May 29, 2009

Aiding graduate students

The U of C should make the process for hiring graduate student instructors more transparent.

According to the Office of College Admissions, classes here are “almost always faculty taught.” Now, just what might this mean, “almost always” faculty taught? According to a report to the Provost last year, we have at this university more than 700 grad student lecturer jobs, almost 1,300 T.A. jobs, 133 drill instructor jobs, 140 language lector jobs, and 67 preceptor jobs. We have more grad student teaching jobs than would fit in two Mandel Halls. We have, in fact, more grad student teaching jobs (albeit part-time) than we have full-time faculty: 2,395 versus 2,168. It’s a whole workforce of grad students, fastidiously written out of the glossy admissions brochures.

This workforce has long been underpaid—T.A. wages were raised last year from the ludicrous $1,500 per quarter to the still unlivable $3,000 per quarter—and hiring is an unclear, uncertain process. Some professors personally hire their T.A.s; other teaching positions in the Core are determined by an unclear selection process. Some grad students are required to teach by their fellowships; others, especially in Advanced Residency, just teach out of financial need. In this irregular system, partly bureaucratized and partly arbitrary, jobs don’t always go to those who need them most.

“It is not a sure thing,” wrote one grad student this month in a Graduate Students United (GSU) survey on teaching jobs. Others remarked: “It’s far from guaranteed.” “Not sure.” “Hard to say––no expectations.” “It is all a hustle.” “Everyone I know is applying for the Core and so I think my chances of getting a Core position are slim.” “Unsure, to be honest. I know I’m qualified, but the history department is full of students in my situation.” “I’m not sure I’ll get anything, despite the fact that I just won a teaching award from the college.” “Regular uncertainty, precariousness in employment becomes a source of strain.” “I get no stipend, I teach to pay the bills.” “[I teach] to pay my rent and buy my food.” “My funding is up.” “I need the money!”

This wave of laments teaches us two things. First, the hiring process lacks transparency, stable criteria of evaluation, or even reasonable predictability of outcome. This induces doubt, strain, anxieties about poverty, anxieties about the future, depressingly low expectations, and institutionalized uncertainty. Some feel thrown into unwanted competition with their peers. Others said they had secured their jobs through personal relationships with the hiring personnel; a number of people in turn complained of pervasive favoritism. There is sometimes even a sense of bitterness with the University, whether for tolerating the severe neglect of students in Advanced Residency, or for unilaterally deducting greater amounts of teaching pay from the stipends of recent Graduate Aid Initiative students, in an apparent violation of initial funding contracts.

Second, while the administration appears to imagine that graduate students are for the most part being funded outside the teaching process, perhaps through stipends, teaching, in fact, remains a central source of income for graduate students. Of the students GSU surveyed, most of whom were in the social sciences and humanities, the vast majority (70 percent) were applying to teach next year, most of these not out of contractual obligations to teach. And more strikingly, 26 percent of respondents had no other source of income besides teaching next year. This is still more disturbing in light of the fact that respondents’ overall estimated cost of living averaged $20,172—more than official University estimates of $19,000 and more than anyone can currently hope to make through scarce T.A. and lecturer jobs. As one of the survey respondents noted, grad students “are really in an impossible situation.”

The solution here, I’d say, lies in admitting that grad student teaching is a crucial campus job, that grad student workers are workers, that the employment system is an employment system needing to be improved. As evidenced from the 2,395 grad student teaching posts on campus, the University depends on our labor—no less than we, especially advanced students who don’t have fellowships, need the jobs. It would behoove administrators to stop pretending that teaching is not a job, and to work with graduate students to design the fairer, transparent, certain employment system that we need.

Eli Thorkelson is a Ph.D. student in anthropology. He is a member of Graduate Students United.