Head Teaching Assistant woes

I wrote this for Quora in fall 2018, and describes my frustrations with Brown’s computer science department bureaucracy pretty well. That semester was formative for me. I learned how capable I truly was of running a big people operation, but also how taxing it can be.

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I’m a head teaching assistant for a 280 person, introductory computer science undergraduate course. My staff writes and grades labs and projects, which together are worth 70% of a student’s grade. My job is to provide the processes to do those things. This is a huge swath of administration. My co-HTA and I:

  • hire TAs. (interview, ranking, onboarding)
  • design and run TA Camp (here is 3 days with your TAs and a computer lab room. Figure out how to rewrite all of the next year’s labs and projects based on what you did at your own first TA Camp and what the HTAs did then.)
  • decide all of the due dates based on when Thanksgiving is and when the midterm/final are.
  • decide exactly how labs and hours are to be done based on last year, and tell the TAs how to run them
  • book rooms for labs and hours for the entire semester
  • answer email and send announcement emails pretty much every day
  • talk with Professor about extensions, unexpected circumstances, cheating, exams (please write it by ____, how do you want us to grade it)

And this is all baseline work – if you kept the class exactly the same. If something didn’t work well the last year and you want to make it better, that is extra work.

You’d think that this job, as important as it is to the department and university as a whole, would have some sort of informal guide on how to do it, right? Well,

  • we have last year’s HTAs to pass down the grading scripts
  • we have the google drive, slack, and memories of how we TA’d the class last year
  • we have the general administration skills we were hired for
  • we have MTAs (meta-TAs) to talk to, who are former HTAs and know general things about HTAing and the department

and that’s about it.

We have next to no documentation about how to HTA our particular class, and no one except the last year’s HTAs really knows how to do it. Unfortunately, the best time to learn from the previous HTAs – while they are HTAing – is long gone by the time the next generation is hired late in the semester after. And since no one forces HTAs to write anything down about what they did, the next generation has to re-do a lot of work figuring out how things around the department works.

The result is that I’ve been sitting in a printer room for the past 2 hours printing midterm exams last minute (the exam is in 2 days), because I didn’t know to bother my professor about having the exam ready a week ago. If I had, then we could have outsourced the printing to the copy center instead of having me do it. Now we know, and I have a personal stake in making sure every single HTA after me knows it too.

Because that’s the point of good bureaucracy. It ensures that the only time you have to rethink a process is 1) the first time and 2) any time that it breaks or needs an update, NOT between hiring cycles when replacement people need to do the exact same thing as people last year but just aren’t told how.

When people tell me how to do the mundane parts of my job and I can get them done efficiently, I can pour more effort into what I most want to do in this job: to make the course better for students.