Photo by Kyle West

By: Eden Wondmeneh

As a first-year student in social sciences, the bulk of my tutorial grade is determined by my participation in discussions. For someone who would rather be restricted to eating at Centro than be forced to speak in public, tutorials are not my ideal environment.

As the fall semester progressed, I noticed that some of these discussions supported learning while others were downright problematic. Speaking to other students in social sciences, specifically students of colour, it was clear that teaching assistants, who greatly influenced whether tutorial discussions were the former or the latter, were overwhelmingly white.

The lack of diversity in TAs is often juxtaposed with a somewhat diverse student group — where students of colour bond over the shared discomfort or hilarity of the awkwardness that settles across the room anytime a ‘hot topic’ like white privilege is brought up.

Discussions about race are often excluded from acceptable topics in an environment that claims to encourage academic discourse, especially when initiated by a person of colour: a fact that aided in my decision to stay relatively quiet in tutorials.

Regardless of their intentions, these TAs are in a position of power where they facilitate discussions about systems of oppression that they themselves benefit from and resultantly teach students through this narrow-privileged lens. If topics of race are not dismissed after a moment of awkward silence, they always seem condescending; what qualifies non-POC TAs to lead these discussions?

I have a friend whose TA explained how common sense differs between cultures using a blatantly racist analogy of African children never having seen a stove thus not knowing that it is unsafe to touch. When called out for their ignorance, the TA’s response was some variation of, “I’m not racist”.

The Teaching in an Accessible and Inclusive Community section of McMaster University’s 2013 TA guide shows that the diversity and inclusion issue in tutorial sessions is much worse than it appears. The university is aware of the power imbalances that are inherent to the limited diversity amongst TAs — they just aren’t doing anything about it.

Despite their ability to recognize that acknowledgment of systemic racism is not enough to let them off the hook, they boldly state that McMaster staff and faculty work “against often invisible systems of privilege and oppression,” without giving TAs any guidance in how to further this effort within their own tutorials. In fact, the guidebook makes it clear that it is naïve to believe that even a well-intentioned TA could use any tips provided to create an equitable space within their tutorials.

To be clear, I don’t think that TAs are intentionally leading their tutorials to isolate students of colour and validate the dominant privileged narrative that exists within our society. I do believe though that the hiring process for TAs is flawed, as it works directly against McMaster’s “fight against invisible systems of privilege and oppression”.

There should be a great number of Black TAs who are able to lead tutorials with a different perspective, engage with Black students and have important conversations about race when the course calls for it.

Aside from increasing the diversity amongst TAs, there should be mandatory anti-oppression workshops and training. It is unrealistic to hope that TAs will suddenly diversify, but it is not unrealistic to hope that current TAs have an understanding of their bias and are able to react to being called out productively — not through cries of, “I am not racist”.

For myself to feel comfortable to contribute freely within these tutorials, I need there to be measures in place for the inevitable awkwardness that ensues when race is discussed and a guarantee that Black children won't be used in racist examples.  

We don't live within a vacuum. To create the “inclusive and accessible learning environment” that McMaster desires, TAs need to reflect this inclusivity and accessibility students are meant to find.

 

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Photo C/O Madeline Neumann

By: Anonymous contributor

I never imagined that I would date my teaching assistant. I also never imagined that I would have a “W” on my transcript from dropping their class. Dating my TA was probably one of the worst decisions of my undergraduate degree.

When I got into a relationship with my TA last semester, I didn’t think it was too big of a deal. Dating your TA is much more socially-accepted than dating your professor or course instructor.  

For one, the age differences between you and your TA aren’t always that big. My TA was two years older than me, but I’ve had TAs who were my age or younger. In that case, it’s hard to impose a ban against two consenting 20-somethings dating.

But what a lot of people don’t recognize is that there’s a power imbalance when dating your TA. Even when they’re the same age, or a bit older, there’s the fact that the TA is in a position that can strongly influence your academics and career.

When I had talked with my TA about our relationship, he told me that the department frowned upon student-TA relationships but there was no strict rule against them. While he was “required” to fill out a conflict-of-interest form, nobody forced him too. As long as he gave my assignments to another TA to grade, nobody batted an eye at our relationship.  

I don’t think that’s enough. Especially in classes where TAs are asked to deliver lectures or hold review sessions, it’s not enough to require TAs in relationships with their students to not directly grade their work. Their presence alone influences their students’ marks.

Even when I got out of the relationship, I still felt ashamed and embarrassed every time I had to see him in tutorial or lecture. When I found out that he had marked my midterm, I was angry but didn’t know what to do. It’s difficult to tell your professor the reason you want to switch tutorials or have your test remarked is because you slept with your TA.

In the end, I ended up dropping the class and dodging questions from people asking me why. I still see my TA around campus, however, and I’m scared that I’ll be assigned to his class again. I’ve been so anxious that I’m even considering switching programs to avoid him.

A conflict of interest policy is not sufficient. I reviewed Mac’s conflict of interest policy for employees and there is a section that states that a conflict of interest is present when an employee of the university engages in an “intimate relationship with a person who relies upon them for opportunities to further their academic or employment career”.

However, the only actions an individual must take when this conflict arises is to report to their direct supervisor, who can then decide if the “conflict is confirmed”. If it is, then the case is moved to higher-ups who decide what sort of actions need to be taken to remove the conflict.

But by the time that decision is made, it’s probably too far into the semester to make any changes. In my case, my TA didn’t bother disclosing our relationship since he knew the only action that was required was that he didn’t grade my work.

Even though it states in the policy that failure to report will result in “appropriate disciplinary procedures”, I’m not confident that the university enforces this.

McMaster University should protect their students by banning student-TA, or any student-faculty, relationships altogether. These relationships have harmful power dynamics that blur the lines of consent, and can sometimes be considered sexual harassment or assault.  

I’m not saying that all student-TA relationships end poorly. Sometimes it really is just bad timing when two people happen to meet. But if a relationship is meant to be, it can wait till the end of the semester to begin.

Dating your TA seems like a fun and sexy experience. In reality, this kind of relationship can be complicated, embarrassing and act as a huge stress on your academics and your mental health. Honestly, that cute TA isn’t worth it.

 

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