Testimony of a Viticulture and Enology TA at UC Davis

I TA’d for upper division labs in Viticulture and Enology. Many of my students had a really hard time writing full lab reports in V&E labs. These are juniors and seniors who have already taken organic chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology as prerequisites. At this point in their academic career, report writing should be second nature.

Speaking with faculty, students, and TA’s, I soon found out why our students are so severely under-prepared. The basic science courses are overloaded, with poor TA allocation to labs.

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A professor of Art and Art History exposes the administrative pressure to raise class size at UC:

Departments who do not meet the expectations to teach ever-larger classes face budget cuts and cuts to the number of sections they can offer. As fewer TAs serve more students, it seems this campus will regrettably — and inevitably — move toward only the most superficial education at what is supposed to be one of the nation’s top public universities.

Read on to see her letter about why we need smaller classes at UC now.

notonapolitano

We don’t want your checkbooks, we don’t want your magic wand, and we don’t want your fake apologies. This is your last chance. The students that are here for you will only give you what you ask for: uncensored lived experiences. We’re not afraid to tell it like it is. We demand your resignation.

notonapolitano:

Video of Napolitano’s last “listening and learning” tour student meeting at UC Berkeley, February 13th.

You can listen to the rally outside at Blum Center!! The powerful words by students to Napolitano starts at 5:30.
Folks from the Undocumented, API, African American, Latin@ and Queer Community all spoke out!!

Testimony from a UC Davis TA

I care about class size not just because of pedagogical concerns but academic relationships as well.  Currently I have two sections, one of which is about 25% smaller than the other, and the atmospheres in each class are like night and day.  Particularly for folks in commonly marginalized groups, smaller classes open up spaces to speak and be heard, to have ideas and confidence validated and learning potential affirmed. And in the relational aspect of teaching, the difference here is also palpable.  Having time to spend with students on their academic and general concerns can make forging a personal connection possible.  Connections like these with instructors made education seem relevant and even possible for me as an undergraduate, and as an instructor I feel we owe our students nothing less.  Our working conditions, of which class size is an integral part, are their learning conditions, and they deserve the time and attention small class sizes afford. 

-Amanda Modell, graduate student in Cultural Studies, UC Davis

Testimony from a UC Davis Grad Student Researcher

My name is Karin Root. I am a PhD student in Sociology and currently work as a GSR for the Middle East/South Asian Studies department.  The reason why I work as a GSR is because I can no longer work as a TA because of the 18-quarter limit.

In 8 years in the program, including summers, I have TAed or read 27 times, out of which only 2 where repeats.  While I don’t hold lectures, I have to know the material well enough to be able to teach my students and do the grading.  Not only do I have to attend lecture, do the readings, prepare and run sections, but also do the grading and give them feedback.

Almost all of the grading in the social sciences at UCD is being done by TAs, and with increasing class sizes it becomes very difficult to do our work, especially when we are under time pressure.  For example, I had one class of 93 students and had almost 650 short essays on 7 different questions to grade for the final.  I asked the instructor twice to help me grade in order to submit the grades before the end of the quarter, but the instructor refused.  Finally, I ended up not grading two questions and giving all students full points on them.

I especially care about and reach out to struggling students, making personal contact with them, and working with them one-on-one to build their confidence, pass the class, and not drop out of university.  Often struggling students have other work and family commitments that interfere with their school work.  They need to learn how to do research, find information from different perspectives, present their findings and take a position, and support their arguments.  As a state-supported university it is our mission to help students become critical analytical thinkers and the kind of employees that our state needs in the 21st century.  With the increasing class size to TA ratios we can’t give them the kind of help that they need.

As graduate students we need living wages, affordable housing, summer fellowships, and more grants, credit for MAs, elimination of the 18 quarter rule, etc.  As a GSR I clear a little under $1,600/mo and spend 75% of this on rent for me and my son.  I also have $80,000 in student loans and don’t qualify for any more.  Like other students who spoke, I can only survive because my parents support me.  I used to tell my students, “come talk with me if you are interested in grad school.”  I don’t do that anymore.  We are expected to do significant work on our research over the summer, but we usually have to work, and that interferes with our progress.  We also don’t have any pension or social security.  Indeed, if I worked for McDonald’s at least I would have social security and disability coverage.

