From the mailbag: How to slip the noose of a T.A. assignment?

Dear Readers, I’m hoping that you’ll have some helpful advice for this correspondent, who signed hirself just “Grad Student.”


I’m hoping you (and your readers) can help me with a potentially delicate situation.

I am a graduate student at a major research university. There is a senior professor in my department who has made unwanted sexual advances toward me. I try to limit the amount of time I interact with him and make sure I am very professional when I do see him. I was recently assigned to be his T.A. for the upcoming fall term and need some advice on how to gently and delicately get reassigned. Although many people in the department know of his behavior, my advisor and other professors have been unsupportive. He is well-respected and influential in the field and I need to be careful in how I handle this situation.

Can you offer any advice?


Grad Student

I’ve seen this situation before.  Grad Student is justified in not wanting to work with this professor.  As I read the letter, Grad Student’s number one goal is to get out of the T.A. assignment, and larger issues like justice and fairness are less of a concern for hir now.  Because so much depends on so many different variables, I’m hoping that my readers will add lots of helpful advice and different ways to think about the problem.  Unfortunately, I can understand all too well how problems like this professor get ignored/minimized/and/or passed down the line, which is why Grad Student reports that “[a]lthough many people in the department know of his behavior, my advisor and other professors have been unsupportive.”  Ugh.  (Yet not surprising!)

My first two suggestions have to do with protecting yourself legally and preparing yourself for taking any formal action.  You may decide that that’s not the route you want to travel, but you should start here:

  1. RTFM (Or, Read The Friggin’ Manual):  Get your hands on copies of the Faculty and Staff Manuals and on the Student Handbook, or whatever set of rules and responsibilities you’ll need to know in order to pursue an action formally.  (Most unis post these on-line now, so it shouldn’t be difficult.)  Forearmed is forearmed–they have harbored a sexual harasser for years, so the faculty at your uni are probably  masters of denial and ignorance about actual policies and procedures.  This will sadly probably include your department Chair, so read up and be ready to brief them if you need to.
  2. Document, document, document:  If you haven’t done this already, create a document in which you record all of the troubling interactions you’ve had with this professor, and be as specific as you possibly can.  (Include dates, times, places, exactly what happened, and all witnesses, if there were any.)

My next two suggestions are specifically for getting out of an unwanted T.A. assignment.  Depending on the people you work with, they might be of varying usefulness:

  1. Consult your Graduate Studies Chair:  Depending on his or her level of awareness and responsiveness and responsibility for the T.A. schedule, this might work.  You’ll have to decide what level of candor you want to reveal to the GSC.  Remember, your goal is first to get out of one T.A. assignment.  This might work even better if you first
  2. See if you can get a friendly faculty member on your side:  is there someone else who’d like you to be hir T.A.?  Again, only you can decide how much you want to reveal, but your request to switch T.A. assignments might be easier to accomplish if you’ve already got a cooperative faculty member lined up.
  3. Consult your Department Chair:  Again, only you can decide how much you want to reveal, and this will depend on your sense of the responsiveness of the Chair.  If the Chair decides on the T.A. schedule, you may need to start here first.  If you decide that you want to pursue this professor formally according to the policies and procedures you’ve found in the Faculty Manual and Student Handbook, you’ll almost certainly need to consult the department Chair at some point.  You’ll need to come to the meeting with your document incidents of harassment, and you should also make it clear to the Chair what you’re looking for from hir and what you’re going to do after your meeting.

Remember:  a plan almost always beats no plan.  Think about your goals, and be prepared.  I will warn you that pursuing complaints formally is very difficult.  It’s always easy and relatively painless to drive away a grad student or an untenured faculty member who complains about a tenured faculty member–even if, or especially if ze’s already notorious.  As I have learned through painful experience, academics are specialists at denial, evasion, and deflection.  It is very difficult to make people do the righteous thing when they have so many incentives just to ignore you and merely hope that the problem (or you) go away. 

Readers:  what do you think?  What have you learned (through observation or experience) in your career?

0 thoughts on “From the mailbag: How to slip the noose of a T.A. assignment?

  1. In my department, I know there is a staff member who has a significant hand in TA assignments. Depending on how things work in the department in question, it’s entirely possible that getting a well placed member of the staff on your side could make a difference. In my experience, the staff are not in denial about faculty misbehavior. On the contrary.


