May 6, 2019

To Improve Grad Students’ Pedagogical Training, the University Must Recognize GSU

Undergrads should care about graduate students’ struggles—many college students are taught by graduate students from day one.

Last month, the Committee on Graduate Education released a report on graduate education at the University. The report, which was based on surveys and discussions with graduate students, faculty, and directors of graduate studies, indicates increasing dissatisfaction among UChicago graduate students across multiple areas of graduate student life. The report discussed many concerns raised by grad students ranging from decreased graduate student housing to insufficient aid to the lack of paid parental leave for student parents.

Notably, the report shows that roughly a quarter of UChicago Ph.D. students are dissatisfied with the pedagogical training their department or division provides, citing insufficient resources such as inadequate office and classroom spaces and lack of mentorship as major obstacles to graduate teaching.


A figure from the Committee on Graduate Education's report

Committee on Graduate Education

Undergraduate students may wonder why they should care about graduate students’ educational concerns. But this major finding from the report—that only half of all graduate students are very or mostly satisfied with their teaching training—makes it clear that the quality of graduate resources at the University impacts undergraduate education, too.

The report recognizes this mounting dissatisfaction, notes that similar concerns were raised in the 2009 report of the Pedagogical Training Subcommittee of the Provost’s Committee on Graduate Student Teaching, and urges programs to “consider carefully how to improve local training for their students in how to teach.”

However, the Maroon Editorial Board believes that in light of this dissatisfaction, the University needs to provide better teaching training and resources to grad students, and it must voluntarily recognize graduate students as workers to accomplish this. Recommendations of increased attention to pedagogy from higher-ups are no substitute for giving graduate students a seat at the bargaining table to voice their own concerns, and to obtain the resources they need in order to be better teachers. This matters critically for undergrads as well as grad students, as grad students teach and T.A. a significant number of undergraduate courses, often working more closely with undergraduates through weekly seminar discussions and writing workshops than with full professors.

It’s unclear exactly what proportion of UChicago courses are taught by graduate students, but nearly every college student will have a graduate instructor at some point, whether as a writing intern in a core class, as a calculus teacher, or STEM T.A. Graduate students are integral to the undergrad educational experience: They serve as teachers, research assistants, course assistants, writing interns, language assistants, workshop coordinators, and more. Many undergrads are taught by graduate students from day one.

Many undergrads have had difficult experiences with graduate student teachers who were not given enough support, just as many or more have been taught by fantastic graduate students who deserve more resources and recognition than they are currently given. Both the graduate and the undergraduate experiences will improve if graduate students receive better teaching resources and the administration’s acknowledgement that graduate students’ teaching is just as important as their research. Undergrads thrive when grads thrive.

But graduate students will not be able to thrive until they are recognized as workers. While the 108-page report mentioned grad students’ recent unionization efforts, it did not formally call for the recognition of grad students as workers. GSU noted in response to the report that despite the absence of a formal GSU endorsement, the report’s “recommendation to establish formal mechanisms to represent graduate students [is] a precise description of the role of a union.”

Departments cannot fully improve the teaching experience for grad students without the University first recognizing grad students as workers. Grad students don’t only need mentorship, after all: They also need sufficient time to devote to teaching. Current University policies make it tough for graduate students, especially those who are parents, to find this time. Grad students must be paid like workers, provided with more housing (especially following the reclassification of International House as undergraduate-only and the sale of previous grad school housing owned by the University), and supported as parents, with a childcare subsidy beyond the paltry $2,000 that the Ph.D. Child Care Grant budget currently offers.

Undergraduate students cannot bury their heads in the sand while graduate students struggle. All of us must recognize our mutual dependence as students at the University of Chicago, and fight to ensure that those at all degree levels receive a quality education. In the end, no student is free to learn until every student is free to learn.