Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Short-changing Undergrads, Grad Students, and Professors

Ancrene has a post about how Universities screw over undergrads, grads, and professors are alike:

"At institutions granting doctoral degrees, the bulk of the cheap labor was sucked out of graduate students -- 44.6% of the teaching staff in English departments and 47.9% in Foreign Language departments were grad student TAs."

Like she says, "this is a real crisis. This is not the way it's supposed to be: It's exploitative and just flat wrong."

I wholeheartedly concur.

I love teaching, and am grateful for any opportunity to hone my pedagogical skills. But I still know the difference between myself and a more established professor. S/he has greater expertise in the field, more scholarship under his/her belt, and more experience teaching. At this point, I'm still trying to figure out how to teach material. How to write a syllabus. How to write lectures. How to give lectures. How to grade. How to give constructive feedback. How to navigate the classroom and its dynamics. You only learn by doing, of course, so it's good for young academics to get as much classroom time as possible. I'm one of those believers that academics are not just researchers and paper-writers--they are teachers, above all. I hate those who disdain teaching as an unfortunate distraction from their "real" work back at the lab or in the office or wherever. But is it a good thing to put so much of the teaching load on the shoulders of young, inexperienced academics? It's not just the lack of teaching experience. There's also less familiarity with the material. Having TAs teach English Composition is one thing. But can you conscionably rely on grad students to teach more substantive courses? Even if grad students aren't teaching classes on "Biomedical Ethics and the Law," adjuncts and lecturers are--which is not too comforting either. I know there are business costs to running a university--but must they be run like businesses?

It's a horrible trend at universities, particularly at the big research ones like I attended. I was a double major in English Literature and Political Science. My English Lit education: wonderful. I avoided the freshman lit/composition writing series and elected to take the comparative lit alternative, taught by real tenured faculty. At the time, I don't think I had any principled reason for this choice other than the fact that I believed then (and still do) in a broad and varied reading list. Over the course of four years, I took the same faculty over and over, just because they were good, and not just because they taught the books I wanted to read. I took a lot of Medieval and Early English lit just because I liked the professor. I too her as a freshman, where my first paper received a C+ (I saw her eraser marks downgrading it from a B-). By senior year, when I took my second class with her, I got an A--and she remembered me, and told me I had come a long way. You don't get that kind of deep interaction, relationship-building and mentoring with the more transient TAs and adjuncts--who may be here one year, and gone the next. I know. In my other major, many of the survey courses were taught by the Tenureds. Many classes in the "hot" disciplines of International Relations and Political Methodology were taught by Tenure-Track/Tenureds. But my concentration of Constitutional Law and Politics? Mostly staffed by adjuncts hired from the lesser state school system. No tenured faculty was teaching Con Law. It is no wonder that I was turned off from poli sci grad school four years ago. I'm not complaining that much--I was taught well. But when it came down to letter of rec time, I was at a disadvantage. Most of my mentoring relationships were with adjuncts who weren't even affliated with my home institition. In the end, I grew really bitter about how the labor was allocated in my department.

This is particularly important (as students don't know till it's too late) for letters of recommendation. There's a hierarchy in academia: Tenured, Tenure-Track, Non-Tenure Track, Adjunct, Lecturer. About the first two, the university appears to be saying: "these are our people. You can trust them." The last three are hired guns, "independent contractors." About them, the university seems to be saying: "we use them as needed, and keep them as long as they're useful." I'm not endorsing this system of hierarchy. I'm just saying what it is. Notice how TAs aren't even listed in this hierarchy. That's because the University exploits them for labor, there's not even a usefulness contract about it. The university seems to be saying "We use you because you're, there, you're willing, you're grateful for the work/money, and if you don't want to do this necessary vitae building work then there are plenty of others who will." This is why TAs need unions. Without them, that 20 hr/week job can turn into a 30-40 hr/week job--and there's no one to complain to, no one to enforce the wages and hours of the original governing contract. It's remarkable that universities don't think of TAs as employees like any other. Even in the pursuit of learning and experience there can be exploitation, the difference is that the exploitation is called "greater opportunity."

So what should students do? Well, grad students need to support their unions and the unions/labor demands of other university workers (janitors, food service workers, research assistants, readers, etc.) and remember to do so once they hit that tenure-track jackpot. Undergrads need to be savvier about choosing their classes. Grad students, adjuncts, and lecturers can teach you plenty--but form mentoring relationships with the more established. It's the game, you have to play it. (this is that annoying Real Politik side of me that clashes with Idealist me) And the University has to stop acting like a business and go back to the business of teaching.

I'm not holding my breath for that last one though.