General Information and Advice

Forward

This article was written quite some time ago. As such, the information presented may or may not be accurate, and may not necessarily reflect the opinions and policies of the current teaching assistant mentors and staff. Nonetheless, the advice may prove to be very useful to you. In the event of discrepency, please consult the official CA information sheet on the main page.

Setting Expectations

In any teamwork situation, it's very important for each person to communicate and understand each other's expectations and define roles. This is no less true in the relationship between professor and TA. A professor may expect the TA to do everything but lecture, and the TA may expect to only grade, but there's far more to running a successful course than lecturing and grading, and the roles and responsibilities for such tasks should be negotiated and understood from the beginning.

What you can expect from a professor:

What a professor can expect from you:

*Perhaps the hardest part of setting expectations is finding tactful ways to set boundaries so that you as a TA do not slack on your commitments to your advisor, to your family/friends, and to yourself. A 50% TA is expected to work an average of 20 hours/week. A 25% TA is expected to work an average of 10 hours/week. We stress "average" because the workload will vary significantly over the course of the quarter. There's usually a considerable start-up cost before and into the first week of the quarter, a brief lull before the first homeworks are turned in, and then a more average stream of work until the end-of-the-quarter crunch. Do not set down the n hours/week as a strict rule from the outset, as this is not an hourly salary. A couple weeks into the quarter is usually a good time to judge whether the amount of work you're expected to do is reasonable. If, after cutting every corner in your time management, you're unable to do the work expected of you in the average time you're committed to, it's time to communicate reasonable expectations.

I have great enthusiasm for teaching and a bias towards achieving short-term, tangible teaching goals. Therefore, making good concurrent progress in long-term research has always been a struggle, a difficult battle between competing priorities. I've also witnessed the TA role embattle priorities beyond work. To maintain both boundaries between and dedication to each of our life priorities is worth constant vigilance and reflection. Indeed, it is a subtle and invaluable part of our education. We'll revisit this important topic in the section on time management.

For now, suffice it to say that the professor should be expected to respect reasonable boundaries that guard priorities to other commitments. Doing so, expressing care for the quality of the course, compassion for the professor, and a firm resolve to one's commitments, expresses a maturity which I wish I had earlier on before failing my first qualifying exam while TAing.

Before the Quarter Begins

Before the quarter begins, there are usually many tasks which unfold in unexpected detail as the quarter draws close (or perhaps, less ideally, even after the course starts). In this section we attempt to give a description of common tasks and provide useful information to save you time.

First Handouts

The first two handouts are usually a course information sheet and a syllabus. The course information sheet usually contains:

Meeting times and locations
If the course information is provided online as well, it can be helpful to provide a link to the searchable campus map at http://www-pcd.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/map/map.html
Teaching staff contact and office hours information
This should include office number and time for office hours, phone number, and e-mail address.
A paragraph course description
List of course prerequisites
Course texts (required and optional)
Clearly defined means of communicating with students*
Clearly defined expectations for students (e.g. late policy, responsibility for covering material in lecture and readings, attendance, etc.)**
Honor code

The syllabus can include a calendar providing lecture topics, homework assignment/due dates, readings, etc. Often, syllabi are tentative and the need and means for students to keep abreast of adjustments to the course must be clearly communicated. In general, establishing well understood means of communication with students is an important initial goal.

*In my experience, communication best occurs through three avenues: lecture, handouts/web pages, and mailing lists. Lecture announcements, reminders, explanations, etc. are best for giving general expectations, impressions, etc. Detailed, static information which can't be retained from oral communication can be provided via handouts and web pages. Mailing lists are especially good for communicating time-critical information between lectures (e.g. homework errata, changes in course time/location, etc.) In larger classes, class newsgroups may also play an important role in helping TAs coordinate in answering questions.

**Just as it's important you and your professor to communicate expectations, it's important to clearly communicate expectations to students. Is class attendance important? If so, how will you express its value? Are all readings optional? They will be considered optional by default unless there's a true need for them and the students understand that need. How will students be graded? How will students be regraded? When a student hands in a stack of homeworks a couple weeks late, what will you do and will they be surprised? Consider these questions will your professor and carefully communicate these expectations in the information sheet.

