Assigning writing under "normal" teaching circumstances requires care and consideration. Assigning writing to a large class of 100+ students adds another layer of complexity. Working alongside TAs adds yet another. While many faculty view these as barriers to assigning writing, we urge you to think of them as assets. After all, with a group of TAs you have a teaching team at the ready. Certainly, you are providing these TAs important teaching knowledge and experience, but they can also provide valuable contributions and labor.

Consider the following four strategies when teaching writing with TAs:

Emphasize the Rhetorical Nature of Writing

Most successful professionals do not consciously know this about themselves, but they are rhetoricians.

That is, they respond to writing occasions flexibly and adaptably. While many of us think of good writing as following a of set conventions, or rules, successful writers attend to many different factors and tailor their writing accordingly-- this means that sometimes we are breaking writing "rules" as often as we are following them. After years and years of practice, most of us respond to these external factors (such as the particular occasion, the audience, the medium, etc.) unconsciously. Show your TAs that writing well is not a matter of memorizing a set of rules, but is rather a staged process that involves considering audience and other contextual variables, brainstorming, writing, seeking feedback, and revising. The ability to frame writing that way will make them immeasurably better teachers. And writers, of course!

One simple way for TAs to teach writing rhetorically is to pose questions for discussion about the "rules" of writing in a particular field. In a discussion section of a history lecture, for example, a TA might ask questions like:

  • Why do we write history papers using the Chicago Manual of Style instead of, say, APA style?

  • Why might historians prefer to use footnotes at the bottom of a page rather than in-text citations?

  • What does that practice say about how historians use and value source material?

The answers to these questions are not arbitrary, and they are not as superficial as they might appear; indeed, they can teach students a lot about the nature of writing and knowledge production in a particular discipline. They help students to think rhetorically.

The Conference on College Composition and Communication has published a list of "Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing" and the first principle is worth quoting in full here:

The assertion that writing is “rhetorical” means that writing is always shaped by a combination of the purposes and expectations of writers and readers and the uses that writing serves in specific contexts. To be rhetorically sensitive, good writers must be flexible. They should be able to pursue their purposes by consciously adapting their writing both to the contexts in which it will be read and to the expectations, knowledge, experiences, values, and beliefs of their readers. They also must understand how to take advantage of the opportunities with which they are presented and to address the constraints they encounter as they write. In practice, this means that writers learn to identify what is possible and not possible in diverse writing situations. Writing an email to a friend holds different possibilities for language and form than does writing a lab report for submission to an instructor in a biology class.

Instructors emphasize the rhetorical nature of writing by providing writers opportunities to study the expectations, values, and norms associated with writing in specific contexts. This principle is fundamental to the study of writing and writing instruction.

We encourage you to share and discuss these principles with your TAs. Remember, TAs come to their positions with a wide variety of skills and knowledge. Having a discussion about teaching writing rhetorically with your TAs is a great way for you and them to learn from each other, and to come to a common understanding about course expectations and student learning goals.

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Collaborate to Create Great Assignments

TAs bring one big asset to the table of team teaching: they are still students themselves. Or they were, recently. That means they have been exposed to a huge variety of contemporary assignments that you might consider adapting for your own course. Tap into this knowledge, if you can!

You might even ask your TA to draft a prompt of the assignment, which you can then workshop as a teaching team. Delegating the work of assignment creation to TAs is both a labor-saver for you, and a good professionalizing experience for them. It also is a plagiarism-mitigation strategy because you will be presenting revised assignments for each new version of your course, which prevents students from submitting former students' work.

During a meeting with TAs prior to or early on in the quarter, ask them to think back to their undergrad and graduate courses: what assignments were really meaningful to them? How did their instructor introduce, scaffold, and assess them effectively, or not so effectively? How might the assignment be adapted to learning outcomes in your own course? What source material(s) might be used?

Or, you might present to them an assignment you have used in the past and ask your TAs to revise it using new source material, or adapt it to a new modality. For example, whereas in the past you have assigned an academic essay on a topic, maybe now you are interested in experimenting with a class blog. Chances are that your TAs will have technological savvy and experience with setting up such a platform.

Being an instructor of record, particularly for a course we ourselves designed, can make it difficult to share control. It will take practice, balancing your own authority with the willingness to incorporate feedback.

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Use Norming to Make Grading Consistent and Fair

Norming is a communal activity in which all graders of an assignment practice applying assessment criteria to a sample of student writing, so that all the graders can be "on the same page" about what grades student writing should earn.

Some faculty who work with TAs set up norming sessions, where the instructor and TAs meet and discuss how they would grade a sample of student papers, based on the prompt and the rubric. Doing it just once in the quarter can be very helpful, but some faculty do it for every written assignment, which is even better.

