As a CA, it’s important to find tactful ways to set boundaries. A 50% CA is expected to work an average of 20 hours/week, and a 25% CA is expected to work an average of 10 hours/week. We stress "average" because the workload will vary significantly over the course of the quarter. For example, there's usually a considerable start-up cost before and into the first week of the quarter, a brief lull before the first homeworks are turned in, and then a more average stream of work until the end-of-the-quarter crunch. A couple weeks into the quarter is usually a good time to judge whether the amount of work you're expected to do is reasonable. If, after cutting every corner in your time management, you're unable to do the work expected of you in the average time you're committed to, it's time to communicate reasonable expectations.
Properly allocating one’s time and energy among each life’s priorities (research, family, CAship, etc.) is immensely valuable, and requires consistent vigilance and self reflection. Keep in mind that the professor should be expected to respect reasonable boundaries that guard priorities to other commitments. For you, the CA, expressing care for the quality of the course, compassion for the professor, and a firm resolve to balance your various commitments demonstrates maturity and professionalism.
Graduate students and CAs in particular often face many competing priorities, and finding your own balance is an important part of being a good CA. Here are some ways that you can make the most out of your limited time:
These are examples of “corner-cutting” that can save unnecessary time and effort without significant negative impact on course quality:
- Don’t spend time typesetting. Aesthetic concerns are noble, but time-consuming. (Exceptions apply if you are faster typesetting than handwriting.)
- Avoid writing long emails. Oftentimes conceptual problems can be worked through more efficiently in office hours or on the phone. Don’t hesitate to reply by asking the student to come to office hours.
- Avoid overly detailed grading. You want to maximize the help to the student while minimizing time/effort/burnout, all while applying the grading criteria fairly. Concentrate on the major difficulties and devote more time to developing clear solution sets or grading rubrics, which will benefit all students.
- Drop unnecessary tasks. Do the students need a newsgroup? Should there be a strict limit to when and how much e-mail you respond to? Does a homework figure need to be perfectly done in a graphic editor, or can it be drawn by hand and photocopied?
If you’re still overwhelmed by the average weekly work after doing your very best to use your time efficiently, you then need to find a way to offload or share responsibilities. In addition, you need to do it in such a way that is humble, honest, and firm about your limitations yet leaves the faculty member assured that you care about the course and are doing your very best to fulfill all of your commitments with integrity and excellence. This can be difficult, especially when teaching with your research advisor.
- Have your professor prioritize your tasks. Then, you will both understand the tasks at hand, and it should become apparent if there is too much on your plate.
- Give reasonable time estimates for each task, and when the professor can expect each to be done. Then, follow through.
- Volunteer for specific duties. Being positive (“I can do…”) reinforces which responsibilities you’ve taken on (and which you have not.) It also sends the important message that you are eager to assist within reasonable limits.
- Avoid counting minutes, but watch your hours closely. If a course is insufficiently staffed, it is the responsibility of the instructor and department to hire additional CAs.
Most faculty are reasonable and respectful. If they understand that you care about their course but have other commitments you need to keep, they will usually help you find ways to manage your time for the maximum benefit of the class. If, after doing everything to be efficient, communicating your commitment to the course, and drawing lines as tactfully as possible, you still find yourself in a bad working relationship, seek counsel from Claire Stager or the University Ombudsman as a last resort. Your time is precious.