There are numerous aspects of the TA role that potentially involve ethical dilemmas of one sort or another. Your roles as advisor, evaluator, administrator of exams, authority figure, and peer have the potential to become problematic at times, often because they present conflicting demands. In this section we broach some of these subjects and provide suggestions and resources for dealing with them.
Should a student come to you with serious emotional problems, or if you become concerned about a student's emotional health because of comments made in classes or in writing, you may want to refer the student to counseling and psychological services where professional assistance is available (it is advisable to consult with your supervising professor first). Please refer to the appendix for a list of resources available at the university.
Adapted with permission from University of Tennessee, 1986
Scholarship is at home only in an atmosphere of honest practice by both students and faculty. All members of the academic community should conduct themselves in a straightforward and honorable manner. Study, instruction, evaluation, and research can flourish well only in such an environment.
Academic integrity is a joint endeavor. Faculty should make appropriate preparations for all student-teacher encounters, meet classes as scheduled, evaluate students' work fairly and impartially, and be prompt for prearranged conferences and regularly scheduled office hours. Inappropriate language in the classroom, off-color remarks or jokes in class as well as in personal conferences, and frequent deviations from the course topic have no proper place in the teaching academy. In turn, students should fulfill in a reasonable way the requirements and expectations of the course as stated by the instructor.
Specific guidelines and procedures concerning cheating, plagiarism, and privacy of student records can be found in the student handbook, Undergraduate Rights and Responsibilities, issued by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, and available at the Dean of Students Office.
Adapted with permission from University of Tennessee, 1986
Within this shared enterprise, instructors have another, rather heavy responsibility: making certain that students can function in an atmosphere free of academic dishonesty. Students need to know that if they work honestly, they will not suffer because of those who do not. Challenging a student you think may have cheated or plagiarized is not pleasant. If you feel uncomfortable in this area of responsibility, a thoughtful discussion of the topic in chapter 8 of McKeachie's Teaching Tips (1999), as well as in the Chapter, "Cheating, Confrontations, and Other Situations," in Eble's (1988) The Craft of Teaching may be helpful.
If you have ample reason to suspect a student of cheating, it is advisable first to share the evidence with your supervising instructor or department head or director before acting. Be as positive as you can of guilt before questioning the student(s), since academic misconduct sometimes makes them liable for serious punishment. It may be wise (some departments require it) to approach the student only in the presence of a neutral third party, in order to protect both you and your student from any possible charges of harassment. Plan to give the student at this time a written and dated explanation of the charges and the basis for those charges. According to the seriousness of the offense, consequences can run the gamut from exoneration to exclusion from the University.
Adapted with permission from University of Tennessee, 1986
Generally, to plagiarize is to present as new and original a created production of another person without properly crediting the source, i.e., to steal or pass off, in whole or in part, the work of another person as one's own. This is not intended to be an all-encompassing definition of plagiarism. It is the instructor's responsibility and freedom to alter it to fit the course and discipline. Plagiarism, as you see it, should be defined for the students at the beginning of each course. An example for the students of appropriate use of sources can be a well-presented lecture in which you give careful credit for ideas at the end of the lecture, making a point of calling their attention to what you have done.
Adapted with permission from University of Tennessee, 1986
Federal law provides for the confidentiality of student records. Each instructor must take care that student records not be revealed to anyone other than the student. If you post grades of any kind, be certain to use only the last four digits of the students’ University ID number (usually the same as their Social Security Number) . Use the students' names and identification numbers to keep grade records, but do not permit any student to inspect those records.
The Corona System, in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974, also known as the Buckley Amendment, permits its students to inspect their records whenever appropriate and to challenge specific parts of them.
Adapted with permission from University of Tennessee, 1986
Students may ask you to recommend them for a particular job, or for acceptance to another institution or graduate school. If you feel you must decline, simply explain why. If you are willing to write the letter, do so promptly, while you still have the student and her/his performance sharply in mind. A carefully written and thoughtful letter takes time and you are a busy person, but remember that others have done and will do the same for you.
Ask if there is a specific form to be used or whether a letter is needed. Have the student note the nature of the job or situation for which s/he is applying and any particular abilities that you might mention. Then be as specific as possible. Focus on the student's best points, but don't exaggerate; be honest. Be sure to define the context within which you knew the person, e.g., in class, as an advisor formally or informally, and state over what period of time. If you later see the student for whom you wrote the recommendation, ask about the results. This not only lets the student know you are interested but gives you feedback on your own letter-writing efforts.
Keep in mind that you are legally responsible for statements you make in your recommendation, to the extent, at least, that you are liable for any deleterious remarks you make. If you have reason to be concerned about something you want to express, preface what you have to say with something like "To the best of my knowledge ..." Remember that "libel and slander are both methods of defamation, the former being expressed by print, writing, pictures, or signs; the latter by oral expression."
Under the Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a student has the right to see a copy of your recommendation unless s/he is willing to sign a waiver. If you have no objections, this problem can be circumvented by giving a copy of the recommendation to the student.
Adapted with permission from Gadlin, 1991 with thanks to Robert Shelton, University of Kansas, Lawrence
One of the more distressing events in a teaching career is having to negotiate a grievance filed against you by a student. The great majority of grievances can be foreseen and avoided. The single factor that contributes most frequently to teacherstudent conflicts is poor communication. This can take the form of inadequate syllabi, contradictory instructions, or poorly defined expectations. Letting students know just what their responsibilities are with regard to the course is one way of offering them the opportunity to succeed. If they do not do so, it cannot be said that the structures to foster success were lacking. Therefore, the most important precaution for avoiding grievances is to be specific and clear in all communications to students about your assignments, expectations, and standards.
