General Expectations

When planning your own graduate course schedule you should take into account the fact that the TAship will take between 15 and 20 hours per week per course assigned. Please note 20 hours per week is the maximum number of hours a graduate student can work from all jobs, combined. As a teaching assistant, your professional responsibilities are to your students, to the institution, to the course coordinator who is appointed as your supervisor within the institutional structure, and to yourself. It is expected that you offer the best teaching possible with the mentorship of the course coordinator and in collaboration with the remainder of the course instructors, and that you fulfill all requisite administrative functions as indicated by the department and the course coordinator.

Required aspects of your job as a teaching assistant:

  • Collegial participation in any training or orientation provided by the department
  • Thorough and thoughtful class preparation in synchrony with the remainder of the course syllabus, approach and curricular goals
  • Punctuality for your teaching, both at the start and the end of the meeting time for the class
  • Insuring that each day of class is covered for your own students. No cancellations are permitted for language classes; if you are ill or need replacement for another reason, you are to seek a substitute among the rest of the teachers of the course and inform the coordinator of your substitution prior to class time
  • Holding 2 weekly office hours in the office assigned to you, during hours when the building is unlocked
  • Meeting with the course coordinator on a weekly basis or as needed
  • Providing promptly the information the coordinator asks of you, such as class attendance, grades, lesson plans, parts of quizzes, etc.
  • Observing classes taught by other members of the language teaching team, sharing and discussing your experience with your colleagues

At the end of the semester TAs teaching language will remain on campus for at least three days after the final examination is given so as to assist in grading and other tasks. Please take note of this restriction when making your travel plans to leave campus.

Financial Support

Financial support is, of course, subject to university regulations and policies on financial awards. Renewal of financial support each year is contingent upon satisfactory progress toward the degree and satisfactory performance in any teaching or research you do, as defined by the field. Graduate students holding TA positions are expected to be in good academic standing, taking an adequate load of courses in order to meet their program objectives, in cooperation with their Special Committees and the Director of Graduate Studies.

Presemester Orientation Session

While under TAship support by the Department of Romance Studies, you are required to arrive in time for the pre-semester orientation session in the Fall, unless you are instructed otherwise by your assigned supervisor. This orientation session usually starts at 9am on the Wednesday of the week prior to the first week of classes, and extends up to the first day of classes, with extra meetings and administrative obligations. Prior to making travel plans for the summer, you should find out your specific obligations relating to orientation by contacting your assigned supervisor or, if the supervisor is not available, the Associate Chair, Mary K. Redmond, K168 Klarman Hall.

This pre-semester orientation is not just designed for the uninitiated teacher. This program brings together experienced and inexperienced instructors and graduate TAs in preparation for the semester ahead. Throughout these meetings, instructors and TAs review or learn about the Cornell undergraduate student profile, the place of language teaching within the institution, the functions of the academic advising office, academic integrity, undergraduate orientation, etc. They revisit immediately applicable facets of language pedagogy, receive course materials, syllabi, and course-specific grading plans and testing philosophies, think through the first weeks of class, and those who are new either to the department or the program or the course they have been assigned, are initiated to any pertinent specifics and approaches. This includes for many the preparation of lesson plans as well as practice teaching. When possible, the session is introduced by the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies. Of particular interest to all is the model Burmese class in which the TAs are placed in the position of learners, an experience that is later reflected upon and discussed among all participants. Course coordinators customize the orientation session to suit the needs of the course and of the individual TAs.

If you have already attended the Romance Studies pre-semester orientation session, as soon as you receive your letter of appointment, check with your assigned course coordinator before planning summer travel to know whether your presence will be required for the full session.

Because coordinators know that graduate students have other important commitments, they seek to streamline efforts and avoid redundancy. At the same time, we rely on experienced TAs as resources for new TAs, and for help, when necessary, with functions such as the proctoring and scoring of department placement tests. As soon as you receive your letter of appointment, check with your assigned course coordinator before planning summer travel to know your pre-semester responsibilities. Your presence may be needed to help maintain the coherence of the course, or for purposes of necessary communication.


Graduate students are required to take ROMS 5070 [3 credits, S/U] – Methodology of Romance Language Learning and Teaching, prior to their first language teaching assignment in the department, followed by ROMS 5080 [1 credit, S/U] – TA Practicum, concurrent with their first teaching assignment in Fall, to be taken with the coordinator of the course they have been assigned to teach.

Please address any questions about this policy to Mary K. Redmond in K168 Klarman Hall.