  2. Document, document, document

    You took the words–the exact words-out of my mouth, where they arrived courtesy of RadFem Family Lawyer™

    Make your record. It may or may not tip the final outcome in your favor, but without it you’re sunk. Documentation will eventually make someone in authority start having bad dreams featuring the word “liability,” and you will get the attention your situation deserves. This may not be soon enough to dodge the TA position right now, but, again, an undocumented grievance is an ignorable grievance, and they want to ignore you; make it hard for them.


  3. This is difficult, yes, indeedy.

    The most expeditious way to deal with matters isn’t the most satisfying. NC’s suggestion of speaking with the staff member who might be able to effect changes (such as a program secretary or grad program secretary), and asking if there’s anything they can do to help you shift assignments? This might well work. Second option is to speak to a sympathetic and savvy faculty member who might be able to work some magic in changing the assignments.

    I’m saddened that your advisor doesn’t seem to be interested in your welfare enough to act on these matters. Unsurprised, but saddened.


  4. In my smallish department, the faculty make all such assignments with one or two acting as “deciders” and without intervention by staff until it’s time to write up the details. So I’d be inclined to suggest that someone in a similar situation contact (however anonymously they might feel they need to) the office for Equal Opportunity or its equivalent for a consultation.

    And, yes, documentdocumentdocument.


  5. Stinky Lulu/Brian H. and NC make good (although opposite) points. In larger departments, staff may be able to effect some of these changes by rearranging names on the T.A. list. (Anyone here ever read Moo, which featured a university secretary who effectively ran the uni by deciding which memos the President would see and which he’d never see?) Frequently, it’s large departments which host the kind of grad programs Grad Student is apparently in. (I attended a program like that too, in which the secretaries even still did a lot of typing of manuscripts and other administrative work for faculty. Seriously.)

    OTOH, in smaller departments, faculty do everything that gets done. But both Stinky Lulu and NC are right in that finding the person with the authority to make (or revise) the T.A. decisions is key.


  6. Ditto. Staff member idea is really brilliant if applicable.
    If not, EEO office — they WILL know the law and they HAVE to take this seriously.

    Also: perhaps talk off the record to the AAUP chair and/or the Academic Senate president/grievance committee chair, *if* these people have good reputations; also some *old* women faculty in any field (younger/newer ones may not have useful ideas or be willing to stick necks out even if their research field is a feminist one).


  7. In addition to document, document, document, my grad school (also ginormous) and a graduate ombudsperson, if such a person exists, try them. Are there senior gradstudents that also might have advice.


  8. I’m just completing a stint as the director of graduate studies at my own institution, and I find this to be a very troubling situation. In terms of remedying the immediate problem of the TA assignment, I would find out who makes the assignments, and speak directly to that person, if possible. In my own department, the director of graduate studies, the director of undergraduate studies, and the department chair make the TA assignments together, taking into account the needs of particular classes, the TA exeriences of individual graduate students, specific requests from faculty members, the graduate students’ major and minor fields, and the class schedules of graduate students. It’s such a complicated process that there are always adjustments being made, even as the semester is beginning, so it should be easy enough for a willing faculty member to make the switch in assignment (and as Historiann suggests, having another faculty member specifically request Grad Student as a TA would make the switch even easier–although I find myself worrying that the predator-faculty member requested Grad Student to be his TA!). Obviously, for Grad Student, a big problem here seems to be the absence of willing faculty members, and I’m appalled that she has gotten no support from faculty or her own advisor (!!!) on this issue. The Director of Graduate Studies is supposed to be an advocate for the graduate students–does Grad Student feel able to talk to this person? Is the department chair approachable? I would recommend talking to both of these people–the DGS as the person responsible for doctoral students, and the department chair as the person responsible for all personnel matters, including faculty and students and staff–before moving on to other university offices.

    With luck the pressing problem of the TA assignment can be solved easily; the on-going harassment is something that should also be addressed by the department chair (can Grad Student find any faculty member to help her with this conversation, if she feels uncomfortable going to the chair?), and if the chair is not responsive, then I agree with the steps proposed above–document every encounter, go to the university ombuds office (our office just started handling graduate student issues recently), talk to people in the office of the graduate dean, etc. This faculty member is creating a hostile work environment (and I am sure that it is not only Grad Student who has been the target of his unwanted attention–which is why I suspect that the people who make TA assignments will not be surprised by Grad Student’s request for a switch). Good luck.


  9. Oh, yes: document the heck out of every encounter. Keep a diary of interactions with the creep. I’m not sure how legal it is, so check, but you may also want to have a small tape recorder with you at all times. With a department in denial, you need to have everything at hand to prove what is going on. Also, document any time that you meet with anyone about this, and document any witnessess to any incidents. If you can, find anyone who has had the same problem in the past and get what you can from them.

