I feel like I need to write this, partly because I really want to help students, and partly because I really want to help myself. Many-a-TA-ing have I done in my day, but never did I encounter a course like the one I am helping with now. I can’t say much in case something happens, but the outcome of this course has me dealing with a barrage of student emails, driven primary by fear (I assume) and confusion over the prof’s absence and final exam. The instructor was largely away or unresponsive during this course and so in the final month I suppose he wasn’t able to work on the final exam. The final exam was cancelled five days before it was supposed to take place, and responsibility fell on the department (but actually the TAs (me and another TA)) to create a final assessment.
WHAT?? I have to admit, I was not motivated at all to create something complex, and so we decided to do what we thought was simple, giving basically another assignment like they had already completed. We tried to make the assignment as explicit as we could, because the department owes these students for cancelling the exam last minute and we didn’t want any confusion over grading. This launched panic and fear because the day their final assignment was due, we had just finished grading the second assignment. Students were shocked that they had received poor grades due to the first two assignments not having as clear instructions as the final one. But this was already over! How were the other TA and I to do damage control for what we had no responsibility in creating?
I have many complaints about students not reading announcements or being rude in emails to us, but I tend to think that they deserve to lash out (at least in this case). The course was a ‘dumpster fire’ (Saito, 2020) and both sides – the TAs and the students – were frustrated and scared. While students were worrying about their grades, I was worrying about how to grade them. What is a fair way to grade given these circumstances, given my job with the university, and given academic integrity?
All in all, what happened, happened, and now I am dealing with emails. Some are rude, some are vague, and some are even kind. I want to address all of these types of emails, in a way that will let me vent some of my frustration and hopefully help some students with getting what they want – the right and polite way.
Let’s first set up the scenario. Let’s assume that you are in a regular course (not an extreme one like what I’m dealing with), and you receive a mark on a paper that you are not very pleased with. First thing you do is hit up the TA who marked your paper right?
Nope. First thing you do should be to stop and read some things first. This is my first point about emailing (or anything you do really), do your homework.
Take a moment to let your panic and anger subside, then take out anything related to your assignment. Re-read the syllabus, assignment instructions, announcements from the prof, and lastly your assignment. I think it’s embarrassing to receive a response from the instructor or TA to your inquiry that says ‘read syllabus’, or simply links to the syllabus on Quercus. If you re-read those documents you might even answer your own questions, seeing something you missed or seeing how things were actually graded. If not, at least you are now prepared to fight as you have done as much as you could to back yourself up.
A note: there have been times where students point something out in the syllabus or assignment instructions that I look at and think, ‘oh yeah, that makes sense’ and then give them more marks. I like that just like they have proof for arguments in their assignments, they have proof for arguments for their grades!
After doing your homework, then you should construct your email to the TA with an appropriate greeting. I joke that when I was in undergrad, profs would be so strict on email etiquette, going as far as to say things like ‘required course name in subject line or no response!’, or ‘address me by my title Dr. so-and-so or no response!’, and when you reply to them they just say ‘k.’ and that’s it. In general however, I think respect is a two way street, and I like to reply in the same manner that students send.
So while you might not have to go through a whole greeting ritual to address the TA (please don’t call me ‘Dear supreme tutorial leader Tozios’), you should still include an appropriate greeting. ‘Hi’, ‘Hello’, ‘Dear’, those all work well. ‘Yo fam’, ‘hey’, those are a little risky. No greeting, that’s rude.
This goes hand-in-hand with the next point which dictates the entire tone for your whole email. Be polite. Any time you feel yourself typing something snarky, or mean, or personal (e.g., ‘as the TA you should be more flexible instead of lazy when marking my assignment’) go ahead, type it out. But then you need to delete it. I do this too when I’m replying (e.g., ‘as the student, you should not assume my job responsibilities’). I admit I have sent that before, but now I do the type-and-delete method. It lets you see on paper what you really want to say, but deleting in favour of polite responses is always more successful. And not to mention, saves you from regret down the road.