Perceived unfairness is the next most frequently identified cause of student complaints. Obviously, this is less easily remedied than ambiguous communications, but there are a few steps that can be helpful.
• First, being reasonably available to meet with students outside of class is very important. Since many of our students have jobs in addition to taking classes, office hours are not always sufficient to meet their needs. Some provision for student contact beyond office hours can make a big difference.
• Second, it is necessary to recognize that there are sometimes legitimate extenuating circumstances that affect a student's ability to take an exam, to attend class, or to meet with you. Be sure students know your procedures for handling such circumstances. If you require some sort of proof beyond the student's word, let that be known as part of a general policy rather than asking individuals for proof only after they have told their story. Students tend to interpret such requests as expressions of disbelief or distrust.
• Third, consistency of treatment is essential to students' feeling they are being treated fairly. Instructors ought to stay alert for any signs that they are singling students out, either as favorites or as targets, and should take measures to curb such behavior immediately.
The third most frequent ground for student grievance is harassment, racial and sexual. While it is impossible to give a few simple rules that will universally guard against racial harassment grievances, there are some guidelines that can help you to avoid some of the situations that create them.
• A common complaint heard from American minority students and international students alike is that they are singled out in a class to serve as spokespeople for all persons of their race or nationality. Although an instructor may with the best of intentions be trying to make the class aware of a spectrum of viewpoints, the targeted student often feels reduced to her/his racial, ethnic or national identity. While a student may choose to speak out in response to readings, lectures or class discussions that seem ethnocentric or one-sided, that must be a voluntary act, not one that can be imposed by a teacher or fellow students.
• Another source of complaints is the use of negative racial or ethnic stereotypes or humor. Some sensitivity and responsiveness to student reactions and feedback can go a long way in creating a classroom atmosphere in which students do not feel harassed.
• Finally, some students of color report feeling that faculty and sometimes other students seem to avoid contact with them. A sense of being excluded can easily contribute to a feeling of being harassed. Again, a modicum of selfconsciousness on the part of an instructor can mean a lot.
In some ways, sexual harassment is an easier issue to address than racial harassment. University policy as well as federal and state laws make sexual harassment illegal. All instructors should familiarize themselves with the University policy and follow it.
In addition, being sensitive to signs of student discomfort in conferences or conversations may be useful in alerting teachers to the need to disambiguate a sexually ambiguous situation.
• If you meet with a student for coffee or lunch, for example, make clear that your intentions are academic, not sexual. If you don't know how to do that subtly, then take two students to lunch at the same time.
• When a student comes to your office, leave the door open or allow the student to take the lead in asking to close the door if s/he should want to.
• Avoid dating students, especially while they are in your class or working in any way under your academic supervision.
• Finally, comments and humor that draw attention to a student's sexuality often create a hostile environment. There may be little evidence of this, however, because students, being less powerful than faculty and concerned about grades and evaluations, often do not feel free to let you know how they feel about such remarks.
If you are clear in your expectations, and fair and respectful in your dealings with students, you are well situated to avoid having a grievance lodged against you.
Issues of sexual harassment can be especially tricky for teaching assistants because they occupy the roles of both instructor and student. TAs are in a particularly vulnerable position; as an instructor you have some power over your own students, and as a graduate student you are subject to the power of the faculty over your academic record and letters of recommendation (adapted with permission from Farris, 1985). Therefore, the issue of sexual harassment must be addressed from two directions: your potential for harassing (or being perceived as harassing) your students, and the potential for you to be harassed by those who instruct and supervise you.
Definition and Examples of Sexual Harassment
Under the University Sexual Harassment Policy and consistent with federal and state law, sexual harassment is defined by the University as follows:
Unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when: 1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment or academic work; or 2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment or academic decisions affecting such individual; or 3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment.
While it is not possible to list all those circumstances that may constitute sexual harassment the following are examples of conduct which, if unwelcome, may constitute sexual harassment depending upon the totality of the circumstances, including the severity of the conduct and its pervasiveness:
• unwelcome sexual advances, whether they involve physical touching or not;
• sexual epithets, jokes, written or oral references to sexual conduct, gossip regarding one’s sex life;
• comment on an individual’s body, comment about an individual’s sexual activity, deficiencies, or prowess;
• displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures or cartoons;
• unwelcome leering, whistling, brushing against the body, sexual gestures, suggestive or insulting comments;
• inquiries into one’s sexual experiences; and
• discussion of one’s sexual activities.
Complaints of Sexual Harassment
Complaints of sexual harassment may be lodged with your supervisor, department head, or other appropriate supervisory/administrative individuals in your department. Complaints may also be brought to the attention of the staff in the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Office, who can advise you of the relevant options and procedures. Procedures for dealing with cases of alleged sexual harassment can also be found in the student handbook, Undergraduate Rights and Responsibilities, issued by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, and available at the Dean of Students Office.
For personal support and counseling services related to sexual harassment. The Ombuds Office is another avenue that provides help to all university students so that they receive fair and equitable treatment within the University system.