Class Home Page

Class web pages are often found on the leland system with root directory names like /afs/ir/class/cs###. Class web pages can be maintained on other systems, but should be registered in the directory of Stanford class pages at http://www.stanford.edu/var/dir.classes.html. Here, we make the assumption you'll have a leland class directory. If such a class directory does not exist, you can set one up following the instructions at http://www.stanford.edu/leland/howto.class.shtml. On the same page, you'll see how to set up the WWW directory. All sorts of good information compiled by system consultants can be found at http://consult.stanford.edu/pub/ To then give other TAs permissions on this AFS system, use the command pts adduser <leland username> accountname:groupname as documented at http://consult.stanford.edu/pub/afs/afsexpert. To see the appropriate accountname:groupname use the command fs listacl as documented at http://consult.stanford.edu/pub/afs/afsguide.

Of course, the leland class directories are for more than just web pages. One can install software there and expect every student in your course (including remote students through SITN) to get a leland account. To increase the disk quota for students so they can do course projects on the leland system, or if you have any special course computing needs or question, contact "courses@leland.stanford.edu".

Class Mailing List

Class e-mail mailing lists can be easily administered through Stanford's Mailman system. Good documentation can be found at http://mailman.stanford.edu/. These lists can be configured (and reconfigured) in a variety of ways for different purposes. Lists can be freely open for subscription, or all subscription requests can be sent to you for approval. Posts can be restricted to you, restricted to list members, or not be restricted at all. You'll be asked about such preferences if you set up the list, or you can change them if you're inheriting a list from the previous list owner.

The simpliest way to create a class e-mail list is to request one from http://courses.stanford.edu/. Once the request has been approved, three mailing lists will be created for the course staff, registered students, and course guests. This method is very convenient for you since the student e-mail list is automatically updated with the latest registration from Axess and requires no intervention on your part. More information about ITSS-support class lists can be found at http://www.stanford.edu/services/courses/its-course-support/mailinglist.html.

If you're inheriting an e-mail list, you'll need to contact the previous owner(s) of the list and request that your SUNet is added to the set of list owners. You can contact the owner(s) of the list at the e-mail address XXXXX@lists.stanford.edu, where "XXXXX" is the name of the list to inherit. Once you get ownership, you can instruct students to subscribe themselves by sending e-mail to XXXXX-join@lists.stanford.edu, where XXXXX is the name of the list (they do not need to put anything in the subject or body heading)*. To unsubscribe, they do the same as above except the e-mail message goes to XXXXX-leave@lists.stanford.edu (again, "XXXXX" is the name of the list. To post a message to the mailing list, simply send the e-mail message to XXXXX@lists.stanford.edu.

You can administer the e-mail lists through the Mailman interface at http://mailman.stanford.edu/. You can change settings, add and remove people manually from the list, etc.

Stanford is currently migration from Majordomo to Mailman to handle e-mail list management. If you are inheriting a list from someone else, it should have been migrated over to Mailman. If, for some reason, the Mailman interface doesn't work for it, contact Tom (hurlbutt@cs) for instructions on what to do.

Class Newsgroups

You can establish/gain control of a class newsgroup through the same interface that you use to register a couse at http://courses.stanford.edu/. One can post news to such a list by e-mailing to address su-class-cs###@news.stanford.edu. As previously mentioned, newsgroups may be especially beneficial for distributed handling of question for a large course by a team of TAs. More information about class newsgroups can be found at http://www.stanford.edu/services/courses/its-course-support/discussiongroup.html.

Photocopying

The TA codes for the copiers change each quarter, and Nikkie Salgado (nikkie@cs) will give it to you on request. The official photocopying policy regarding student changes beyond n pages is detailed in the quarterly TA Information Sheet at http://www.stanford.edu/group/sutacs/ta-info.txt. We'll not discuss it here because it's insignificant compared to the sum students pay for tuition. Don't be wasteful. The copier is room 169 is fast and defaults to 3-hole punch paper. In my experience, it's more reliable than the copiers on individual floors and is worth going out of your way for. All common copiers should recognize the TA copy account.

