No, really. I insist.
March 13, 2014 9:12 PM   Subscribe

I fucked up at work. I offered a favor back to the person who had to bear the brunt of my fuckuppery. I think they are declining out of politeness. I understand that impulse, but I still want to do something to make things right, and have relatively few avenues where I can do that. Am I overlooking something? Am I overstepping (or risking overstepping) boundaries?

I TA an intro science class. Among the responsibilities that TAs have for the course is proctoring exams. We do these in pairs or trios, such that each exam room has 40-80 people depending on room capacity and TA load. One such exam was tonight and I completely spaced it out. Put in the wrong date on my calendar and then got wrapped up in other stuff, then had a moment about an hour and a half after the exam ended when I said to myself "...wasn't there something I was supposed to do for genchem today?"

So. Unintentional-but-rather-complete fuck-up on my part. I emailed the TA who I was paired with to offer to cover one of her lab sections. Generally, in our department, lab trades are done on a fairly informal basis, but the expectation is that they're reciprocal; if you're anticipating you'll be out of town, you find someone who you can trade with, and if it winds up being an emergency "I absolutely can't make it to class for unanticipated reasons" situation, it's still courteous to try to find a later date where you can cover one of your sub's normally scheduled classes.

Anyway, the other TA emailed me back saying it was no problem. Which is probably what I would do in the same situation, but, still. I put her in a position where she had to deal with about 60 students without backup. That, to me, requires some rectification.

One complicating factor is that the midterm exams are 1 hour, while labs go for 3 (plus a 1-hour recitation beforehand.) There is one more 1-hour exam, as well as a 3-hour final, that we're also scheduled to jointly proctor. There's also one more week where there's no lab and just a 1-hour recitation. The last hour exam and the recitation-only week are both towards the end of the semester (i.e., not for another 6 weeks), so I will probably offer again to cover one of those closer to those dates. Are there other things I can/should do? Is this what fruit baskets are for, or would that be too weird (we're both graduate students; I'm senior to her in terms of years, but we work in separate labs so it's kind of moot. We don't interact regularly outside of teaching duties.)

(Note: I haven't spoken to the course instructor about this yet--he's left for the evening--but I plan to do so tomorrow morning.)
posted by kagredon to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Best answer: Make sure that you all have each other's contact info (including phone number), and make sure you pull your fair share of the weight for the rest of the semester. At most, offer to do some of her grading for this one exam, but even that might just draw more attention to something that is better left in the past. Mistakes happen and this one didn't actually hurt anyone. It sounds like she doesn't really care that much, so your urge to "make it right" is probably just your own embarrassment -- the only way to fix that is to take care that it doesn't happen again.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:30 PM on March 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I get that you feel bad. The way you atone for this is not so much through a grand gesture of atonement which makes it all okay, but rather by giving her the gift of allowing her to be pissed off at you. Humility means accepting your mistake without demanding forgiveness. You can offer again, once, gently, but otherwise stick to a sincere apology and then give her the space to react as she sees fit.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:31 PM on March 13, 2014 [26 favorites]

Best answer: I put her in a position where she had to deal with about 60 students without backup. That, to me, requires some rectification.

I guess I agree with this, but the 'some rectification' is "appearing to be explicitly and sincerely sorry" and "being ready to pitch in with a favor at a later date". If you feel like you need to do something else, email back and emphasize that you are ready to pitch in with a favor when one is needed.

Fruit basket or other gift is overkill, and a favor in hand is more valuable to your peer anyway.

Also...I would mention it to the instructor for sure, but don't blow it out of proportion-something about the way that you've written this is making me think that you might be doing that? I am imagining saying something along the lines of "Just to let you know, I put the wrong date on my calendar and I wasn't at the exam last night and other TA had to proctor the exam by herself. I'm sorry about that and it won't happen again" and then the instructor says "Thanks for letting me know" and that is the end of it.