    Be aware of what you are up against. First, this guy is a known problem, and everyone is pretending not to know about it so that they can be absolved of responsibility should anyone complain.

    Second, the office of affirmative action (or whoever deals with such complaints) is usually going to try to cover it up or dismiss it, too. They want to protect the university/college from liability by saying, “we conducted an investigation and found no problem.” “Investigation” may simply be going to the guy and asking, “did you do this?” He will deny it, and they can close the case secure in the knowlege that they are covered should anyone sue.

    Third, you could easily be seen as poison if the guy is the sort that other people do not want to confront. They may have sympathy for your plight, but they aren’t going to stick their neck out for you. That is why you need all of the evidence that you can get your hands on.

    Fourth, since people know that this guy is a problem and since they don’t want to confront him on it, they will also do what they can to avoid having to confront him, which means neutralizing any problems that they see cropping up. They can elminate that problem by eliminating the person who may force the confrontation, or they can eliminate the potential of confrontation by appeasing the person who may force it. That can help you in your immediate problem. Like everyone else here suggests, find the person who actually makes the assignments and explain the situation in as little or as much detail as possible, and see if she (and it usually is a she) can just shift some names around.

    I had this exact same problem myself. The person who put the t.a. names with the professors’ names was the administrative assistant. When I went to her and mentioned the guy’s name and said that he had a bit of a problem knowing the boundaries between professional and unethical, she smiled knowingly and assigned me to someone else and a male to him. Ironically, the male t.a. busted the guy for some other unethical practices.

    Still, hang on to that evidence, and much much luck that this can simply be resolved without any harm to you.


  10. I’m confused. Do they want to just get out of their current assignment, or switch to another professor? I’m thinking the former would just take a polite note of refusal (too busy working on x, but thanks for the offer…)


  11. I’d add to the excellent advice everyone has given that many harassment policies have an “informal” stage. Normally I think this is a bad idea because really, what’s to do informally? but in this case, it may serve your interests. You can say that you are activating the informal stage of a complaint, which means they have to respond, but you are asking for a minor accommodation — not being the TA. In other words, if you are not interested in a full complaint, it gives you the protection you need.

    Also, your university will have someone (often a range of people identified for this role, not in the AA office) who will talk through your options with you on an informal basis, well short of the formal complaint. Do use them.


  12. Keep your mouth shut and take it. I didn’t and my career was ruined. I documented. I followed all the grievance processes and nothing came out of it, but me getting black listed. The man and several of the people who covered up for him were promoted. Investigators are a joke, especially when it is “internal.” There are too many people who have to worry about their careers. It is easy to get rid of one person and act like nothing ever happened.


  13. Not Given’s advice is sad, but too futile as a first strategy. All Grad Student is trying to do (as I understand it) is to get out of this one T.A. assignment–not launch a formal complaint. (At least not yet.) It shouldn’t be too complicated or political to get out of the T.A. assingment. Whether or not Grad Student moves on from that to attempt other changes is up to hir.

    I agree with those above who have said that the EEO/HR people at your uni work for your uni, not for you, and that their primary goal is always to indemnify the uni rather than help you. Grad Student will need to explore their role at hir uni and consult people who have dealt with them, if possible.

    Thanks for all of your advice and comments so far, especially Clio B., Meander, and Susan.


  14. This is very good advice, except for “keep your mouth shut and take it.” Why not confront the guy, articulate the behavior that makes you uncomfortable, and say: “I could, of course pursue a grievance, but it would be much easier not to. I wish to be reassigned, and I would like you to make that happen.”

    Too often, victims of sexual harassment are too embarrassed by it, and feel that the harrasser’s embarrassment would compound discomfort. Not so. Being confrontational is embarrassing, but it is empowering too.

    One ethical point: sexual harrassers are usually serial sexual harassers. Nothing will stop this person unless he is exposed publicly and people who are his “type” are permitted to evade him. Do you have a role in making this possible?


  15. The one thing I would add to the excellent advice here is that Grad Student might consider seeking out others who she thinks might also have suffered the professor’s harassment. Maybe they have documentation diaries of their own that could give extra weight to hers when the time comes. Maybe they tried to interest the department in living up to its legal obligations; if so, it will help Grad Student to know their strategies, whether they bore fruit or not, and if Grad Student ever needs to file a formal complaint or litigate, it will help her to know that the department was on notice of the professor’s behavior, whatever it might later assert.