The benefits are manifold: norming helps you and your TAs identify potential points of confusion in the prompt or rubric; it creates a more consistent, transparent, and fair grading process; and it helps your TAs learn in a more explicit way what communication norms and conventions matter in your field (and matter to you). Not all TAs share the same knowledge or even disciplinary background. Norming sessions can not only help with grading, but also help establish common ground if you and your TAs share different unconscious expectations for student writing.

A norming session might contain some combination of the following procedures:

  1. Soon after students have turned in a written assignment, randomly select a small sample (say, 5) of the submissions. Then do the following in advance of your meeting and ask your TAs to do the same, individually: read all of the assignments in the sample, assign hypothetical grades using the rubric, and write down some feedback for each (see the guide On Grading Writing for more tips on offering feedback).

  2. Gather and discuss how and why each of you assigned the grades that you did. If there is disagreement, explore it. The goal is to reach as much consensus as possible about the appropriate grade for each student paper.

  3. As the course instructor, explain often how TAs should grade student papers in a way that is grounded in rubric criteria, rather than focusing on, say, mechanics or other issues not mentioned in the rubric. Also set clear expectations as to how you would like TAs to structure their feedback-- should they write margin comments? A paragraph of global feedback? A sentence or two in response to each rubric criterion?

  4. After the norming session, set a deadline by which you would like to have TAs complete their grading. It is considered best practice to have papers returned with grades and feedback within one week; if this is not feasible, tell students when you will return their work-- and stick to that!*

  5. Encourage TAs to bring a student assignment to you if they are unsure of how to grade it. The more you help TAs identify the strengths and weaknesses that really matter in student writing, the better equipped they will be to grade student work and provide productive feedback-- which will in turn lead to better student work.

*Do your best to never have students turn in the next assignment before they have received feedback on the previous one. It can be very frustrating not to be able to incorporate feedback from one assignment into the next one. If you do not return feedback on written assignments before the next assignment is due, you might hear about it your course evaluations!

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Use Plagiarism-Detection Software Responsibly

It is not controversial to say that plagiarism-detection software is controversial. Some researchers have found that plagiarizing students can use paraphrasing to evade detection, which throws into question the effectiveness of the software. Others go so far as to argue that plagiarism-detection tools function as surveillance and create huge privacy concerns.

While we share some of these concerns, UW offers technical support for SimCheck (as of June 2020), and some departments even require instructors to use it. Given that reality, we urge all instructors to teach their TAs to use SimCheck as carefully and thoughtfully as possible.

A cautionary tale: in a recent large lecture course, a TA submitted his students' written assignments for VeriCite review (this was before the transition to SimCheck). One student's paper was flagged. Upon investigation the TA discovered that the student had "plagiarized" herself, and had copied sections from a paper she had written for another class. The student was notified that she would be reported for academic misconduct. However, upon further discussion with the course instructor, it was discovered that the paper the student had "self-plagiarized" was written for a writing seminar linked with that same lecture course. In the writing seminar, the student had been doing pre-writing for that very assignment that was subsequently flagged. As anyone who does any writing knows, pre-writing and reusing segments of one's own writing for different drafts of the same writing project is not only acceptable, but is essential to the writing process. The incident was cleared up and the student was not reported, but not before she endured an inordinate amount of stress and confusion.

As writing teachers who want to lessen students' anxieties around writing, we take this story to heart!

Here are some suggestions for using plagiarism-detection software responsibly, and in such a way that softens students' perceptions that academic writing is a vulnerable, or even punitive, experience:

  • As UW IT Connect and the Registrar's office point out, all instructors must notify their students if VeriCite will be used in their class. Notification must be given both verbally and in writing (syllabus language is offered here). We encourage you to go above and beyond the letter of the law, though, and discuss with both your students and your TAs why you use the software, and what its affordances and limitations are. In the guide on Supporting Academic Integrity we urge instructors to have a conversation about academic integrity, and this could be a meaningful component of that discussion.

  • Develop assignments that are plagiarism-proof, or at least plagiarism-resistant. See more about this in the Supporting Academic Integrity guide, but in a nutshell, developing unique, well-supported assignments that are tied to course learning goals really helps students to be invested in producing their own work. As they say, prevention is the best medicine!

  • Show students and TAs how students can use SimCheck to check their own work before submitting it. Here is a guide from Turnitin, the company that owns SimCheck, for students to generate and interpret their own "similarity report" for a particular writing assignment. Framing SimCheck as a way to self-check citation practices and use of source material may give students greater perceived agency over their writing.

  • Most important, help your TAs understand that NO artificial intelligence tool can replace a human reader. The line between academic integrity and misconduct can be blurry, even for seasoned professionals, but especially for linguistically and culturally diverse students. TAs best serve their students when they are sensitive to nuance and when they prioritize student learning over student penalizing. Of course, please encourage your TAs to bring any questions or concerns to you. And if you still aren't sure, the Center for Teaching and Learning can help.

Here are more guidelines on using SimCheck from UW IT Connect.

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