Policy 30: frequently asked questions (FAQs) with answers!

 Employment of Graduate Student Teaching Assistants frequently asked questionsIn mid-January, we shared an update on Policy 30: Employment of Graduate Student Teaching Assistants – you can read the memo online.  The memo extended an open invitation to contact me, Jeff Casello, Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs with any follow-up questions or concerns.

In the last month, I have received several emails asking for additional details, which I am happy to provide – see the question/answer style below.  I am pleased to have an open, ongoing dialogue about a Policy that benefits graduate students and the University, and that supports the delivery of the University’s academic mission while acknowledging the diversity of responsibilities that graduate students hold while serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA).

Q: As a student, I don’t recall having a say on this new Policy.  How were students involved in its creation?

A: Policy 30 was drafted over a period of about 5 years.  Throughout that time, the drafting committee was made up of university administrators and student representatives, often the President of the Graduate Student Association, and other appointees from the GSA-UW. 

Over the drafting period, I visited the GSA-UW council several times, often joined by other University colleagues, including the University President, to report on progress in developing the Policy and identifying important areas for input. Council members were kept apprised of updates on the Policy and they also sought feedback from graduate students whom they represent in the general student population. Many of those asked to weigh in are TAs and were able to speak to matters of importance that should be contained within the Policy.

The final draft of the Policy was reviewed and endorsed by the Graduate Student Relations Committee (GSRC), co-chaired by me (as Associate Vice-President, GSPA) and the President of the Graduate Student Association, University of Waterloo (GSA-UW).

The current Policy was created in a collegial, consultative process, as are all policies that impact our institution, the students, and the employees who are a part of it.

Q: TAships are important to students – these positions provide funding and, in some cases, help us prepare for other academic opportunities.  I want to know if I am eligible for a TAship in my department or in another department. How do I do that?

A: The University understands the importance of knowing how much funding you will receive as a graduate student, and how you will receive that support – through scholarships, funding from your supervisor, or through TAships.  The University first outlines your support in your offer letter, giving you the chance to evaluate the financial realities of graduate school before deciding on your future.  In most cases, the support committed to students in an offer letter will include one or more TA appointments.  So, when we were drafting Policy 30, we were sure to consider how students become aware of TA opportunities, and how TAs would be appointed.

To make sure the TA appointment process is fair and equitable, Policy 30 requires that units prepare a list of all the TA opportunities for the upcoming term.  That list also must describe the skills and knowledge that a TA will need to be successful in supporting the delivery of the courses.

Policy 30 then describes the criteria that units must consider in appointing TAs.  These include:

  • matching TA knowledge, skills and competencies to course requirements;
  • obligations to provide graduate students with financial support;

Over the course of the next few months, each faculty/department/school will be perfecting its recruitment process for TAs and making those processes available to graduate students who are interested in being a TA in the faculty/department/school. Please connect with the hiring department that you wish to TA for, to inquire about the process.

Q: I had a less-than-ideal experience as a TA several terms ago, not being clear on what the expectations were for the role and what I needed to do to be successful.  What can be done to ensure other TAs have a better experience than I had – or that I can have a better experience next time?

A: It is disappointing to learn that your experience as a TA was less-than-ideal; it is our collective priority to provide students with the best possible experience and we all strive to create the environments for that to take place.

We believe, and the Policy articulates, that the cornerstone of any experience and relationship is clear and frequent communication between Instructors and TAs.

To make sure you and your instructor get off to a positive start, the Policy now requires that you meet, discuss, and record the common expectations for the term.  Do you have to attend class?  Will you be leading tutorials?  How much marking is there to be done, and how soon does the instructor expect you to complete it?  Will there be a final exam?  Are you expected to proctor?  All of these questions will be answered before the term begins and recorded on a mandatory TA agreement.

What’s more, the new Policy requires that you and the instructor estimate how many hours these activities are expected to take.  So, you can start the term with a common expectation of how your time as a TA will be spent.

Finally, the new Policy requires that you and the instructor discuss your actual hours spent during the term.  Remember that TA appointments are expected to require 10 hours on average per week.  If you find yourself in week 3 of the course, and you’ve already spent 45 hours on your TAship, you and the instructor need to revise your expectations to be respectful of your time commitments.

Q. I’m happy to see the positive changes in Policy 30, including the mandatory TA agreement, but I don’t feel comfortable telling my instructor that they’re asking me to work too much.  I’m afraid they’ll treat me poorly or give me a bad review at the end of the term.

The University is very aware that students may be reluctant to have difficult conversations with their instructors.  To support students in these potential discussions, the revised Policy includes a role of a TA Administrator – a primary point of contact in each unit who is responsible for both appointing TAs and supporting the resolution of any challenges that arise during the term. If you are finding that your expectations of the role do not match what was shared with you, I encourage you to speak to the TA Administrator for the unit to create a path forward that allows for that clarity.  The new Policy also outlines the roles of the TAs and instructors.  I trust that the clarification of all roles involved in the TA process will help aid in providing a most positive experience for you (and others) who are embarking on being a TA.

Q: What happens when we find that the Policy is not being applied fairly? 

A: University Policies govern the behavior of all members of our community, and all units within the University.  If you feel like the Policy is not being followed – maybe the TA opportunities aren’t being advertised appropriately, or you’re continually being asked to commit more hours than the appointment requires – the University is here to support you and bring a resolution to the situation.

If your concerns arise during a TAship, we encourage you to try and resolve things with your instructor.  If that’s not possible, the next point of contact is the TA administrator.  The Policy lays out both informal and formal dispute resolution mechanisms.  I also remind you that every unit on campus has a faculty member – often called a Graduate Officer – whose job it is to support students and their units in creating positive environments and outcomes for students.  Within each Faculty, there is an Associate Dean Graduate Studies who works with the graduate officers and students toward the same goals.

Q. Suppose I’m regularly disagreeing with my instructor.  We’re just not getting along.  Can they “fire” me from the TAship?

A. No, a TA cannot be removed from a TAship by the instructor alone.  The Policy requires an Instructor who feels that the TA is not meeting their obligations, or has violated other University Policies, to make the TA Administrator aware of these concerns.  The Policy then describes the steps to a resolution which in very rare cases may result in a TA’s removal from the appointment but also allows for other outcomes depending on circumstances.

The Policy also requires that a TA continues to be supported financially, during the resolution of the situation.

Q. You say you’ve done lots of consultation, but I think there are important elements missing from the Policy.  Is it too late to change the document?

All institutional policies are reviewed on a regular basis; the frequency is dependent on the needs that arise to do so.  When a new version of a Policy is adopted, the University commits to reviewing that Policy not later than two years from its adoption, to ensure that any oversights can be corrected.

Despite the extensive dialogue around this refined Policy, I appreciate that there may be elements that surface that may have been missed or perhaps not articulated in a way that proves to be most useful, as the committee intended.  We are always happy to receive feedback – and will continue to monitor the Policy’s efficacy.  Should further refinements be required, we can begin the process of doing so.

Thank you to those of you who reached out; I welcome the opportunity to continue the dialogue and to support all of you who are interested in pursuing being a TA as part of your time at the University of Waterloo.  While I tried to do my best here to be thoughtful and thorough in my responses, in addition to those that I answered directly, I recognize some of you may still have questions.  Please feel free to reach out to me: gspa-avp@uwaterloo.ca and/or the GSA-UW president: gsa-president@uwaterloo.ca.   

In the coming weeks, we will also be hosting an ‘ask-me-anything’ (AMA) webinar to answer any follow-up questions you may have about the Policy.  Stay tuned for more details.