Several times in recent months, academic persons at different institutions have described completely unrelated problems with different graduate students who failed to secure a substitute to teach their labs/recitations/discussion sections/etc. when they had be away for anticipated travel.
I have written before about when professors need to miss class (e.g., owing to conference travel) and what we typically do to deal with anticipated absences. My focus today is on graduate students. Some of the issues are similar (the general need to balance teaching and research responsibilities), but some are unique to teaching assistants.
Example: If a grad student needs a substitute for a lab, which may be 2-3 hours in duration, the stakes are a bit higher and the options more limited than when a professor needs a substitute for a 50-minute lecture. The professor could show a highly relevant and entertaining movie, give an exam, or even cancel one class, but these options would not be feasible or advisable for a lab.
Grad students for centuries have routinely traded lab-substituting duties to help each other. It's the obvious thing to do, and if you plan enough in advance, you can work something out.
However, problems arise when a to-be-absent TA doesn't plan in advance and then expects someone to help them out with their self-inflicted emergency. Most grad students are responsible about these situations, and problems are rare. Nevertheless, I have seen the best-if-avoided following scenarios:
- The absent TA makes a last-minute plea to other TAs for help. Some TAs seem to think that it is better if this desperate plea is made afar (e.g., from the conference site) so that their friends can't kill them immediately, but this method will likely result in much anger from peers and professors.
- The absent TA expects the instructor of the class to find a substitute for them. The instructor may be interested in being part of the substitute-finding process (to ensure that the lab will be well taught) and ultimately is the person responsible for the class as a whole, but it's a bad idea for a TA to assume that the instructor will find a substitute for them.
- The absent TA does not find a substitute and the course instructor is reluctant to take this responsibility, so the job of finding a substitute falls to the TA's grad advisor, who does not think it is their responsibility, and passes it back to the TA. That results in a protracted process involving lots of cranky people.
Not long ago, I was thinking about an ancient incident involving TA-substitution issues when I was a grad student. I was reminded of this because I was invited to give a talk at another university -- a university where a fellow TA from my grad school days is now an esteemed senior professor. One term when we were TAs for the same class, we each planned to go to a (different) conference, so we arranged to substitute for each other.
Or so I thought. I taught his lab for him, and he then refused to teach my lab, although he had no schedule or other conflict with the lab time. His reason for not teaching my lab: "I may have implied that I would teach your lab for you but I never promised I would teach your lab for you." Me: "Then why did you think I taught your lab for you?" Shrug. It was my problem, not his.
More than twenty years later, I examined my soul. Had I forgiven him? No, not really.
I don't mean that, decades later, I obsess over his refusing to teach a lab for me after I had taught his lab for him, and it is important to note that this event was not an isolated example of his jerkiness. That is, I am not overlooking abundant examples in which he was actually a thoughtful and pleasant person. He was consistently a jerk. To everyone.
So now, eons later, I was curious to see what his grad students think of him. Are they psychologically damaged by their interactions with him, or did he somehow mature when in a position of responsibility and learn to treat people with respect? What happens to someone who routinely shirked their responsibility as a grad student? Do they become a shirker professor?
Well, in this case, I'd reluctantly say that the results are rather more positive than negative. People (including his students) don't hate him; most even seem to like him. Some of the characteristics that annoyed his peer grad students are seen by his students and others as harmless eccentricities of a professor. He is clearly a jerk in some ways - he still has a tendency to patronize and condescend to colleagues and students alike, for example -- but overall he functions well as a teacher and advisor, and has even won awards.
That's nice. Although I will never like this individual, I like knowing that there is a possibility for personal growth after grad school.
2 months ago