Embarrassed TA

This semester, I’m a teaching assistant for a remarkably bad professor.  I mean really, really bad, at least when it comes to lectures.  Don’t get me wrong–he’s a lovely person and great in one-on-one and small group situations.  But just miserable when it comes to lectures.  He uses 19th century English history for all of his cultural references, though this is a class on current US affairs.  He asks the most inane questions, stuff that undergraduates hear and must think, “Seriously, do you think I’m that dumb?  I’m not even going to justify that with a response.”  He asks “C’mon guys, doesn’t anyone have an answer?” while not seeing the five hands that are thrust in the air–some sort of vision problem, perhaps.  He makes sweeping assertions without stopping to explain or provide examples.  Finally (at least for the purposes of this list–I could go on), he’s a ham-fisted liberal, the kind that give the rest of us lefties a bad name.  This is the sort of professor that David Horowitz  salivates over: bringing in a political agenda that is absolutely irrelevant and so one-sided that even a sympathetic soul like me thinks, “Now, come on!”

The problem is this: what do I do?  From a scholarly perspective,  I’m a bit embarrassed to be a TA for this course; I find myself apologizing for the professor’s shoddy lectures.  In response to some of his questions, I have to resist the urge to interrupt with “Don’t you mean [x]?” in search of a question that is perhaps a bit more challenging/interesting.  And then there’s the political angle, where I just want him to be quiet before these students become even more convinced that every academic is blinded by liberal bias.  We’re already working against that stereotype, and this prof is just making things worse.

Of course, there’s nothing I can do.  I can’t stand up in the middle of class and call his bullshit.  I can’t  challenge him to come up with something a bit more nuanced.  An aside wouldn’t really work, either: “Excuse me, Professor?  Do you think you could take these students a bit more seriously, and could you also try to be cognizant of your overt political agenda?  Gee, thanks.”  Nope.  So, instead I’m trying to pick up the mess in discussion sections: explaining what the professor actually meant, defending his assertions, and dismissing accusations of bias with bogus statements like, “Well, he just wants to get you thinking on your own.  He’s being so obvious to show you what not to do.”  And all the while, thinking this: Man, I hope my TAs never have to do this.  Assuming that I ever get TAs…

5 thoughts on “Embarrassed TA

  1. If you have the right kind of isolated time with the students, you can bring them to the conclusion that you disagree with the professor on key (but unspecified) issues, without ever putting yourself in the position of having to say it; for me, once, having a deeply problematic prof actually just made my section run really smoothly. Once they knew I was sympathetic to challenging the professor (but I only hinted that I might privately agree with them) it made section a great forum for bouncing around stuff from lecture, as opposed to the reverential treatment you too often get: since they knew *I* wasn’t going to criticize the guy (being far too professional) they felt emboldened to do so themselves.

  2. Good tip, zunguzungu. Part of the trick, of course, is that I agree with the prof’s position on most issues; I just don’t think he’s doing a very good job presenting those positions. But getting the students to critique his method and presentation might be a good way to get them thinking about those positions and the right–and wrong–ways of defending/attacking them. Thanks.

  3. About 10 years ago, I was a TA in a course, I had more experience in the course content area than the professor, but smiled and quietly took a backseat to the professor. I did everything that I could to help make the course run smoothly and assist without being in the way. I was able to help improve the course in small ways.

    I think that the experience of being a TA is invaluable. I hope that the professor that you wrote about does not realize that you wrote the article above, since it would be a potentially painful experience.

    I am grateful that I was able to be a TA and RA and believe it played a part in my being hired as an educator by a large university. I know that the professor needed my support as a TA.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Joan. You are absolutely right about the value (or invalue?) of being a TA; it’s critical to my development as a future instructor/professor. And I’m happy–oh, so very happy!–to provide whatever support I can to the prof-in-charge. Hopefully the little things, such as what zunguzungu suggests, will indeed help.

    As for the prof reading the post, I doubt it would happen on this li’l ol’ blog. If it did, well, I’ll just hope (a) that I only have the best interests of the students in mind and (b) that the pseudonym is enough to protect me…

  5. I don’t know. Being a TA is of value to the TA, but it’s no less invaluable to the university, and to the profs themselves. I did all the grading for my section when I was TAing (and put in many more work hours than the prof in total), and wasn’t paid enough to cover the cost of living in the area I have to live in. I think this is fairly standard, and while I’m certainly not complaining, “grateful” isn’t the word I would use to describe the arrangement. I sold my labor on the market because I needed to, to put it that way; I apprenticed myself to a “master” teacher in order to become, eventually, a master teacher myself, to put it another. It was a good arrangment, and I’d do it again; I learned a lot from TAing for an excellent prof, and I learned very little from TAing for my less than excellent prof. That’s the life. But, and this is my point, when a graduate student has a section, that section is their responsibility and their job can’t be just to be the professor’s stand-in. Especially since a graduate instructor is ultimately the one holding the bag for those students, if the instructor is saying problematic things in lecture, I think its the graduate student’s responsibility to see that the path is open for an alternate conversation during section. It’s a crappy position to be in, but the job isn’t like being press secretary (“what the professor meant to say is…”), it’s the job of a *teacher.*

    Sorry if this isn’t really about your situation; your mileage may vary. I guess the idea that the professor “needs my support” just rubs me the wrong way, a little. It’s the students that need us the most, and for this reason, it’s our responsibility to clean up the professor’s messes when necessary, as best we can. But my job is not to cover the professor’s back; he has a degree and should be able to do his job well enough not to need me apologizing and explaining for him.

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