Crunch-Time Marking

Welcome to ASK a TA! Our first question tackles grading timelines at the height of the term, a time when undergraduate and graduate students alike are in a flurry of paper and exam writing and marking.

Dear Ask a TA,

Hi! I am a grading TA and working for 90 hours between Sept-Dec. My contract initially stated 75 hours and I was “surprised” when the course started that I actually was going to work for more hours. I accepted the extra hours under the provision by the instructor that I would have more than a week to grade because usually instructors give me one week to mark. He said he gives his TAs up to 2 weeks. I was surprised once again this past week when he told me technically I need to grade 90 midterms in a week’s time to make the drop deadline for undergraduates. I have no issues with the instructor, but just wanted to know what the actual “rules” are in terms of how many hours I can take on as a grader and how much time I really have to grade assignments?

Grading TA

Dear Surprised Rule-Seeker,

Thank you for your question! This is a timely and important question in a climate of increasing awareness on campus of our rights and responsibilities as TAs at U of T.

I see your query as twofold: first, I see some frustration between the parameters you agreed to and what actually happened around your contract and second, I see that you are curious about what rules are in place to protect you from this happening (again, perhaps).

To tackle your question, I’m going to recommend communication as a primary tactic. We can work best as a teaching team if there is clear communication, but I share your concern about agreements not always being adhered to. Let’s face it: teaching at the university level can be a very busy and chaotic experience, especially at semester crunch times, so learning when to anticipate these bumps before they happen can go a long way to prevent or mitigate them.

Let’s start with the first issue. It is typical to find some disparity between the contract offered before the term begins (the document you sign when you agree to the job) and then the actual hours as they appear on the finalized contract and/or the DDAH (Description of Duties and Allocation of Hours) form. It’s also worth noting that the DDAH is not a legal document, but one that provides a guideline for what you’ll be doing for your TAship and about how long those duties should take. As a Teaching Assistant I have experienced this disparity of hours and graduate student scuttlebutt around U of T tells me this is a common occurrence. In some ways, this difference of hours makes sense. Contracts must be issued before there is an accurate finalization of the class size and enrolment numbers are often in flux at the start of a term while students scramble to get in and out of classes due to wait lists, scheduling preferences, and program requirements. On the other hand, an additional hours allotment can be frustrating for some Teaching Assistants who have already planned their schedules. While some TAs may welcome the chance to make more money (“Hooray!”), others do not have room in their schedules for more work (“Ugh! How will I find the time?”). A great way to prevent your own “surprises” would be to contact the Course Instructor about hours as soon as you receive your contract. An email stating your level of flexibility (that you are eager to or unable to take on more hours, for example) is a way to signal that you are planning with the course in mind and also setting your own boundaries around work.

In dealing with your second issue, concerning the “rules” around grading, this is where I advise that you turn to the Union. As a TA, you are a member of CUPE 3902 Unit 1, which represents University of Toronto Education Workers. In speaking with Rebecca Strung, Staff Representative at CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) 3902 about the “rules,” her first point of advice was, as I suggested above: to communicate directly to the person who supervises your TA responsibilities. This will likely be the Course Instructor but can also be a Course Coordinator. If talking to your TAship supervisor doesn’t alleviate your concerns, then Strung suggests that you get in touch with the CUPE office. A CUPE rep will walk you through the options available to you and help you decide on a course of action that’s right for you. There is a formal grievance process available to members to resolve workplace problems, but as Strung points out, these types of problems can often be resolved informally with a phone call or email.

To further follow up with your question about rules, through the Ministry of Labor, Ontario has an Employment Standards Act that lays out the parameters for over time and over work. If you feel that your contract, or work you’ve been asked to do (even if it’s not stated in your contract), is in violation of these acts, then you should inquire with CUPE 3902 for further advisement. But contacting CUPE ought not be an ominous event – queries such as yours are routine for the Union and are intended to settle issues rather than to incite them. A casual conversation with your department steward is a great first point of contact, or you can communicate directly with the CUPE representatives in the main office. All your conversations with them are confidential and they will never put forward an issue without your consent.

But ultimately, how do you deal with this situation? My advice to you is along the lines of what you already instigated: direct and honest communication with the Course Instructor about what you can and cannot do as part of your contract. It is best practice to keep communication open with your Course Instructor on any concerns you have regarding your teaching appointment. If you think that you will go over your DDAH hours or if you think that your DDAH will be in violation of the rules around maximum work time, then have a chat with your Course Instructor. In fact, there is space on the DDAH for a mid course review, so this is an ideal time to have this discussion. But don’t wait until things progress too far before talking to someone. If you notice a potential problem, it’s best to be proactive. And here are a few suggestions for approaching a Course Instructor for your particular situation:

I understand that a mid-term meeting to discuss DDAH review is highly recommended and since my contract has changed quite a bit and I have been surprised by a few of those changes, I think this meeting would be especially helpful. Do you have time to meet next week?

My initial understanding was that grading should be happening with a two-week turn-around window. Since that didn’t happen for the midterm, I’m concerned about upcoming assignments and the final exam. Can we discuss these timelines in more detail?

Your question about “rules” is a great one as it highlights the way that our role as TAs often involves straddling the line of student and employee relationships that sometimes feel at odds. Yet out of the friction can come an understanding of multiple sides of an issue and provides, I think, an opportunity to consider how we can work together as a teaching team within the university

I hope that this addresses your concerns (feel free to write back if it doesn’t!) and thank you for making our first ASK a TA post happen!