THE QUESTION: You are a paid graduate teaching assistant for an upper-level immunology class at a major university. Dr. Joyce, the class instructor, asks you to oversee a student lab exercise that involves injecting mice with an antigen (a foreign body that generates an immune response), followed by examining their spleens (an immune organ) for various reactions. Your job involves killing the mice to harvest the spleens, and Dr. Joyce points out, “Bill, these labs are carefully designed to maximize learning, and killing the mice is a necessary part of this process, even if a student is ‘squeamish’ or uncomfortable with it.” When you begin the lab in class, one student takes you aside and explains that she feels it’s not right to kill mice just for a lab, and doesn’t want to participate.
WHAT’S YOUR ANSWER?
A. Ask the department chair for advice and permission to give the student an alternate assignment.
B. Ask the student to come see you during office hours, so you can explain why the lab is important and needs to be done.
C. Find an alternate assignment that serves the same function, such as performing the experiment on a virtual mouse instead.
D. Advocate for the student to the class instructor, and then do what the instructor advises.
WHAT’S MY ANSWER?
I picked B: Ask the student to come see you during office hours, so you can explain why the lab is important and needs to be done.
I thought about a two things when I was considering my answer. First, the fact that the class instructor mentioned the importance of the killing infers that this issue has come up before. I would hope the reasons would be explain to help prepare the TA to better communicate the importance to the students. Dialoguing with the instructor would also provide an opportunity for the TA to challenge him if applicable, before it enters the class room.
Second, I don’t think it is the responsibility of a TA to change the class curriculum because a student is uncomfortable. The student can always drop the class if she finds it isn’t a good fit. As the TA, I think it is my responsibility to make sure the student is equipped to make the right decision for her. By asking her to see you during office hours helps you answer any questions she has. It also allows you to share more information about the importance of killing the mice, without holding up the class.
As a side note, I think it would be helpful to list “mice killing” in the class description so students are fully aware of what they are signing up for. Hopefully that would decrease, or remove the issue entirely.
Well what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know your answer and why in the comments below.