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UIC TA Handbook - Communication Strategies for TAs and Faculty Supervisors
By Liz Keys
Former Psychologist in the UIC Counseling Center
Your relationship with your faculty supervisor can be one of the most enriching and rewarding parts of your teaching experience. The benefit--constructive supervision and feedback, mentoring, increased contacts inside and out side the department -- will usually outweigh any difficulties you may encounter. It is helpful to remember, however, that difficult interpersonal relationships are a potential part of everyone's experience, and that a particularly trying semester as a TA may be both a learning experience and a necessary part of the TA's job. Being aware of successful communication strategies can prepare you for sticky situations that may arise. Equally important, these tools can help prevent problems from occurring by establishing positive communication right from the start.
Faculty members have different strengths, and working with different faculty members can enhance a TA's learning about the subject matter as well as about teaching philosophy and methods. Working with a faculty supervisor provides an optimal balance between autonomous responsibility as a teacher and input and guidance from someone more experienced.
Broader Role Models
Faculty are role models for graduate students, and working with a variety of faculty members gives the TA an opportunity to develop more comprehensive, complex, and realistic awareness of the academic arena, a variety of adaptations to the university environment, and of professional functions and academic responsibilities.
The professional relationships initially developed in the context of teaching a particular class might well expand beyond that class to other aspects of the academic arena. The TA also has the opportunity to be known by a range of faculty, which may provide an opportunity for the TA to earn broader acknowledgement and respect from faculty in the department.
Some of the communication difficulties between TAs and faculty supervisors result from the differences which may exist between them. These may include differences in culture or language, teaching style, educational philosophy, learning goals for students, or professional values. These kinds of differences need to be addressed for any two col leagues engaged in a collaborative teaching effort.
The TA and faculty supervisor may have different expectations for particular duties (e.g., grading papers, giving class lectures, office hours), or for time commitments related to the TA's work. There may be differences in how the TA and the faculty supervisor view the TA's autonomy and the extent of oversight or "veto power" from the supervisor.
The TA and the faculty supervisor are managing multiple professional roles, some of which may come into conflict over the course they are working on together. The TA is a student, who must keep in focus responsibilities for coursework, research, professional or clinical work, and other requirements of a graduate program. The faculty supervisor also has competing demands, including responsibilities for other classes, research, professional or clinical work, and supervision of student research.
Any supervisor, by definition, has certain authority over the individuals she or he supervises. This authority might extend beyond the particular course assignment to serving on a thesis or dissertation committee, overseeing a qualifying exam, or serving on a TA's promotion or evaluation committee.
Building a Constructive Working Relationship
While considering the potential difficulties may seem discouraging, in reality it is an important component of a constructive working relationship. Too often, individuals are prone to attribute difficulties in their interactions to "personality differences" or to the negative qualities they perceive in the other person (e.g., the other is seen as "not caring enough", "not committed enough", "lazy", "self centered", "rigid", etc.). Trying to deal with such personal qualities is very difficult and can easily lead to a pattern of accusation, self-defense, counter-accusation, retaliation.
Considering the differences presented above allows for an airing of potential problems in a more constructive way, and may open the door to increased understanding, com promise, and negotiation. Exploring these issues can enhance communication by focusing the discussion on issues or roles rather than on personalities. The TA should be particularly mindful of the differential authority and power between the TA and the faculty supervisor, and yet, also needs to be respectful of the faculty supervisor's ideas and approaches.
Balance Roles and Clarify Expectations
Direct consideration of the factors which might contribute to difficulties will allow the TA to address and areas for increased learning. Acknowledging both the faculty supervisor's authority and the TA's learning needs can help to facilitate negotiation and compromise.
As in any collaborative effort, the ideal for the development of an effective working relationship between a TA and faculty supervisor is an open sharing of ideas, expectations, goals, priorities and direct discussion of and negotiation around areas of difference. The ideal working relationship involves mutual respect for strengths, for vulnerabilities, and for particular aspects of the current situation. Issues can be raised by either party, and a difference in authority or power does not negate an individual's thoughts, ideas, or point of view.
Finally, remember that communication need not be restricted to one particular TA and one particular faculty supervisor. Communication with others in and beyond the department can expand the awareness of different ways of resolving some of the dilemmas inherent in this situation. Discrete discussions with other TAs in the department and with other faculty supervisors can be useful:
- What are alternative ways of looking at priorities, responsibilities, balancing of TA and faculty needs?
- What are the norms and expectations for time commitments, training and supervision for the teaching role?
Thinking about resources beyond the department can also be valuable. Talking with TA's and faculty in other departments can help open an awareness beyond one's own particular perspective. What kinds of TA supervision or learning experiences have other departments developed?
When difficulties arise which seem unmanageable, TAs can seek consultation as a way to maintain perspective and consider different options. They can check with peers who have also been TAs, consult with their own academic advisor, and consult with their department chair.
Knowing how to recognize some of the typical problems that arise in the TA-faculty relationship can help you take things less personally if problems do occur. You can use these ideas to establish a working relationship that is mutually respectful and productive.