  16. I would reinforce the idea about finding an ally among the faculty. A staff ally is a good idea as well but faculty and staff have different leverage at different points. Clearly the ally will not be the adviser in this case but there must be somebody who is sympathetic to Grad Student’s concerns. Other students might have some suggestions about appropriate qualities among the faculty.

    In addition to possibly alleviating the immediate problem, finding a faculty ally has the effect of creating an institutional memory regarding the source of the problem. This gets at TR’s ethical concern, one which I share.

    I write this from experience. We have amongst our adjuncts a fellow known to make inappropriate comments and advances toward female students. I’ve not yet found a student willing to go on the record about his behavior but if I at least know that it’s going on, I can work informally to avoid bad experiences for students. Last fall I derailed a plan to put the guy in a shared office with young women (using space/efficiency arguments).


  17. Has the graduate student documented thus far the professor’s advances? If the student’s advisor and other faculty members know about this behavior, is it because the professor is known for such behavior or is it because the student has already raised the issue in this specific case? Are the advisor and other professors senior or junior faculty?

    In some ways, these questions matter. Do we just document the harasser, or the enablers? So I agree with TR.

    Certainly the graduate chair should be approached, but I wonder why, if the knowledge of the senior professor’s behavior is well known, why this assignment was made. More than one power structure at work here, alas. Stating aloud what has been whispered by many is indeed empowering.


  18. As far as switching the TA assignment, I would, as other have suggested, find a prof you would like to TA for and say that you’re interested in learning more about hir subject and would like to take notes/help with the class for your own benefit- perhaps a subject you might end up teaching/researching in one day that you may not know a lot about. Or find a student (who doesn’t have issues with the prof) you could switch assignments with. As Meander pointed out, these assignments are usually malleable and there’s generally someone who doesn’t mind switching or making adjustments.

    As far as the prof, don’t live in fear. It’s not worth it.


  19. Dear Grad Student,

    As a third-year law student my advice to you is: don’t speak. The fight will not be worth it. And the costs for you too great. Even the feminists on the faculty will probably walk away from you. Yes, they espouse often of the power imbalance in student-professor relationships and its assymetry – but those are words andremain just that. Focus your energies on your own research; and publishing your own work one day will be your greatest reward.


  20. In my department, TA assignments are made based on schedules: the TAs’, and the professors’. If a TA is in class hirself during a professor’s survey course, that TA won’t be assigned to that professor.

    So, one quiet strategy might be to create a scheduling conflict. If you can’t take a strategically timed class, can you incur another unavoidable, conflicting obligation? That would eliminate the need to explain the true situation, since it sounds like that might not be in your interest.

    A strategic conflict might allow you to leverage reassignment while avoiding unwanted attention.

    That said, I join the chorus: document, document, document. And when you are safely graduated and out of harm’s way, be prepared to step up and support an effort to take this jerk down. No ethical considerations require you to martyr yourself to his sense of privilege, but privileged jerks will prevail if no one steps up. (Of course, only you can judge when you are out of harm’s way.)


  21. If there is a Women’s Studies dept. on your campus, or a feminist staff/faculty orgganization, you might give a call there and ask what they know about the AA office or the ombudsperson, if your institution has one. You could imply you are calling on behalf of an undergraduate. Faculty at my institution know very well how the wind blows in these offices, and it often changes entirely depending on who’s in the position.

    But I also endorse the advice of checking the online faculty manuals. At some institutions, sexual harrasment is a mandatory reporting issue.


  22. Thanks for all of the exellent further suggestions. Maimie is right–scheduling conflicts more than anything drive assignments in many departments. This technique doesn’t confront the problem, but it solves Grad Student’s immediate desire to get out of harm’s way.

    The comments here have been very varied–from Tenured Radical’s suggestion that Grad Student has a role to play in achieving justice for future students in reporting and pursuing a case, to other suggestions that Grad Student just give up and/or take it and get over it, because there’s nothing to be done. While the latter suggestions seem too despondant and too eager to capitulate to me, the former suggestion is also one I’m hesitant to make as well. In the end, everyone has to make hir own choice, and it’s really not fair to expect the victim to go ahead and put hir career on the line and do all of the work of reporting a dude who’s unlikely to face serious sanction. I spent four years once in a bad work environment because I was absolutely sure that if my colleagues could just see how hard-working and well-intended I was, they’d treat me decently.