Roles and Expectations of TAs

I. As Cornell employees

As Cornell University employees, TAs should be informed of its institutional philosophies and guidelines:

  • Cornell’s mission
  • Cornell’s statement on diversity
  • Office of Human Resources “Skills for success” these apply to all Cornell employees (click to download as a PDF file)

II. As Teachers

As Cornell University teachers, TAs are expected to demonstrate a responsible attitude toward the need for:

  • Commitment and sensitivity to the individual student, with awareness of diversity of students in terms of cultural, racial, gender and ethnic backgrounds, as well as differing learning styles
  • Attention to special needs of students with declared or apparent learning difficulties
  • Attendance at all class meetings
  • Punctuality at start and end of class
  • Full preparation prior to each class
  • Production of suitable activities
  • Use of target language in class
  • Thorough and accurate correction of assignments, with appropriate constructive feedback
  • Prompt return of corrected work
  • Attention to students’ understanding and following Cornell’s Code of Academic Integrity.

Consult with your course coordinator prior to approaching students on matters relating to problematic behavior of this nature.

III. As Members of the Program of Instruction

First and foremost, we recognize that graduate teaching assistants have a double obligation, on the one hand to their own studies, and on the other to their teaching. Both of these obligations need to be met, clearly, and neither can carry a higher priority than the other. To this end, we make every effort to assign teaching loads and functions that do not exceed the 20 hour per week maximum indicated by the graduate school, and whenever possible, coordinators look for ways to reduce this amount of effort. At the same time, TAs and their advisors must understand the importance of the TA’s role within the undergraduate curriculum, and the essential nature of their commitment to the learning of the students in their sections.

In the Department of Romance Studies, TAs teach a variety of courses, with increasing levels of autonomy as their experience builds. Incoming TAs usually start by teaching language courses at the 1000-2000 levels. TAs typically work within an existing structure, teaching a subsection of a multisectioned course, led by a course coordinator. All of the course instructors, including the TAs, are expected to function in collaboration with the coordinator, to ensure that each student in the course receives similar attention to the individual facilitation of language learning, similar preparation for tests, and that each class session during the semester covers the same material, so that if there is need for a student to attend exceptionally a different section on a particular day, the coverage of material matches what the student’s own section would have done.

Each instructor and TA is accountable for the optimal facilitation of the learning of each student in her/his own sections, and thus, is expected to perform the functions of teacher as if the course were her/his own, in spite of the fact that the design and focus of the course is predetermined by the program and the materials are selected by the coordinator, who also prepares the syllabus. For each instructor and TA to feel enabled to perform as if the course were his/her own, s/he will have to become fully familiarized with the objectives of the course, the materials, and the grading and assessment plans prior to the beginning of the semester.

If you are in doubt, ask questions about the grading plan, the textbooks, individual responsibilities, and anything about the course plan that may not be fully clear.

  • What prior experience did you have in another course or program that may lead you to assume certain things about this course’s functioning? (these assumptions may be wrong – assume nothing – check first when in doubt)
  • Who prepares lesson plans? when? how?
  • Who prepares tests? when? how?
  • Who updates the web page? when?
  • How soon after receiving students’ homework are you expected to return it corrected?

If you note significant errors in the materials provided by the coordinator, be sure to bring these to her/his attention as soon as possible.

Extra Materials

If a TA or other instructor wishes to add to her/his class materials that are not a standard part of the syllabus, s/he should consult with the coordinator before using them.

  • Are these materials being used in other levels?
  • By using them, are you sacrificing some other assigned material?
  • By using them, are you overloading the students?

These questions can apply to any type of material – songs, texts, and movies (consider, for example, that the song you want to use may be what is used on a listening comprehension test in the next level, and that the movie you want to show is part of the syllabus of another level, either already taken, or yet to be taken).

Coherence and Clarity

One of the major sources of inefficiency at the workplace comes from individuals unconsciously taking for granted a variety of aspects of the job, jumping to conclusions, announcing these to others, without verifying first or double checking written guidelines for the course, or alerting others to any lack of clarity that needs to be resolved. To optimize the efficiency of the group effort, all members of the team should be aware of this potential pitfall, and be proactive, by reviewing written guidelines, communicating and asking pertinent questions whenever applicable. Some examples follow:

