Thursday, April 24, 2014

TAs call for higher wages, smaller classes

Teaching assistants and graduate student instructors who are represented by United Auto Workers 2865 march to Mrak Hall on Wednesday as part of a "grade-in" and protest to raise awareness of graduate student employment issues. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

From page A1 | May 02, 2013 | Leave Comment

UC Davis graduate students who say they are being squeezed as teachers and researchers drew a crowd of about 50 for a protest Wednesday at the Memorial Union.

They placed a special emphasis on the impact of bigger class sizes.

Caroline McKusick, a second-year Ph.D. student in anthropology, said that during the year she arrived, her department increased class size from 50 to 65 students. She now has 70.

“Professors are starting to tell us things like, ‘Just skim the papers’ or ‘Reduce the amount of time you spend doing the readings,’ ” McKusick said. “They’re essentially telling us to teach poorly, so that we can teach more students, because the university ties department funding to how many students they have sitting in the chairs.”

TAs, she said, feel torn between their teaching duties, research and home lives, but are “very scared to file grievances or make noise” because they depend on their advisers to provide funding and guide them to graduation. Some international students worry about their visa status, union members said.

“The undergraduate students are getting a worse education than they were four years ago,” McKusick said. “UC Davis can’t keep saying it’s a world-class teaching and research university if it keeps doing this. It’s hollowing itself out and becoming a shell of what it was in order to gain more revenue.”

Members of United Auto Workers 2865 — which represents more than 13,000 teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, readers and tutors across the UC system — organized the protest. The union is in contract talks with the university.

In 2010, the union accepted a three-year deal that expires this October, despite stiff opposition of some campuses. It saw annual wage increases of 2 percent per year.

TAs earn a monthly salary of $1,961 for 50 percent employment, according to UC.

About half of those at Wednesday’s protest later marched to Mrak Hall, the campus’ main administration building, to present a list of demands that includes wage increases, affordable housing, child care and improved health care and dependent care. Some also took part in a “grade-in,” doing their work on the Quad.

Duane Wright, the UAW’s Davis unit chair and a sociology Ph.D. student, has seen class sizes grow from 80 to 95 during his two years on campus. With exceptions made by professors, some TAs in that department are teaching 100 students.

“We have to choose between splitting up more students in the same amount of hours and giving less time per student, less time per paper, or giving the same amount of time per student and working for free, which a lot of people end up doing,” he said.

Wright said a survey of TAs last year found that many believed they were sacrificing time needed for their own research and classes, as well as for their personal lives and families.

There’s a “trickle-down” effect to class size, he said. A class of 300 has sections in which students are supposed to be able to get more attention from TAs. With those sections also swelling in size, or being eliminated, altogether, however, more one-on-one teaching is falling to the lowest paid, tutors.

McKusick said other steps taken by the university also have negatively impacted graduate students as researchers. Once, grad students going abroad to do research were not enrolled but remain affiliated with UC, for example. Since 2009, they’ve been charged 15 percent of tuition, about $4,000 for resident students, for that research time, she said.

Other steps affect more than an individual student’s choice of research. Under current policy, if a student gets a nationally competitive grant, she might have all of her fees covered. If she gets a competitive grant within the UC system, just 50 percent of fees might be covered, McKusick said.

“The weird result is that UC is prioritizing people not doing research on UC projects by making it more costly,” she said. “These kinds of austerity policies are directly affecting the research choices that we make.”

A UC spokesperson declined to comment during contract negotiations.

— Reach Cory Golden at or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter.

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