Not your secretary
February 17, 2018 12:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm a female graduate student co-TAing a class with a younger, male graduate student. He refuses to work as a team and makes course and grading decisions unilaterally. I feel like I'm being treated as a secretary. Are there any strategies you recommend for fixing the situation?

I'm very unhappy. I'll take on a project and he'll immediately grab it away from me, unless it's boring work like emailing grades to students. He also cuts me out of communication with the professor and undergraduate TAs, and ignores me when I propose ideas or changes.

I've already talked to my colleague, who said he'd loop me in on communication and decisionmaking and then went right back to what he was doing before the conversation. I also mentioned it to the professor and he brushed me off.

I'm on the verge of quitting, but the extra money is nice, so I'd like to salvage the experience if possible. Is it fixable, or should I walk away?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you in the same grad program? If so, and if you think the grad chair might be more likely to listen, that’s where I would go next.

Your department may also have an ombudsperson for sexual harassment; even if you think this doesn’t rise to that level the department had an interest in not fostering a hostile environment.

Another possibility is finding another prof (your advisor? Another committee member? Someone you trust for other reasons?) to ask for advice.

Also note many profs are mandated reporters. How people handle that varies though.
posted by nat at 12:22 AM on February 17, 2018 [8 favorites]

When he tries to stick you with boring work, say "No, it's your turn to do that; and since you've been taking the more interesting work for yourself, you'll need to back off and let me have all of that for a few weeks until we're even again". If he doesn't do the boring parts, he'll eventually have to complain to the professor that you're not doing it, and then you can say to the prof, "I told you about these problems weeks ago, but you brushed me off, now let him make he whole, and then we can proceed as equals". Are you on quarters, semesters?

Find out what the law is in your jurisdiction w.r.t. recording conversations. If you're in the US, it's a state matter; there are one-party consent states and two-party consent states. If you're in a one-party consent jurisdiction, record your conversations with him, and try to get him to admit to things.

Congrats, you're getting extra value out of your education. :) :(
posted by at at 12:35 AM on February 17, 2018 [27 favorites]

Make an actual appointment with the professor to discuss this problem, rather than just mentioning it. They might not really get how serious this is to you. Tell them you are thinking of quitting because of the situation. Note that quitting a TA position in the middle of the semester isn't really the same as, say, quitting a fast food job where you just walk away from everyone in the environment. If the prof is counting on you as a TA, they will worry about how they're going to handle the rest of the semester with one TA and will be motivated to help you work it out together, perhaps even assigning each of you more specific duties (which you should ask for them to do.) Especially if you don't talk to the professor/other faculty first, your quitting because of a conflict could affect your future appointments, as in which professors will or won't want you to work for them. If the professor still brushes you off, talk to the graduate advisor.
In the meantime, make an actual printed out chart of duties/responsibilities and fill it out in a fair way. Show it to the other TA. Tell him, I am really unhappy with how you keep taking the best parts of the job so I made this chart. See, I will be leading discussion this week while you grade the quizzes. The following week you lead discussion. If he argues, you both go to the professor. The professor does have to help you manage your TA duties and should be meeting with you sometimes to go over them.
posted by velveeta underground at 12:40 AM on February 17, 2018 [30 favorites]

Try to keep as much of your interaction over email as possible, so you have documentation if you decide to use it.
posted by trig at 5:21 AM on February 17, 2018 [29 favorites]

I'd tell him flat out that you're uncomfortable and he's creating a hostile work environment, send him and the professor an email outlining what you're experiencing and how you'd like it changed using very flat, factual, unemotional language and that should be enough to scare the bejesus out of both of them. Basically create a paper trail using everything velveeta underground has said, but don't say it in person, say that you'd like a reply (also via email.) These people aren't stupid, that will make them take you seriously.
posted by Jubey at 5:23 AM on February 17, 2018 [13 favorites]

Trig beat me to it...
posted by Jubey at 5:23 AM on February 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my experience, profs,grad chairs etal don't want to hear about your problems. Talking to them might exasperate the situation.

I know the kind of guy you're talking about. I had to deal with a couple during my grad years. As a guy I could and did say, "you try to fuck me over, I'll fuck you harder". That usually scared the tar out of bossy boys. You could try getting verbally nasty with him, it just may shock him out of his socks. Or you could just float along, laugh at the little man and collect your pay check.