These things happen from time to time and it's not really a problem unless they happen more often than that. Sometimes in graduate school I think it can seem like any mistake can have a huge impact on your career and one can get a little worked about it, but this isn't that kind of mistake.
posted by Kwine at 9:35 PM on March 13, 2014 [12 favorites]

I've had a lot of proctored exams, and it's not like they run towards riot conditions--if she's saying that it was fine, I suspect it's probably because it took a marginally longer period of time to hand out whatever paper had to be handed out and otherwise went exactly like it would have if you were there. It is, unsurprisingly, really hard to actually make something up to someone when they don't actually feel particularly slighted by it. Make sure she knows that if she needs a favor she can ask, but otherwise, I'd assume that you lucked out and messed up at one of the best possible times to mess up, and leave it be.
posted by Sequence at 9:35 PM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

So you already talked to her about this once? I think this calls for a sincere "thanks again, I owe you one, let me know if I can take x or y (annoying chore) off your hands." Then drop it and don't repeat the mistake. Not a big deal, praise her to the prof for covering for you.
posted by pseudonick at 9:39 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just write a sincere thank you note and put it in an envelope with like $10-20 towards starbucks (as an economist I really think cash is better strictly speaking, but social implications make gift cards a nicer gift to give and receive in these somewhat formal scenarios).

In the note just write: "I know you are a nice person and always willing to help, but I feel I put you in a position where you had no choice! Normally I don't mind trading favors, but to me this seems like I put an unfair burden on you. I wanted to give you this small $10 gift card to starbucks. I know it's not a lot, but I wanted to find a way to express my thanks as more than just words!"

Adjust your formality/tone as needed.
posted by jjmoney at 10:01 PM on March 13, 2014

I think this is where a gesture gift, something small but thoughtful and with a short, heartfelt note, would be better than somehow trying to "make up for it". There's not really a good way to make up for this, you do have to just allow the other person to feel whatever she feels, and expressing a real acknowledgement that you messed up, in even a small tangible form, will mark you as a much better person than one who would just shrug this off.

I tried looking for a nice dessert cafe or bakery in your area, but it looks like there isn't much there. I have to recommend something specific :) There's something called "Chapel Hill Toffee" that's made here that's _so delicious_, easily shipped, comes in a nice (but not overly snobby-looking) box, and is probably at the right price point. Here's a link. That shop, A Southern Season, has a lot of nice delicious gift-type food items (and of course you can use Amazon, too, but I thought that shop would be a good place to browse).

Of course, it's all the way in Chapel Hill NC, so shipping would take a while. I think that might be OK, though -- getting your apology gift a week after the event would demonstrate that you care enough to follow through over time.

Anyway, even if you don't get that specific thing, it's a good example of something that's small, demonstrates thought (and a little trouble, but not too much, to acquire), and probably will be enjoyed by the recipient.
posted by amtho at 10:13 PM on March 13, 2014

Chocolate bar, not money! :)
posted by wintersweet at 10:49 PM on March 13, 2014

Apologize, thank them again for covering without you, and let them know that you will cover one of their lab sections in the future if they need it (without the trade). Then let the matter rest. We all screw up. They will get over it, and you get to feel slightly mortified whenever you recall this event :)
posted by Nightman at 11:49 PM on March 13, 2014

Ahhhh please don't buy the other TA a gift of any sort, that sounds like it would be a very embarrassing exchange for both of you. And that goes double for a fruit basket.

I agree with those who are saying this was likely not a particularly big problem for her. I don't know how standardized your labs are, but when I was a TA it was actually sort of a hassle to have someone else teach a section for you because it left you unsure about what *exactly* your students had been told to do and interrupted the continuity of your communication with them. I think a more appropriate response would be to volunteer to take on an extra share of menial course administration work -- photocopying exams, entering the grades from a stack of hand-written exams or assignments into a spreadsheet, that kind of thing. These kinds of tasks are much more on par with proctoring in terms of burden, and I think are more likely to be genuinely appreciated as favors because they suck to do.
posted by ootandaboot at 1:49 AM on March 14, 2014 [11 favorites]

Oh and to be clear, I didn't mean you should set it up like "I owe you a favor to atone for my failure so I will photocopy the next round of exams." Just assume that the next time there's a moment where the TAs are all sort of staring at the floor not wanting to volunteer for copy duty, it's your job to volunteer, without explanation.
posted by ootandaboot at 1:52 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The way you atone for this is not so much through a grand gesture of atonement which makes it all okay, but rather by giving her the gift of allowing her to be pissed off at you.