In the end, it is a matter of priorities.  There is money for new buildings and high administrative salaries; there should be money for living wages, benefits, fellowships, and smaller class sizes.  We need more money to be able to survive and to do our research and work as academic student workers!

Testimony from a UC Davis TA

Testimony from UC Davis Sociology PhD student Emily Breuninger.

I want to begin by setting out that being a TA is my absolute favorite part of graduate school. I feel most alive and engaged with my own education when I am helping others understand it. To me, there is no greater joy than seeing my students’ faces light up when they finally understand course concepts.  Unfortunately, the high TA-to-student ratio forced upon me by UC management has rendered it impossible for me to serve as a competent grader, much less educator for these students.

Last quarter, I had the misfortune of TAing for a class of 95 undergraduates.  Sociology is a rather writing-heavy discipline, meaning that the course assignments consisted mainly of 6-8 page papers. At the end of the quarter, after finishing all my own coursework, I had three days to grade 95 6-7 page papers.  That is about 618 pages, thoroughly read, with individual feedback. I was exhausted, overworked and under a pressing deadline set by the university.  As I quickly scanned through the pages, I thought about the hours of labor that went into each student’s paper and was overcome by guilt. I knew that I was not giving my students’ work the attention that it deserved.  I am not the only TA that has these problems; a high student-to-TA ratio is unfortunately the norm, and while UC is saving money, the true cost of these cutbacks is wrought out on the quality of education experienced by thousands of graduate and undergraduate students.

 As an educator, I want to give my students the time and attention that my position requires. As a student, however, I must also attend to my own coursework and progress.  I am unable to attend to both when so thoroughly overburdened by my TA duties. The strain that TAs are put under by large class sizes is a threat to the quality of education espoused by the UC.  Neither graduates nor undergraduates are capable of reaching their fullest potential in this environment and it is a shame.  I therefore urge UC management to reconsider the class sizes forces upon their student workers.  

Testimony from a UC Davis Geology student

Hello, my name is Julie Griffin. I am in my third year of graduate study in the Geology department of UC – Davis. I am here to testify for the rights of graduate students to subsidized housing. I currently live in a two-bedroom apartment in Solano Park with my best friend and her three-year-old daughter. Our rent is 908 dollars per month. The average rent for unfurnished two-bedroom apartments in Davis, according to the 36th annual City of Davis vacancy and rental rate survey, is 1,240 dollars per month. The 332 dollars that we collectively save on rent each month has enabled both of us to start saving money for the future. If I did not have the reduced rent that comes from living in graduate student housing, I would not have been able to start an investment retirement account until after finishing my doctorate degree in my late twenties-early thirties, thus reducing the benefits of interest. My quality of life would substantially diminish if 42% of my paycheck each month were spent on housing and utilities. Subsidized graduate student housing is necessary for students to maintain some semblance of a normal life while in school, studying to become the future workers of higher education.

 Most importantly, graduate student housing fosters a sense of community for families. I joke that Solano Park operates under a “communal toy policy” as the grounds are littered with bicycles, sand box supplies, and even rocking horses that all children are welcome to play with. My neighbors and I discuss how growing up in Solano Park would be awesome, because you always have a friend nearby and plenty of playgrounds to enjoy. The events planned by the resident assistants of Solano Park develop this feeling of togetherness even more. Graduate student housing is critical not only for our wallets, but also for our sense of community. Please consider the importance of subsidized graduate student housing while negotiating this deal. Thank you.

Testimony from a UC Davis PhD

My name is Robin Marie Averbeck, and I am a former graduate student of the history department here at UC Davis. I received my degree in June of 2013, 7 years after I came to Davis. During that time, I was witness to the continuing deterioration of teaching and learning conditions here at the UC; witness to the struggle of my fellow graduate students as they tried to stay afloat under such conditions; witness to the callous and dismissive response of the administration to these struggles, and even witness to incidents of violence committed by the administration against students trying to do something about the fact that the public university is currently under attack and in serious danger of dying.