  • PACE. Is it desirable to allow a student on occasion to attend a different section from her/his standard section, on an exceptional basis, due to a scheduling conflict with a sports event or other obligation? If so, sections should be covering the same material each day.
  • TESTS. Will all tests be the same? If so, each instructor will need to prepare the students equally within the same time period. If not, it should be made clear that all tests need to meet the standards and goals of the course, and must not be duplicates of old tests for the course.
  • The TA and other instructional staff who are not coordinating the course should keep the coordinator informed of any significant irregularities in student status.
  • TAs should report problems with students, or low performance of students, to the course coordinator as soon as possible.
  • TAs and other instructional staff who are not yet fully seasoned at the task should NOT communicate directly with the College on their students’ performance unless so directed by the course coordinator, who should make sure that any communication to authorities is worded appropriately.
  • All instructors and TAs should keep very detailed and accurate records of student attendance and performance.
  • Be very careful before making any announcements in class regarding grading procedures – the course coordinator and all other members of the teaching team must be sure to give students information that is consistent relative to grading.
  • Do not assume anything (e.g. if a coordinator gives you a sample grading scheme that only has examples of As and Bs, this does not mean that lower grades do not exist for the course.) Double check before making any blanket statements.
  • Do not give out grades to students unless it is absolutely clear that this is the appropriate thing to do, and that the grades you have calculated are accurate.

Strategies to Achieve Better Communication


If you have asked a question, but the answer does not seem to be what you expected, ask again, rephrasing your question to be sure that what you are asking is actually what is being understood.


If you have just received instructions that are complex, or that do not seem to be clear, repeat them to the coordinator orally, to make sure you actually understood them as they were intended. If you are giving instructions that are complex or that could be misconstrued, ask the person to whom youhave given the instructions to summarize them orally.

While TAs are expected to perform as responsible members of the teaching staff, and to make every effort to be supportive of the coordinator in her/his diverse functions, they are also recognized as learners themselves in the pedagogical process. This in no way diminishes their value to the institutional teaching program. As they develop as teachers, TAs bring fresh perceptions to the process for all teachers, and enrich everyone’s experience.

To maintain a good rapport with the coordinator as mentor, the TA should:

  • Communicate to the coordinator any needs, questions, concerns, as soon as they arise
  • Be supportive of the efforts of peers and coordinator
  • Communicate to the coordinator and to your peers not only the difficulties you encounter, but also your victories, small and large, and your perception of their victories, small and large
  • Be open to constructive guidance and criticism
  • Be tolerant of your own need to learn and develop
  • Be sensitive to the pressures of all those who teach within the team, including the course coordinator
  • Contribute in any way you can to the common cause of the team, to the course
  • Offer suggestions for improvement for any aspect of the teaching / mentoring effort where you think it can be improved

In the last third of the Fall semester, TAs are asked by the Associate Chair to report on the orientation session, on the overall mentoring process, and on the performance of the coordinator.

TAs should understand that their constructive evaluation of the process of supervision and mentoring is very valuable, and should not hesitate to indicate a need for improvement in any particular area, as long as it is pertinent to the overall mission of the program.

Troubleshooting: Shared Authority

In situations where more than one person is in a position of authority, there is always a danger of shared responsibility, and undermining of the other’s authority in favor of one’s own. This can happen without its necessarily having been consciously planned.

What constitutes undermining of authority? Some situations to ponder:

Case 1
In a TA’s class, a student criticizes course, materials, test, lecture, etc. – How is the TA to respond? what do you do? what do you not do? What do you do if the student is right (e.g. if there is a mistake on the test, for example)
Case 2
A student of a TA speaks with coordinator about a problem – imagine types of problems. How is the coordinator to respond? What if the student has evidence that proves the point (e.g. if the TA did in fact grade a test incorrectly)?

In every case, the student should always receive the impression that the course leadership (coordinator, and all teaching staff) is unified, that each member of the team supports all the rest. Errors should be resolved candidly, always making sure to be accountable and supportive, and to follow channels of command where necessary.

Any matter of concern to TAs regarding their work as TAs in the Department should be resolved with the supervisor wherever possible. If it cannot be resolved at this level, the next authority would be the Associate Chair and ultimately the Chair of the Department.

TAs teaching languages in the department, and whose supervisor is a lecturer or senior lecturer, and who have seemingly unresolvable issues with the supervisor, should address their concerns to the Associate Chair.

TAs teaching literature/culture courses in the department, and/or any TAs who are working under the supervision of a professorial faculty member, and who have seemingly unresolvable issues with the supervisor, should address their concerns to the Chair.

Cancellation of Language Classes

What do you do in case of illness or emergency?

Note the following principles:

  • Language classes are never cancelled
  • You need to find a substitute
  • You need to inform the coordinator of your substitution plans, but you should not leave it to the coordinator to find a substitute for you
  • Your substitute should be from within the course teaching staff if possible
  • Remember to repay the substitution favor

Attendance Policy

The following is copied from the University Faculty Handbook, Chapter 5, pp. 76-77:

Students have an obligation to be present throughout each term at all meetings of courses for which they are registered. In some courses, such as physical education and courses in which participation in classroom discussion is considered vital*, there may be penalties for absences per se or defined limits to absences, the exceeding of which leads to the student failing the course or receiving a grade of Incomplete. These rules are set by the department or instructor.