How do you write the meat of your email? How do you get what you want while also explaining your frustrations? It’s simple. Provide facts. No one can argue when you state what already is. This is like the paraphrasing technique I was taught when I had to learn PR for my job as a lifeguard in the pool. Many patrons don’t like being told what to do or what not to do, and will bitterly complain when you confront them. They may even tell you that Rob Ford (RIP) will fire you because they are unsatisfied with your performance. How do you resolve these issues? Just paraphrase, provide facts. ‘I see you are feeling angry because I told you not to leave your child unsupervised and you feel that Rob Ford should fire me. The rules of the pool state that children under the age of 6 are not to be out of arms reach of a guardian at all times. We found your child in a different pool from you. Therefore they are not within arms reach. Let’s see how we can fix this problem.’
What I would do is state what they told me (I will be fired?) and what had already happened (they abandoned their child), and this not only validates them (people love being heard) but leaves little room for negotiation because I’m not introducing things that are made up or things that I only presume.
Similarly, in your email to the TA you should state what already happened. Tell them where you’re coming from. ‘I feel shocked at my grade because I followed all the instructions which I reviewed in the syllabus. I received a 5/15 on my assignment, which is not a good grade.’
Now you need to ask for something. You need to ask for more marks right? But how? You may be tempted to grovel or lie. This is common. When we are panicking or thinking with anger, we want to convince the person with something ridiculous. ‘I must have received that grade because I was deadly ill and then my cat threw up on my homework and then my 2 year old brother spilled spaghetti on my computer so I could only submit that shitty work. Please give me more points.’ In the case that something genuinely happens, just be clear about it. ‘I was ill and did not submit my best work. Is there something I can do?’ The more outlandish and often the more words, the more unconvincing the situation.
So don’t lie. Instead you need to ask clearly for what you want, and then you need to provide some rationale or solution. Think about the situation when you ask your partner where they want to go out to eat. ‘I dunno’, they say. You ask them about some location. ‘No. I don’t like that place’, they say. That’s it!? What about when you ask the sales staff where something is in the store? ‘I don’t know.’ What do you feel like saying to them? ‘Then go find out!’ This is what you want to avoid making your TA feel like.
So to do this you need to provide them with something. If you are asking for a section of your paper to be remarked, give them the prompt from the assignment and provide the part of your paper that addressed that. If you can, explain how you meant to describe something and ask if the TA agrees that is what you did. If you think you deserve more points, tell them how many (bold)! You need to provide some solution (whether it be right or wrong) to the TA, simply doing this will make them a lot more receptive. If I see a student has at least put effort to do their homework and provide some rationale for their request, I often find some way to validate them by taking a closer look and seeing if I can add some points.
Another note: TAs make mistakes. This is why you should always check your assignments even if you did well. Sometimes TAs are overwhelmed, or grading quickly, or maybe even sloppy! You deserve to call them out, those are your grades! No one likes being corrected, but a good TA will take that and improve. You can ask Matthew what happened when I made lots of mistakes grading his exam. (Don’t worry it turned out ok , I don’t hate him, and I’m more careful now.)
The last thing is an easy one, it can be one word or a quick sentence. At the end of your email you should express thanks. This is basic manners I think, but it also shows the TA you don’t think of them like a frickin’ robot sitting there with nothing else to do but be your servant. You can thank them for taking a look at your request if you don’t want to thank them for anything else. When students put a little ‘thanks’ it makes me know that they themselves are human and I end reading their email on a decent note.
Overall, those are my honest opinions on how to get what you want from your TA. I know some TAs and instructors may be harder to please, but this formula works for most people. Besides, if you’re the student, you don’t want to work too hard to get what you deserve. You just need to do it with kindness.
Summary of Caitlin’s email etiquette advice:
- Do your homework
- Pick an appropriate greeting to address them
- Be polite
- Provide facts
- Provide rationale or a solution
- Express thanks
If you’re a student or TA leave us a comment and let me know if these things work! What other things do you do to get what you want, what do you expect from others?