    Well, it didn’t work, because we’re not responsible for other people’s behavior. Grad Student’s decision to confront or not confront Professor Jerkoff will have remarkably little if any bearing on whether or not he offends again. Tenured Radical is right to raise the possibility of pursuing the case, and she’s absolutely correct that “being confrontational . . . is empowering too.” That’s why I say that everyone has to make up hir own mind. I hate sounding like I’m urging people to give up, but in these cases frequently self-preservation is job #1.


  23. The reason that this professor is notorious is because, probably, no grad students have ever dared file a complaint against him and he has noted that he can get away with his crappy behavior. I SO feel for this student. However, I would recommend exactly what Historiann recommends. Moreover, if the need to file a complaint or even a lawsuit should arise, grad student might be surprised that others previously in her same situation with this professor might want to join the lawsuit. Nothing like hurting P.R. and pocket for administrations to do what they need to do in order to take care of people in their organization who prey on others, and make it right for the rest of the employees.


  24. Much too late to this thread do assimilate the entire sense of the group. but I agree with much of the above advice, esp. Meander. et. al. But just getting out of this situation in a way that leaves somebody else falling *into* it, as the designated substitute, is also problematic. I agree that Grad Student can’t simply immolate hir career just to try to do the right thing. But some step has to be taken to stop the designated predator from merely continiuing on with the same course of behavior, merely seeking out whatever weakest member of the herd the system is willing to throw in his path. No good specific advice to offer here, alas.


  25. In dealing with workplace bullies, isolation and containment is better than nothing. It may be that the professor in question here gets away with his behavior because his colleagues want him to get away with it. If that’s the case, there’s little if anything one grad student (or even a collection of grad students) can do. But, if there are supportive faculty looking for an opportunity for a smackdown, then it could work. Only the people in that department can say–I found it very discouraging that Grad Student reported that hir advisor and other faculty were supportive of the professor, not of hir.

    As History Maven said above, there is “[m]ore than one power structure at work here, alas.” Indeed.


  26. What are the chances the harasser had input into you being made his TA?

    You have to decide what you want to do: a) get out of this TA assignment with the least wavemaking or b) remedy the harassment. Once you decide that, your course of action will be clear, I think.

    But be forewarned: trying to do things behind the scenes, off the record, informally, etc. sets one up for retaliation with no recourse — even if you end up being moved off the TA assignment.


  27. I agree with those above who have said that the EEO/HR people at your uni work for your uni, not for you, and that their primary goal is always to indemnify the uni rather than help you.

    I agree with this. But reporting to the PROPER authorities — those designated in the faculty handbood, uni policies, etc. — is also the only way to hold the employer/university responsible.

    OTOH, consider this: more employers are finding that the best way to avoid liability is to stop the harassment — because that’s how the law is set up. YMMV by institution, of course.


  28. Sorry, another comment: the fact that HR exists to protect the company doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report to them. It means you should think defensively when reporting to them. Like a defensive driver, you have to anticipate the poor actions of others and act proactively in defense of it.

    Which means things like: know the policies regarding how and to whom to make a complaint, no informal or off the record complaints, no verbal complaints, take the name and title of everybody you talk to, make notes of all conversations, follow up all meetings, conversations, etc. in writing, notice if anybody else at meetings is taking notes or recording, and ask for written findings of all investigations taken as a result of your complaints.

    Remember that the minute you bring a complaint to your employer — ANY complaint to ANY employer — you are in an adversarial position to them. That does not necessarily mean hostile or angry, just on opposite sides of the fence. Sometimes your interests will mesh – it may be in your interests and the employer’s interests to stop the harassment or it may be in both your interests to give you a resolution that doesn’t rock the harasser’s boat. Then the employer will be more on your side.

    By reporting, you change the adversarial relationship from one between you and your harasser to one between you and your employer and your employer and the harasser. You may choose to do that or not, but IMO it’s probably better to do that than keep the relationship between you and the harasser as is.


  29. Ugh. What a terrible situation to be in.

    My current university has a dedicated sexual harassment office that both educates folks about campus policy and handles complaints. The person I know in that department takes these things very seriously; it’s nice to have a feminist in an office that works with HR.

    My personal preference is always to make a formal complaint. That said, if you’re uncomfortable with doing so, going to the department chair with documentation of harassment and asking for a change in TA assignment might work, even if you decide not to file a formal complaint. The threat of a formal complaint might be sufficient to grease the wheels enough to switch your TA assignment.


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