I'd go for the second option. You have enough on your plate. Don't let nasty little boys take up space in your life. I promise you, that boy will flame out.
posted by james33 at 6:19 AM on February 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you are in a grad program do you have a chair or a committee member that you trust? Preferably a woman? I would talk to them about the situation first. They won't be able to fix it for you but they can probably help you strategize about moving forward-- and if this is so bad you're thinking about quitting, they're incentivized to care.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:31 AM on February 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am not familiar with academic protocols and pitfalls, yet I urge you to do something. Some commenters suggest that this bad actor will “flame out”: that may not happen during your shared TA duties, and it may never happen. Keep written notes, escalate thoughtfully, and look for the department or university ombudsperson.
posted by lasagnaboy at 8:44 AM on February 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

Chiming in as a (female) professor. In my experience, graduate directors and other faculty definitely want to hear about these kinds of problems. Don't get me wrong, institutional cultures vary field by field and department by department, but if you were a student in my program -- even if I were not on your committee nor one of your direct professors -- I would welcome you reaching out to me about this problem. And I would absolutely not only give you advice and mentor you through this but also go to bat for you up the chain of command. I have done this in the past.

A lot of what you should do will depend on your department culture. Is your grad director a male prof, too? What about your department chair/head? What about other high-profile faculty in the department?

I would seek out a female faculty member for advice: ideally one who has a leadership position either in your program (a director) or in relation to you, specifically (one of your profs, a member of your committee, etc). If there's no one, you might see if there's a women's center or a women's/gender/sexuality program or another similar resource for female students and faculty on your campus and get in touch with them.

While I was working on getting more input and advice, I would not confront either the co-TA or the prof about this; nor would I go to HR or an ombudsman or similarly high-ranking administrator outside of either my program or a women's resource center -- not yet.

Meanwhile, however, I would continue to communicate over email and advocate in writing for what's fair when it comes to TAing the course -- but I would do this suuupppeerrrr professionally and with as much of a disinterested tone as possible. You should write these emails imagining that they will be read out of context by potentially unsympathetic upper-level administrators at your institution. If things get really ugly, those emails may even be read by lawyers, news media, etc. Write with those kinds of readers in mind. I would save all the emails: the ones I sent and the ones I received.

I would also keep an impeccable, thorough work log of tasks I was assigned and completed, when they were assigned and completed, and the time I spent on them.

I would also not threaten to quit. TAships often come with tuition waivers or similar fee waivers, so you may actually end up on the hook for paying back for these "expenses" if you quit. Likewise, although TAship salaries are dispensed to you monthly, they're usually budgeted as lump sums with small print contractual language that binds your salary to completing your duties. In which case, you'd have to pay back not only the expenses that were paid to you silently but also the salary you've earned so far.

I'm so sorry you're going through this. It is, unfortunately, a very common experience for women in academia. Know that there are a lot of us trying to change that, but it's often with a lot of regret that we dispense advice that amounts to little more than "grit your teeth, document everything, out-professionalize the men, and get through the semester."

If you'd like to memail me, I'd be happy to help you locate institution-specific resources that might help.
posted by pinkacademic at 8:46 AM on February 17, 2018 [56 favorites]

I'm a woman with experience in academia, and also a lot of experience as both a supervisor and mandated reporter. I'm really sorry you're having a tough semester/quarter. I'm not hearing you say you feel like you're uncomfortable or (other than your first mention of genders and ages in your OP) that you think gender or age might be a strong factor in this. If I'm mistaken, please forgive me. But if that is correct, I think people may be going a little too far too fast on this.

I view the Prof as having the first responsibility for setting out expectations for how the course is run. Absent that, you have an enthusiastic, grabby, young (and possibly egotistical) co-TA for the course who is filling the power vacuum.

My first step would be going back to the Professor, and yes, I think email is a good place to start, and state you are looking for him/her to provide some framing for the two of you in terms of how you'd like the rest of the semester to run. I would frame it from the context of student outcomes (which may be pretty rocky given how things have been going so far) and also explain you'd like to have some clear expectations and work assignments (this would be a good time to neutrally rephrase what you brought up with them a while ago and restate how that impacts student outcomes as well as your work environment). I would then also propose the co-leading framework that you would like to see (if you propose something that seems reasonable, they will with great relief likely copy and paste and may not even change a single word).

Close the email by saying that you would be very happy to meet with him/her in person to discuss more in detail, and suggest that if email is inconvenient you can plan to be in their office on XXXX to meet with them (which gives them a little bit of a deadline for response). If you know they aren't very email-y, or are one of those folks who lets hundreds or thousands of unread emails build up in their inbox, you might also slip a printed copy of the email under their door or text them to mention you have an important note you'd like them to read.

Good luck, this sucks, I also agree with other posters - he's going to flame out or calm down after he gets through his "freshman 15", you absolutely should not have to put up with it.
posted by arnicae at 11:24 AM on February 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

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