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Davis, California

Sunday, April 14, 2024

TAs struggle with low pay, large classes

Teaching assistants (TAs) permeate the UC system. These graduate students are both pupils and employees of the UC who, according to United Automobile Workers (UAW) 2865, are facing high class sizes and low wages.

The UC Student-Worker’s Union represents an estimated 12,000 tutors, readers and teaching assistants throughout the UC. The union started their contract campaign in June 2013 for renewing a three-year bargaining agreement with the UC.

Third-year anthropology graduate student and executive board guide of the UAW 2865, Caroline McKusick sees the union as an integral part of labor representation for Academic Student Employees (ASEs) and TAs in particular since they act as a liaison between undergraduates and professors.

“One of the reasons I’m involved in the union is because I think students deserve a good education and TAs that can give them attention,” McKusick said. “In this contract campaign, we envision a bargaining process that makes grad students’ concerns heard across the state, a space where members can speak to the seriousness of the issues they are facing.”

One of the requirements of student employees is that TAs must work 50 percent of their full-time student attendance, and one of the agreements made between the union with the UC is that this time should not amount to more than 20 hours per week.

However, due to the increasing ratio of students to TAs, McKusick has observed the struggles of TAs who also often have research, seminars and other campus jobs to manage.

“I’ve been a TA every year of grad school and worked in different departments, and what I’ve seen is that the kinds of pressures to increase class sizes and squeeze TAs happening on the UC-level is happening all over campus and is something that faculty and grad students are struggling with,” McKusick said. “With these increases in class sizes the responsibilities of TAs is really serious and we’re very concerned that TAs are working more than the hours that they should be working and that this is impacting students’ education.”

Besides expressing grievances for the assurance of fair working conditions and treatment during this contract campaign the UAW 2865 adopted an open bargaining process for the first time by inviting all members to UC negotiations to diversify the amount of coordination and representation of ASEs. They have also highlighted forums such as gender neutral bathrooms on campuses, undocumented student support and child care services for graduate student workers.

Third-year sociology graduate student and Davis unit chair for UAW 2865 Duane Wright is a parent himself, and previously spent eight years as a substitute teacher at elementary schools in Massachusetts before coming to Davis.

“Coming here I had an expectation that I would be teaching, but it’s a little disappointing that you only get less than 10 hours with your student in the quarter,” Wright said. “The problem with the lecture hall pedagogically is that it’s a one-way mode transmission … A quality education is one in which people participate and become subjects of their education instead of objects of their education. And [ideally] discussion section is a way to try to fill that gap … but now those are getting too big.”

According to Wright, the current subsidy of child support for union workers is $600 per quarter or $900 per semester, and there are talks in changing the amount to $900 per quarter instead due to the already low incomes of ASEs.

“Having an extra mouth to feed, having to have an extra bedroom; these are all extra costs for a student and I’m not making any more money than anyone else, ”Wright said. “It’s tricky. Especially my first two quarters here were so intense and required so much of my time … [My son] was in third grade at the time and I really don’t know much of what went on his third grade year… I’m not really sure how I feel about that.”

Ph.D candidate of geography Katharine Bradley, who has been both a TA and graduate student researcher (GSR) for most of her graduate experience, has seen the position of the TA as an educator in the UC system to be important, though she agrees they tend to have a lot to manage.

“As a TA, part of my job is to create as many distinct and diverse opportunities for students to connect with something about the class even if they’re not going to connect with me personally,” Bradley said. “[Grad students] have course work, they have to juggle whatever [their] on-campus job is and … looking for work every quarter can take a lot of energy away from the things we want to be studying.”

According to McKusick the experience as a TA is beneficial, however the labor legalities and time struggle they face can often take away from their interaction with students.

“In my experience, being a TA can be really fun,” McKusick said. “You work with faculty and try to get students to think really critically about the material which is impossible in lecture or other spaces. Some of the difficult things about it are having a lot of students and not feeling I can reach out to everybody.”


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