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UIC TA Handbook - Three Types of Professors and How to Work with Them

By Leo Schelbert

Professor Emeritus, History
UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Once the assignment has been made, a TA needs to get to know and understand the person with whom he or she is to work closely for a semester. As in every other walk of life, personalities differ and compatibility is a gilt rather than something one should assume. Perhaps three main types of professors may be distinguished, each of whom will demand a different response from a TA and will shape a different experience.

The first kind of professor might be called the "busy" type. Such a person is likely to view the TA as primarily a helper, as someone who will free the professor for his or her own work, that is research and scholarly writing. The TA may be expected to do the bulk of the work for a course, grading and leading discussion and review sessions. In one case such a professor gave a midterm examination to a class of some hundred students on a Friday and demanded that the TA grade them by following midweek, although the student had to take the comprehensive examinations for an advanced degree that very week. The professor would not hear of any delay. In such a relationship a TA must try to understand the professor's expectations and know that quiet cooperation will be a most valued attitude. The busy professor type -- often hard-working, successful, and immersed in a demanding scholarly project -- will greatly appreciate it if all goes smoothly with the course, if consultations are kept to a minimum, and if students stay content and away from the professor s office. If there are problems, the TA may find it wise to consult not with the professor assigned, but with a trusted, discreet, experienced and accessible faculty member. Seasoned TAs will also be a valuable resource and will be able to direct a colleague to the right door. By recognizing the expectations of the busy professor type, a TA may truly enjoy the freedom and trust that often characterizes this relationship.

The second kind of professor might be called the controller type. He or she will view the TA mainly as a learner, as someone to be supervised, guided, and molded in the professor's image. A TA is expected to submit outlines for discussion sessions, to have the graded papers examined, and her or his judgment challenged, even if the TA is an experienced and mature teacher and grader. A lecture given may be harshly (and perhaps quite unfairly) critiqued if it does not conform to the professor's personal style, sensibility, or outlook. This kind of professor will at times confuse accidental compatibility with talent and skill: the more a TA' s performance differs from her or his approach or ideology, the harsher it will be criticized as inadequate or inept, although it may be perfectly valid and legitimate. In such a relationship a TA needs to remain self-confident, must sort out what may derive from difference and what indeed may be inadequacy. He or she may learn much from such an experience about the many facets of the craft of teaching and, above all, may hone the skills of diplomacy, flexibility, and tolerance, all which are desirable traits once a person joins a department as a junior colleague. If problems emerge and the need for discussion arises in order to gain perspective, it will be advisable not to approach the professor directly, but again seek out a trusted, discreet, and accessible person in the department who can be of help in sorting out the issues involved and in regaining a quiet inner confidence on the basis of understanding rather than negative critique.

 The third kind of professor may be called the collegial type. For such a person the TA is above all a future colleague and a person who will bring fresh and unique perspectives to the classroom which often will complement rather than duplicate the professor's stance. The TA is expected to be primarily not a helper, but an observer, someone who will assess the professor's style and approach in relation to her or his own values and perspectives. An example of this can be found in the question of lateness in assignments: some will stress the imparting of disciplined planning -- indeed a valuable trait in professional life -- and thus be unbending, taking off points from a student's work for not being prompt or even refusing a paper after the due date. Others will view the students as struggling young adults, who often carry heavy responsibilities and face numerous obstacles in their personal life, and thus accept their late assignments with minimal ado. Both approaches are defensible. A TA may prefer one approach over the other and freely discuss the matter with the collegial professor how he or she sees this or any other issue. This kind of professor will expect dedicated and reliable cooperation, will be ready to listen to suggestions, will allow a TA to experiment with alternate methods, and discuss problems as they arise in a spirit of exploration rather than authority. Creative independence deriving from a genuine commitment to students and the challenge of teaching will be most highly prized by such a professor.

Of course, the types sketched above rarely exist in pure form. Yet it seems certain that the more a TA becomes conscious of a professor's general make-up and attitude, the more he or she can adapt and gain insight into the numerous paths one may take toward an educational goal.

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