and instructors.
  7. Many TAs have confusion about the time they should be spending. A 50% appointment [the usual] implies 20 hours/week time on the job and grants 9 units of free tuition. If the TA seems to be working significantly more or less than this, keeping an informal time sheet will help. Because of the overhead involved with being a TA, it is encouraged for 25% TAs to take responsibility for one aspect of the course,  for example, responding to emails and writing up homework solutions are two jobs that don't have as much direct contact with the students. This means less time can be spent preparing,  which makes more efficient use of the 10 hours/week. By just shortening the office hours, problems can arise with being overworked.
  8. There have been two primary problems causing difficulty to TAs. The first is that on occasion professors have asked TAs to do chores usually done by the professor, e.g., the generation and grading of exams. While TAs should of course assist in these chores, they should not bear primary or sole responsibility for them. The other time killer is having TAs produce beautiful formatted solutions or portions of an intended book in progress by the professor. This is above and beyond ordinary duties and not a good use of TA time.
  9. The professor should make sure the TA evaluation surveys are completed by the class (do not shift this responsibility to the TAs). This exercise provides valuable feedback to the TAs and to the department.
  10. If there are problems that cannot be resolved with a TA please talk to either the Vice Chair or the Director of Student Services. We can work with both sides to ameliorate the problem.
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