Thoughts on Hiring Role-Specific TAs

This post compiles some thoughts we had on finding TAs who are qualified and interested in the more specialized behind-the-scenes tasks involved in running a large class.

Specialized Roles

From my experience as a first-time TA myself and talking with other newer TAs, the most visible responsibilities of the job are teaching discussion sections and holding office hours. Some non-student-facing tasks, like grading exams, are still somewhat visible to students, but others aren’t immediately obvious if you haven’t been on course staff before. For example:

  • Exam writing: Putting an exam together involves writing questions, editing the overall exam, and pre-testing the exam with TAs.
  • Logistics: Planning a large class requires a lot of communication with the department when it comes to scheduling rooms, handling exam time conflicts for students, obtaining software/accounts for students, etc.
  • Infrastructure: Our classes have a lot of automated tools (e.g. autograders, grade calculation scripts, extensions infrastructure) that have to be maintained. New tools also often have to be developed on-demand.
  • Student support: Specific groups of students such as visiting students, students finishing an incomplete from a previous semester, and transfer students taking a self-paced version of the class each require some specialized onboarding and support. Also, our classes have to provide accommodations for struggling students and students registered with DSP (the Disabled Students’ Program).
  • People management: Managing a large staff of TAs, tutors, readers, and academic interns (lab assistants) involves a lot of communication.

Sometimes the instructor will do some or all of these auxiliary tasks, but when classes grow to be very large, delegation to TAs is inevitable. Still, it’s understandable that most first-time TA applicants don’t think of these as part of the job they’re applying for. (One of the goals of this blog is to shed more light on these less visible but essential roles.)

Each of these roles requires some specialized qualifications that can be very different from what we look for in a TA focusing on student-facing teaching tasks.

Hiring for Specialized Roles

When faced with filling these positions, a natural thought is to recruit applicants who are specifically interested in these jobs, and interviewing them to find the most willing and qualified candidates for these non-student-facing tasks.

One practical problem we’ve faced with this approach is that most applicants are seeking out TA positions with the intention of doing student-facing jobs. This might be because of lack of awareness among applicants that these jobs are also part of being a TA.

There are also pedagogical arguments against hiring for specialized roles. Maybe TAs working on non-student-facing jobs should still have experience with how the class runs day-to-day and a basic understanding of pedagogy that mainly comes from student-facing teaching jobs. Having someone skip that process entirely to focus on backend work might not be the best idea. Also, maybe the main thing we’re looking for in hiring is people who are passionate about the teaching process as a whole, and that passion can translate into being trained for these specialized roles after being hired.

Training for Specialized Roles

The alternate approach (and the one that our classes are currently using) is to hire people mainly based on their teaching qualifications, and then train TAs for specialized roles once they’re on staff.

One problem with this approach is that passion for teaching doesn’t always translate into interest in specialized roles. This is compounded by the fact that passion isn’t really something that you can quantify in an interview setting. With this approach, we ultimately have to rely on passionate TAs stepping up and taking on these roles because of their interest, or more proactive onboarding of new TAs into these specialized roles (even if this feels a little like pressuring some TAs).

Relying on a small number of passionate TAs to fill these specialized roles can result in workload imbalances where a few people are very overworked handling administrative and backend roles. One proposed solution is to end the expectation that returning TAs are always rehired, which lets us keep more passionate TAs while finding new TAs to help spread the workload out. A potential danger of this is that we might end up losing TAs who don’t go above and beyond their expected roles, which is certainly not a requirement of employment–this is something we’d have to keep in mind when we figure out a system of performance reviews to determine who gets to be rehired.

Ultimately, there’s no one right answer: Finding sustainable ways to transfer specialized TA knowledge to newer TAs is still an ongoing challenge we’re trying to solve.