When I come face to face with individuals tasked with being stewards of that public university, however, I always feel a strange sense of irony about what I am doing. For what is at stake here is whether or not the story I witnessed – the story of graduate students struggling to get by while their work was chronically undervalued – is going to be the primary story that gets told. The opposing story, on the other hand – the story we often hear from the administration – is a story of innocence and helplessness. Much like, not coincidentally, the story of white racial innocence crafted by our political culture in the last 40 years in response to the civil rights movement, the story of administrative innocence insists that the administrations of the UC are simply doing their best. In this story, the administration, strangely, has no power to substantially change or challenge graduate student working conditions. In this story, there is, oddly enough, money enough to raise the wages of overpaid administrators with all their apparently excessive talent but no money to significantly raise the wages of graduate students doing the work of teaching students. In this story, the administration has no power to create all-gender bathrooms, although, oddly, it does have the power to license new construction project after construction project. Indeed, time and time again, when it comes to the demands of the workers of the UC, the administration appears oddly powerless. Victims of circumstance, is all. As distressed about the lack of funding for public education as anyone, they assure us.  

What I came here today to say is that this story is a lie. Not only does the administration have power to challenge and change these conditions, but it frequently contributes to the arrangements of power and politics that sustains them. If this is otherwise, I ask you, please, to call my bluff. Prove me wrong about your dismissal of the struggles of your graduate students to maintain a decent standard of living by substantially raising their wages – prove me wrong about your dismissal of their struggles with discrimination and injustice by giving them all-gender bathrooms – prove me wrong about your callous disregard for the needs of their families by extending full health coverage to all the children of the graduate student workers of the UC. And prove me wrong about your complicity in the political discourse that sustains privatization by rewarding the students that stand bravely in its way not with riot police but with support and supplies. Please, prove me wrong – because although the story you do spin now is untrue, it is not my wish for it to remain so. For the story I know – the story I have come here today to tell you, and story I have seen unfold over the past seven years – is a story I am so tired of telling.

Testimony from UCLA Graduate student

I am a doctoral student in the department of Gender Studies at UCLA, and I’m in my 3rd year. I’m 33, I’ve been married for almost 8 years, and I have a three-year-old daughter. 

I want to briefly tell management about how things are working out for me and my family on my TA salary. We live in university family housing and pay 66% of my income for rent. It’s very expensive, but way below typical rental rates for my neighborhood, which is about 4 miles away from campus. Before we moved in to university housing, we lived in a cheaper apartment in the same neighborhood. There we paid $1100 for a cockroach-infested apartment with a meth dealer as a next-door neighbor. It was an incredibly unsafe place to live and added to the insecurity we already experience in our daily lives.

You see, my daughter has a neuromuscular disorder and a severe speech disorder. She is in therapy 14 hours a week and has at least one medical appointment each month, in any number of doctor’s offices all over Southern California. The typical cost for childcare in my neighborhood is between $900-1200 a month for fulltime care. Special needs childcare is about twice that. We pay our babysitter $1200 a month for part time care. We mostly pay for this with the money my husband is earning as an adjunct professor – a job at which he earns $936 a month, and which ends this month. I know that the university run childcare and preschool in the housing complex is a little cheaper, about $900 a month, and we are on the waiting list to get in to that. Last time I checked there would be a spot available in three years. Even if we were to get in now, there is no one there who is fluent in sign language, which is what my daughter uses to communicate.

My husband borrowed $18,000 while he was in school at UCLA. We will start paying that back this month. Next month we will also be paying for his health insurance, which is good because of course as an adjunct teacher he is uninsured. At the end of last summer we sat down and looked at all these expenses, and were fortunate enough to be given a choice. We could either borrow $20,000 to get us through this academic year, or we could move into my parents’ house. This was not an easy decision, because my parents live almost 60 miles away from campus. With the therapies, childcare, and generally lack of support we have here, we opted to move.

I’m on the waiting list for 8 different vanpools right now, and if I don’t get in, I will have a 2-3 hour commute each way. I’ll need to leave campus everyday by 3:30pm if I want to get home in time to say goodnight to my daughter. If I don’t have class or section there is no way I will be able to campus. I won’t be able to attend any special afternoon lectures, and I am concerned about how this distance will affect my ability to remain engaged with the campus community, let alone the ease with which I will be able to coordinate meetings with my committee members. My husband and dad will share the childcare duties. Just saying this now…. This is not an easy choice. But getting even further into debt is not a better option. Borrowing money is just a stopgap until I need to borrow more money, so just I can buy food and pay for childcare.

I know I am so fortunate to have this family safety net, and if it weren’t there, I would have already dropped out. Because this is so hard, and we student workers have to make a lot of really difficult choices to make this work for our lives. Why does working for the university have to be so hard for us? I continue to feel incredibly insecure about how I am going to make this work, how I can teach, study, and parent, without adequate support.