Best Practices in Supervising Graduate Employees
This document was developed by United Academics in consultation with the Graduate School, the GTFF, and Human Resources.
What is a GE?
At the University of Oregon, nearly half of the graduate students find employment as Graduate Employees (GEs). Graduate Employee is a catch-all term that covers a range of duties, from acting as sole instructor for a course to conducting experiments in a laboratory to working the reference desk in the science library. Almost all graduate students who work for the UO do so as GEs.
Until this year, Graduate Employees were known as Graduate Teaching Fellows, or GTFs. The name change came about as a request from the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF), the union which represents the GEs. There are no major changes in job duties associated with the name change. Yesterday’s GTF is today’s GE.
Through the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between UO and the GTFF, all GEs earn a full tuition waiver, a discount on student fees, subsidized health insurance coverage, and a salary. Salaries can differ from unit to unit, but the CBA guarantees a minimum salary level.
This guide is designed to provide information about the best practices in supervising GEs.
Meeting with GE to start the term
Ideally, each faculty member will meet with their assigned GEs before the start of the term. Faculty and GEs work closely together for 11 weeks, so it is important to get to know the person you will be working with. What is their background? How knowledgeable about the subject matter are they? Do they have questions about the course? It is essential that everyone have the same understanding of the desired outcome for the term.
Some units require that each GE and each supervisor fill out a “responsibilities statement” or course-planning document. You should know if your unit requires a formal document, encourages a conversation, or has only informal practices for planning the term with your GE.
One of the keys to a successful working relationship with a GE is making expectations clear. Many GEs will have experience working with multiple faculty members over a number of years and will expect to adapt past practice to current expectations. Some GEs, however, may be used to operating independently and may need more guidance about your expectations.
In addition to any departmental requirements, you may want to use the following sample checklist of discussion points with your GE early in the term to ensure you both have the same expectations.
- Class attendance – Some professors require their GEs to attend all classroom lectures, while others do not. Being clear about attendance expectations, timeliness, and classroom behavior is recommended.
- Notification on absence – If you have expectations that your GE will be at a certain place at a certain time – i.e., class lecture, discussion section, or office hours – you should communicate your expectations around notification of absence. How much notice do you want? How do you wish to be notified? What is the plan for covering for absences or rescheduling?
Be aware that GEs are eligible for sick leave and your unit may have reporting requirements that differ from your expectations. You should coordinate with the appropriate person in your unit to ensure you do not have conflicting expectations.
- Turn around time on papers and exams – How quickly do you expect each assignment to be returned to the students? Do you want to go over the work with the GE before papers and exams are returned? Planning this schedule at the beginning of the term will help the GE plan their term better.
- Office hours – Most instructional GEs hold office hours as part of their job. Many professors let the GEs schedule office hours according to the GEs schedule, while others like to ensure that office hours are held at specific times, i.e. immediately before or after class. Ideally, office hours for both the professor and GE are established before the term starts and are listed on the syllabus.
- Grading outcomes – Grading papers and exams is a skill that people learn over time. You will want to work with your GEs to ensure that grading is consistent and constructive. Most GEs will have excelled as undergraduates and may struggle with how to give constructive feedback on below-standard work. When working with multiple GEs for one class, you may find that one GE is much kinder than another, resulting in students receiving different grades for similar work.
Ideally, you will teach the GEs your process for grading papers and exams and help them develop their own process. Providing the GEs with your standards for grading before they sit down to do their work will help avoid situations where grading must be re-done or modified before being handed back.
- Weekly meetings – Setting up a weekly meeting with your GEs is a good practice and may be required in your department. Ideally, this meeting would act not only as a chance to check up on the GE’s work or plan the coming week, but also a time to discuss pedagogical techniques. Why did you structure your lecture the way you did? Why was the lab experiment designed as it was? How does the GE plan to get across the main points in discussion section? The role of a GE supervisor is more than just ensuring that nothing goes horribly wrong. It is also a time to mentor GEs in the profession.
