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Case Study: The Frustrated Teaching Assistant

Joan is a Teaching Assistant for a third year required course in Physical Education. Her major responsibility is to supervise the weekly labs, mark the lab reports, and deal with any students who have problems or questions about the labs. Joan is new to Queen's, and although she has never taken this particular course as an undergraduate, she is familiar with some of the material from her previous university. She has a heavy workload in her own graduate program, and is worried about having enough time for her TA responsibilities. The department organized an orientation for teaching assistants but, because of summer work commitments, she arrived in Kingston too late to attend.

She only learned of her assignment to this particular course after arriving at Queen's. She immediately went to see the lecturer for the course, but this was an extremely busy time and he could only spare 15 minutes to talk with her. He gave her the lab manual and the class schedule. Joan noticed that one of the labs clashed with a graduate course for which she had registered. She asked the instructor for a copy of the text used in the course; although he had no spares available he was later able to find an older edition. He suggested that Joan might wish to sit in on the lectures to make sure she knew what he was covering.

The first lab was rather muddled. The students were fairly understanding, and Joan got through it alright, although one or two students asked questions about procedures that she could not answer. The second lab went a little better, since Joan had more time to prepare. However, in the third lab session there were more questions from students, this time expressed more forcefully. Some complained that the procedures described in the manual were not clear at some points, and that it was impossible to carry out the instructions exactly as indicated. Since Joan had not actually carried out the procedures herself, she was at a loss at how to respond. Other students asked for information about how their lab report should be written up. Joan was not entirely sure, so she responded in terms of the practices used in her previous university. Some of the students looked dubious. Another group of students asked what was the point of the lab and how did it relate to the material covered in the lectures. Again, Joan responded as best she could, but she had found no time to attend lectures and she felt her response was rather unconvincing.

Joan was feeling quite depressed and frustrated about the situation, and worried that it would interfere with her own studies. She went to see the instructor, but he was unavailable. The departmental secretary suggested she try coming during the posted office hours, but the next available time slot was not for two days. Joan then consulted another TA, Inga, who had been at Queen's the previous year. lnga was sympathetic. She said that although she had not worked with the instructor, she knew he was very busy with outside administrative commitments, research, contract work for the government, as well as responsibility for two undergraduate courses and the usual departmental administrative load. Although he was supportive of TAs, he expected them to save him time, not to add to his workload. Inga suggested that Joan take her problem to the graduate coordinator.

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Last updated June 24, 1997

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