Office Hours

You may hold office hours in your office or in the Gates TA office area: rooms B24 and B26 (in the basement). Each room is divided into two cubicles each with a desk, chair, phone, computer, and white board. The phone numbers are:

Gates B24-A (650) 725-4385
Gates B24-B (650) 736-1816
Gates B26-A (650) 723-6319
Gates B26-B (650) 736-1817

The basement location allows 24 hour access 7 days a week. You can sign up for a cubicle directly using the taoffice program from a Xenon account, or indirectly through Dana Halpin (dana@cs). The more time constrained you are, the earlier you should seek to sign up for these spaces, as they can fill up quickly.

While some may prefer to wait for student feedback on when office hours should be held, office hours usage is fairly predictable: If you have an office you're always in, students will come whenever they want to, especially right before assignments are due. This is more certain than death or taxes. You can respond to this by holding your office hours during peak demand, or seek to encourage people looking at the homework well in advance by not be available during the last-minute rush. Given that such student responsibility and good time management is something worth teaching as well, I feel that TAs should not go out of their way to support and thus encourage procrastination. At the same time, office hours should not be planned for times when most students cannot attend. Avoid peak class times if possible.

CTL Training

Besides their TA Orientation (which is required for new TAs), Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is committed to train and support TAs in teaching through workshops, communication classes, individual consultation, literature, etc. etc. etc. If you have even the slightest possible interest in improving your communication skills or pursuing teaching as a career, check out their web page at http://ctl.stanford.edu/ or stop by and meet the friendly folk there at the Center in Sweet Hall. Watch for all they have to offer at the beginning of each school year. Remember that even a minor teaching role as a TA is still the start of a teaching portfolio. CTL will help you maximize the benefit of your teaching experience.

SUTACS Home Page

The Stanford University Teaching Assistants in Computer Science (SUTACS) are a group of CS TAs who have a common interest in passing on resources, advice, etc. to future TAs they may never meet in this very transient environment. This information and more is available at the SUTACS Home Page at http://www.stanford.edu/group/sutacs/.

In fact, all the web addresses are hyperlinked there so you don't have to type them in. The address for this page is http://www.stanford.edu/group/sutacs/newtainfo.html. Please check out our home page and see what we have to offer. After you've TA'd, think about how you might be able to share from your experience in contributing to these pages.

During the Quarter

As for your role during the quarter, you can either (1) be a passive assistant doing things as you're asked to, or (2) be an active partner to your professor and get a enjoyable taste of educational experience. I recommend (2). It's more enjoyable. If you're worried that your enthusiasm could kill your other priorities, be encouraged in the later section on time management. This section will talk about the common key roles TAs have which make them crucial to making college education work.

Homework/Exam Development

Although, professors are primarily responsible for homework/exam development, TAs often play an important role in testing, reviewing, revised, and giving feedback on drafts of homeworks professor create. In addition, a strong TA community will be so good as to pass along homework and exams from previous quarters so that future students can benefit from the hard work that's already been done. Sadly, a lot of good homework ideas pass away beyond memory. For your part, don't let this happen. Keep the originals to every handout you create and do your part to pass it on! After looking to past homeworks/exams and forming a rough draft, it's important to debug it before handing it out. There's a balance here. You will probably not want to work through the entire homework/exam because of other priorities, but you want to do what you can to ensure that the work covers the material adequately, is of reasonable length, is clear, and correct. Better to invest a little time in advance than spend a lot of time doing "damage control" on an ambiguous or flawed assignment.

Some professors like to publish the exact number of points each subpart of each problem is worth. My opinion is that everything on the homework should be worth doing, and that such details shift interest from the material to interest in points.