All GEs are employed to work for a specified FTE. The GE position should be assigned employment responsibilities that correspond to the specified FTE. The FTE is based on a number of hours per term, not per week. For example, a .40 FTE appointment equals 175 hours over the 11 weeks of the term, and proportionately for appointments at other FTEs as follows:
HOURS PER QUARTER
Over the past few years, there has been a change in practice in many departments around GEs officially tracking their works hours. At the bargaining table, the GTFF has pushed for more official hours tracking and some units have adopted the practice. Additionally, new federal regulations may require that research and administrative GEs track their hours in order to ensure compliance with the new overtime rules. When federal regulations require the tracking of hours for certain positions, the university’s federal funding could be put in jeopardy if specified procedures are not followed.
You should know the hours tracking requirements for your unit and the requirements for the specific type of GE you supervise.
Hours tracking may be new to many faculty members. Academia tends to be professional workplace where people are expected to accomplish their work at their own pace with a minimum of supervision. While this is true in many respects, GEs are expected to put their studies ahead of their GE work. The number of hours assigned to an FTE should correspond to the amount of time it takes to do the work based on the department’s prior experience with the position or similar positions. This allows a GE to budget their time appropriately.
In cases of administrative or research GEs, you will be asked to co-sign an hours sheet with your GE. You may have questions about how the GE totaled their hours for a day or a week. You may even have suspicions that a GE might be over-reporting or under-reporting the number of hours they have worked. If you have these suspicions, you should talk to your dean, department head, or direct supervisor about the best way to handle this situation.
It is never acceptable to require or encourage a GE to falsify their hours tracking sheets. Not only could you be risking the university’s continued funding sources, you can be disciplined for this behavior.
The CBA specifies that no GE can be required to work more than 15% of their total FTE in one week, except by mutual consent. This rule recognizes that GEs are also graduate students and their primary focus is on their studies. Of course, many courses are designed to culminate in one large project or have a paper due at the same time as the final. It is important to keep the 15% rule in mind when designing your syllabus.
Educating about and reinforcing academic norms
Faculty who supervise GEs have a mentorship role that goes beyond ensuring that papers are graded on time, labs are conducted properly, or office hours are kept. As the supervisor of a GE, it is your responsibility to help them to better understand the profession in which they are working. You should help them understand why a lab experiment is designed a certain way. Ask to see their grading matrix, exploring why they made the decisions they made and helping them understand how they may be done better. Many new GEs might need extra guidance in the best way to help a struggling undergraduate write an essay.
Positive and negative feedback
Too often, faculty only provide their GEs with negative feedback or only discuss a GE’s performance with them in order to correct a problem. Like all people new to a profession, GEs also need to have worthy experiences and accomplishments positively reinforced. Keep a lookout for incidents where your GE does their job well and let them know that they are on the right track. Remember, GEs are faculty-members-in-training and learning how to correct errors here will keep them from making mistakes in much higher risk environments.
Teaching Effectiveness Program
The Teaching Effectiveness Program (TEP) has some great programs designed to help Graduate Employees to develop their teaching skills, learn about educational technologies, think about issues of teaching and learning in the context of cultural diversity, and even consult with individual instructional GEs about their teaching in a particular course. Departments are also encouraged to develop their own teaching support workshops or courses to address teaching issues directly related to their subject matter.
There may come a time when your GE has violated departmental policy or established norms and job-related discipline may be appropriate. Disciplining an employee is always a difficult task, especially in a unionized environment. You should consult with your department head, dean, or Human Resources about the best course of action in any disciplinary context.
Whenever dealing with a problematic GE, you should always document your communications, even in situations where you are offering corrective guidance. A good practice is to memorialize a conversation in a follow-up email, stating the behavior you would like to see corrected and the appropriate behavior in the future.
A unionized employees, GEs have the right to have a union representative present at any meeting that any way lead to their being disciplined or terminated. They also have the right to refuse to meet until a union representative is available.
Satisfactory Academic Progress
All GEs are required to make satisfactory academic progress in order to maintain their eligibility for holding a graduate employee position. The standards for what constitutes academic progress can differ depending on departmental policy and can be found in the department’s General Duties and Responsibilities document (GDRS) published on the Graduate School website. As a GE supervisor, you have no obligation to track the GE’s academic performance, but you should be aware of the need to ensure that both you and the GE make the GE’s academic performance a top priority.