PercussivePaul is 100% correct here. She is the aggrieved party, so she gets to determine how she does or does not forgive you. If that means you feel uncomfortable about not repaying her, well so be it.

I also agree with Kwine that you might be blowing this a little out of proportion. We all make mistakes, and I'm sure you'll end up covering for someone else's blunder at some other point in your career.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:48 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

An anecdote: Every week we have a series of calls, one for EMEA, one for North America and one for APAC. EMEA and NA occur during working hours, APAC occurs at 8 PM. It's no big deal, we log on, we do the call, we log off. One week, I totally flaked on it. Just forgot. The worst part, so did my manager. Whoops!

I freaked out a bit, HOW could I miss the call? So I sent an aplogetic email right away to our VP (the pissed off party). I tried not to grovel, I just acknowledged that I screwed up, and assured him it wouldn't happen again.

I didn't know what to expect the next morning. Would I be fired? (the anxiety kicked up to ten) Our VP floated to our section of the cube farm and said to me, "So, you don't like my call?" Basically, he gave me some shit and all was right with the world.

In the grand scheme of things, this is no big deal. Really. You've apologized, you'll tell your Professor and that's the end of it.

People screw up, at least you aren't a brain surgeon.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:20 AM on March 14, 2014

Best answer: Do you have any history of doing things like this in the past, or any history with this other TA? If you have otherwise been blameless, I think you can just offer to cover for her in the future and then let it go. But if you have a history, there may be something else going on.

I've had people do this to me at work -- flake out or not follow instructions, and then tell me they NEED to MAKE IT UP TO ME in some way, usually by helping on some task they can't do as well as I can. (And if your coworker has been working with the same lab students for the semester, I think taking her lab section qualifies here.)

Thing is, they have flaked on me in the past, so frankly I don't trust them enough to trust that their help will actually occur. I'm sure helping (or "helping") makes them feel better, but I've learned that it makes me feel a lot worse -- they feel "cleansed" by helping, and I now have the issue of supervising their help and making sure they're doing it correctly, which just pisses me off even more about the original fuckup.

If this really is just a one-time thing, I'd let it go. But if you have a history of flaking or passing off work, your coworker may just be trying to minimize the damage (and her own stress levels) by not giving you another chance to flake out on her.
posted by pie ninja at 5:24 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If this was a one-time deal, I would not be pissed off at you in the least. If there was a pattern of forgetfulness, I'd be less forgiving, but nothing here indicates that's the case.

Don't bother with a gift. Sounds like you have accepted responsibility for what happened and are behaving correctly. Telling the professor is a good move on your part as it shows accountability. Being on the ball moving forward is how you rectify this.

For what it's worth, I have proctored exams for 80-100 students all by myself. In those cases, the professor (who was usually there as well) could not make it and very apologetically asked me if I could handle it. And everything turned out just fine!
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:39 AM on March 14, 2014

Best answer: You screwed up, you apologized, now move on! It drives me crazy when people insist on trying to make up for screwing up, and go on and on about it, they make it so much worse. They make it all about themselves and seem almost delighted they have a cross to bear. Just stop! We're all human and screw up but we also move on. Don't be that person who bumps into her 5 years later and apologizes again. Most people won't even remember you screwed up next week, unless you keep reminding them.
posted by meepmeow at 7:21 AM on March 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

A fruit basket is a basket of fruit but a favour owed is a bond. She knows that next time she needs something done you will be her first call, and you had better pick up before the third ring. As long as you understand that, you should both be good.
posted by Hogshead at 10:17 AM on March 14, 2014

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