* N.B. in Romance Studies, in language courses, where daily preparation and participation are key to progress, instructors must keep a very precise record of the daily attendance pattern of each student. Students need to be made aware of this from the outset – they should come to class prepared to spend the full hour, with their own tissues, and having used the facilities before entering. In some courses, arriving late counts as half an absence, as does leaving class within the 50-minute session for any portion of time (some students make a habit of going out to drink water, get toilet paper for tissue, use the restrooms, etc.). It helps to explain to students that as logic dictates, for a language class they can only earn points for participation in class if they attend class (attend = be present for the full 50 minutes) – thus, a very good student may get an A for preparation and participation on individual days, but if this student misses class either in full or in part with any sort of frequency, once the points are removed for absences, that A can easily drop to a lower grade. It is not an excuse that a prior professor does not let them leave class early enough to arrive to the language class on time – the student needs to make the other professor aware of the need to arrive on time to the next class.

In most courses, however, attendance is not taken, and the student’s responsibility is for the work covered in the class rather than for being physically present when the class is held. A student is then not penalized directly for missing a lecture, for instance, but is held responsible (in subsequent tests) for knowledge of material presented in the lecture. There are various means by which students can acquire such knowledge and thus avoid an indirect penalty.

It is harder to make up missed work if the class that was missed was a test or a laboratory session or field trip. Such makeups involve the direct cooperation of the instructor. If the instructor feels the absence was unjustified, he or she is not required to provide the student with the opportunity to make up the missed work. There is no such thing as a “university excuse” for absence from class that frees a student from responsibility for the missed work. Only the instructor of a course can provide such an exemption to a student. And even the faculty member is not permitted (by legislation of the University Faculty) to cancel classes just before or after academic recesses without special approval of the dean of the school or college concerned. Each faculty member and instructor has the special responsibility of maintaining the regular quality and content of instruction in classes just before and after university vacations, regardless of the number of students present in the classroom.

There are some circumstances, however, in which faculty members are not supposed to penalize students directly for missing classes and are urged to try to make opportunities for the students to make up work that was missed.

These circumstances include, but are not limited to, the following:

Illness, or family or personal emergency
The University expects that students will be honest with their professors about routine illnesses, injuries, and mental health problems that may lead to missed classes, labs, studios, exams, or deadlines. Academic advising staff and associate deans are available to provide assistance to students or faculty members who have concerns about attendance issues. See also the CU Health Excuse Policy at http://www.gannett.cornell.edu/services/health-excuses.cfm
Religious observances
The university is committed to supporting students who wish to practice their religious beliefs. Students are urged to discuss religious absences with their instructors well in advance of the religious holiday so that arrangements for making up work can be resolved before the absence. Faculty are urged to announce at the beginning of the semester all activities which, if missed, would require make up work.

The New York State Legislature (since July 1, 1992) requires all institutions (public and private) of higher education not to discriminate against students for their religious beliefs. Accordingly, the pertinent parts of Sections 3 and 4 of the law state:

Section 3
It shall be the responsibility of the faculty and of the administrative officials of each institution of higher education to make available to each student who is absent from school, because of his or her religious beliefs, an equivalent opportunity to make up any examination, study or work requirements which he or she may have missed because of such absence on any particular day or days. . .
Section 4
If classes, examinations, study or work requirements are held on Friday after four o’clock post meridian or on Saturday, similar or makeup classes, examinations, study or work requirements . . . shall be made available on other days, where it is possible and practicable to do so. . . ”

Both Cornell as an institution, and its faculty members, have an obligation to comply with the laws of New York State. The language of the law is vague, and particular situations may need interpretation. The Office of the Dean of Faculty may be contacted either for questions or further clarification.


During winter weather, “snow days” occasionally cause delay or cancellation of activities at the university. Times for making up missed activities in a coordinated way are publicly announced on such occasions. The local radio stations, The Cornell Daily Sun, the Cornell Chronicle, and other media convey the news.

Athletics and Extracurricular Activities

Students whose participation in varsity athletics or other recognized extracurricular activities requires occasional absences from the campus may present an appropriate slip or letter with the signature of a responsible official, attesting that the proposed absence is in connection with a recognized activity. In the case of athletics, the Faculty Advisory Committee on Athletics and Physical Education must approve the schedule of events and associated athletic leaves of absence each year, thus assuring that the athletic absences are kept within approved limits and guidelines.

Tutoring Policy

Page 102 of the Cornell Faculty Handbook:
No member of the instructional staff, including assistants, may engage, for profit or gain, in tutoring a student in a University course taught by himself or herself or by colleagues in the same department. University buildings or equipment are not to be used by any member of the instructional staff for tutoring for profit.