If your course is an SITN course and it's not too much trouble, make the homeworks available as HTML. Otherwise, handouts need to be submitted to SITN 2 days prior to when the students need them. In general, I recommend that homework solutions shouldn't be typeset (with LaTeX or HTML). It's usually a waste of time. If you can get student consent, it's perfectly reasonable to photocopy the best student solutions and include your own comments on the most common mistakes made. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Grading

You'll probably exert most of your effort grading. It's hard work. While I really enjoy working through problems with students one-on-one, I take little delight in poring over a stack of homework and seeking to understand and give feedback in such a non-interactive fashion. Still it's necessary and important and part of the teaching process. The main question is how a TA can grade efficiently and effectively. Advice for mass grading is being compiled on the SUTACS page http://www.stanford.edu/group/sutacs/massgrading.html. For example: Rather than write an essay in red ink on each paper and burn yourself out, write your comments separately as part of the solutions handout, and refer to them with abbreviation (or codes or whatever). Keep notes on your grading policy so you can keep things consistent in grading and regrading.

A brief comment about late assignment policies: It's very much an individual judgement call. I've seen and heard of such varied approaches to this problem: (1) no lates, no mercy, (2) no due dates, and (3) much along the spectrum in between. It's a subjective preference where the TA draws the line and asks the students to respect that line. I generally use a policy which makes it clear that late assignments might not be accepted and handle lates/late penalties on a case-by-case basis. When teaching, I give the TA who's grading the option to draw their own lines according to their time constraints. There will always be those who test the line, and there will always be some with good reasons.

A word on grade inflation: End quarter reports say that the grades "A", "B", "C", and "D" mean "excellent", "good", "satisfactory", and "minimal pass", respectively. If not everyone who gets an "A" is "excellent", then the grades are without informational value. I was a solid "B+" student in a high school that didn't take the easy route with pacifying grades. Colleges understood the integrity of the school's grading system and admitted non-"A"-students from that school regardless. Let's have grades mean what they're said to mean.

Office Hours

Office hours are often either an excellent opportunity to enjoy more interactive teaching than the professor experiences in lecture, or they are a time to catch up on other TA work. If an assignment isn't due soon, people generally don't come to office hours. An excellent, well-liked TA had office hours the morning of the day before each homework was due. Student's rarely looked at a homework assignment before the night before it was due. Few people ever came to office hours. Those who needed help with their homework either pestered the professor on the due date or turned in the assignment incomplete saying it was too hard. I don't know a good solution. It centers on the issue of student responsibility and maturity. One can communicate positive expectations for good study and work discipline, but one can't force it of course. All you can do is to encourage people to seek help early and set office hours to encourage such behavior. Good luck.

I once had a student come to every one of my office hours. Always for regrades. Sometimes not really sure of where he wanted to haggle for points until after he'd arrived and started looking through the homework. Two ways to deal with such "grade grubbers": (1) Reserve the right to go through the entire homework and take off points for mistakes previously unnoticed. (2) Ask for a small written explanation for why things should be regraded, and wait a while before doing it so there isn't instant gratification. (2) is probably better, because it better communicates a low priority for dealing with grading issues. With every opportunity, seek to take the student's eyes off of points or grade distributions and refocus them on the interesting material it's your primary job to share.

One common problem in office hours is how to deal with students who essentially want you to do their homework for them indirectly. I recommend seeing the situation as a fun challenge of diagnosis: (1) Mentally list the concepts necessary to understand and do the homework problem. (2) Ask the student questions to diagnose what understanding is lacking. (3) Teach the student the concepts independent from the problem (or give them study recommendations if office hours are crowded), or encourage the student with assurance that they understand what is necessary to do the problem. This can be a difficult and (I think) fun process.

Providing Feedback

As a TA, you have a key role in seeking and communicating student feedback and keeping your finger on the pulse of the course. Students will sometimes be reluctant to share constructive criticism with the professor. Or sometimes their criticism isn't constructive. However, student's generally feel more free to confide in a TA about their experience in the course. The TA can then take both the criticism and praise, interpret it, add their own suggestions, and deliver tactful and valuable feedback to the professor that couldn't have been obtained otherwise. The TA can usually gain a much more accurate idea of how the course is proceeding than anyone else. As such, please realize the great potential you have to improve the course quality and encourage the professor in their pursuit of teaching. Remember that negative feedback is commonly heard at three times the volume of all positive feedback. Offer encouragement and praise as opportunity arise.

