Communicating with Profs and TAs

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Working with TAsHow can my professors help me?Building positive relationships with facultyContacting your professor or TAE-mail etiquette

Working with TAs

Teaching or Lab Assistants are usually graduate students who assist professors with specific tasks. In large classes, they are a connection between undergrads and professors. If you are a first- or second-year undergraduate, you’re likely to have more regular contact with your TAs than with your professors.

Ask your TAs how they want to be addressed. Even though they may be close in age to you, they may prefer some professional distance.

Understand their role: TAs may lead tutorials, mark papers or exams, or hold office hours to answer questions.

Ask for feedback on tests or assignments. Show your TA that you want to know how to improve (vs. criticize their grading).

How can my professors help me?

Professors want you to do well, enjoy the course and develop an interest in their research field.

They can:

  • clarify difficult content, after you have read the notes or text, attended the lecture, or tried the homework
  • encourage you if you feel challenged by the course
  • explain assignments, after you’ve tried to understand the expectations yourself
  • stimulate your interest in an area of research
  • be a reference for a job, a graduate school application or a research proposal, if they know you well enough
  • hire you for research help, which builds your practical experience.

Try setting a goal of speaking outside class with each of your professors, at least once each term.

Building positive relationships with faculty

  • Engage in the course: read your course syllabus for information on course objectives, topics, and key dates.
  • Ask questions and offer ideas in class, so the professor knows who you are.
  • Look for opportunities to talk with your professors outside of class, especially if you don’t speak in class.
  • Request feedback on how you are doing, and how to deepen your understanding or improve your grades.
  • Try to learn a bit more about your professors, their research interests, other courses they teach, or their community involvement.
  • Attend talks or academic events at which your professors will be present.
  • Offer professors or TAs positive and constructive feedback on the courses you are taking.
  • Respect the professional boundary between professors and students.

Contacting your professor or TA

  • Be clear and concise in your communication—like you, they are busy.
  • Be polite and formal in your interactions, unless you are invited to be more casual.
  • Check your course outlines for information about professors’ office hours, e-mail or phone preferences. Respect their wishes about how and when you may contact them.
  • If possible, inform them in advance about your purpose in meeting them.
  • Identify yourself by name, course and section.
  • Before requesting an extension on an assignment, check the syllabus for answers to all logistical questions. E.g., are marks deducted? When? How many? Exceptions?
  • Do not expect an immediate response to your request. Professors and TAs have personal lives and may not check emails at night or on weekends.
  • Respond promptly to their messages.

E-mail etiquette

  1. In the subject line, write something like: question from student in [course code].
  2. Start an e-mail to an instructor with: Hello, Prof. [insert professor’s last name].
  3. Identify yourself: I’m in your Math121 section B course.
  4. State your request: I was sick and missed your class on Tuesday October 6. I got notes from a friend, but I have a few questions. Can we please meet?
  5. Sign off with: Thank you for your time, [insert your full name and student number].