Borrowing Equipment and Texts

Both the Department and the University Course Support folks have equipment (PC/Mac projectors, computers, TV/VCRs, operhead projectors, etc.) which can be borrowed. To borrow such items, contact Nikkie Salgado (nikkie@cs) at least 2 business days in advance of your need.

There is a small library of CS textbooks located in Claire Stager's office which are available for TAs to use (and return at the end of the quarter).

Managing Time, Balancing Priorities

If we ended here, we'd to all TAs a significant disservice. Yes, we want to encourage each TA to understand the important role they play and commit themselves to excellent service. However, there are many other competing priorities (some of which are certainly more important). The key question is how one can be an excellent, committed while not flushing research, friends, family, and all the rest of life down the toilet. We divide this section into two parts: (1) How to Cut Corners, and (2) How to Draw Lines.

How to Cut Corners

What are the best ways to be economical with time without significantly negatively affecting the course quality? You'll probably have greater depth of insight on this question if you regularly take the time to step back, reflect, and gain perspective on how you're spending your time. Consider how profiling software gives you an idea of which part of your code is burning the most cycles, and consider how making the core code fast usually results in significant improvement in performance. In the same way, we can usually step back and identify areas where we spend a lot of needless time and effort.

Here are examples of corners I've needed to cut:

Your depth of reflection, wise values, and creativity are crucial to managing your time well.

How to Draw Lines

As much as you cut corners, you may find that you're still overwhelmed by the average work you're doing per week. After doing your very best to use your time efficiently, you then need to find a way to offload or share responsibilities. In addition, you need to do it in such a way that is humble, honest, and firm about your limitations yet leaves the faculty member assured that you care about the course and are doing your very best to fulfill all of your commitments with integrity and excellence. If you have advice, let me know. This can be difficult, especially because TAs are not in a position of power, suggested TA hours/week is rarely considered by faculty, and so the momentum of traditional and political roles runs against any sort of negotiation.

I don't know what will work for you. I've found myself in an unwanted adversarial-feeling position more than once. The best I can do is to share the approach which has worked best for me in my experience:

Have your professor prioritize your tasks.
Asking the professor to express their priorities for you both communicates a personal care for the professor's priorities and makes sure you both understand your current tasks. If there's too much on your plate, it should become apparent. The professor then has the responsibility to prioritize your tasks well and may offer ways to help you cut corners.
Give reasonable estimates for the time each task will take and when the professor can expect each to be done.
If a professor says they want priorities A through Z done, saying I expect that I can do A-H this week can take pressure off you in a couple ways. First, by verbalizing reasonable expectations of yourself and accepting your limitations, you accept that not being able to do I-Z this week is reasonable, nothing to feel bad about, and out of your hands for this week. Second, by communicating such expectations, the professor will gain a better model of what you can do within a reasonable average time commitment per week. In being positive in your expression "I can do...", there's a subtle but important implication that you want to do what you can to assist within reasonable limits. This is important.
Avoid counting the minutes, but watch the hours closely.
You're not punching time cards, and any attempt to track your time too carefully will communicate that you care more about drawing a line than being a partner in education. At the same time, you owe it to yourself and your other commitments to monitor and limit the time you're putting into TAing.

Most faculty are reasonable and respectful. If they understand that you care about their course and have other commitments you need to keep with integrity, they will usually help you find ways to manage your time for the maximum benefit of the class. If, after doing everything to be efficient, communicate your commitment to the course and commitments beyond the course, and drawing lines as tactfully as possible, you still find yourself in a bad working relationship, seek counsel from Claire Stager or the University Ombudsman as a last resort. Your time is precious. Use it well and guard it well. Do what you can do within reasonable limits and take satisfaction in that. Good luck!

Conclusion

Much more could be said, but in seeking to heed my own words, I'll stop having expressed what I believe to be most important and of greatest potential benefit to you. I would again encourage you in all you do as a TA to

I sincerely wish you and whoever reads this the best in your TAing experience!