I’m a second-year MFA student in the Digital Arts & New Media program at UC Santa Cruz and I’d like to talk about two key aspects of bargaining: job postings and security, as well as class size.
Consistent with the general structure of my program, a first-year student, I was guaranteed support in the form of TA assignments. However, TAships were not guaranteed for the second year, though we were frequently told by our program faculty and staff that this had never been a problem in the past. Despite having excellent evaluations and other qualifications, I did not receive a Fall TAship until less than a month before the quarter began (which I’ll note also throws off the timeline for contract-specified deadlines, such as the assignment of description of duties). I’ll note that I submitted numerous applications across the arts, humanities, and social sciences — probably about 15-20 just for the fall quarter — but part of the difficulty was in finding the job listings as there is no central repository, and I literally had to email department managers every couple of weeks over the summer (when many were on vacation or furlough) to check-in.
This was extremely stressful and awkward, not to mention time-consuming during a period when I also had no on-campus job and was trying to make progress in my research. I had already received positions for the Winter and Spring, and I was extremely frustrated to feel as though my value as a graduate student and teacher could be put on hold for the arbitrary moments when the university needed me. It is unclear what the university would like me to do in a case like this where support is not guaranteed for the whole year — take out loans to pay for one quarter? try to find temporary work off-campus? take a leave of absence from my studies until the university needed my labor again? It’s unclear where I would find any job that would want me for such a short time, especially in the off-season. This form of contingency runs counter to the educational mission of the university.
At the end of August, with the quarter quickly approaching, I emailed my department chair and manager to let them know that I would like to request a leave of absence for the fall if I did not receive a TAship; fortunately, a TAship materialized shortly thereafter (my understanding is that our chair allocated research funds for additional positions in other departments, which moved things around). This should not be the way this process works.
On the topic of class size, let me state simply that I am responsible for 160 students for a Music class this quarter. This is more than twice the number of students I’ve had in other Arts Division departments, and even 75 students seemed extreme at the time. With near-weekly short answer and written assignments, the professor has instructed me to spend at most 2-3 minutes grading each student’s work. Because assignments vary from about 300-1000 words, this literally often means reading only the beginning of each assignment and/or skimming them. It also means that the feedback I’m able to provide is generally vague — eg. “try to use more terms and concepts from class” or “focus more on how you organize your thoughts” — and often copied and pasted from one to the next. Additionally, this means that students only do about 5 - 10 pages of writing for the whole quarter, none of it research-based or focusing on developing a strong argument or writing skills.
As a result, put simply, many students do not know how to write — but we can’t blame them, because there’s no effective way for them to learn, as we can’t even adequately give feedback on the content of the course, let alone on grammar, structure, or other writing conventions. This also means that the bulk of students’ grades come from multiple-choice Scantron exams. Perhaps one of the most disheartening aspects of enormous class sizes (and the accompanied elimination of sections) is that I hardly know any of my students’ names. When they email me with a question, they often start with “Hello my name is _____ and my student number is _______.” It’s heart-breaking that they’ve already learned that they’re little more than a number in a system that’s simply trying to push them through.
It’s equally disheartening to realize that a similar pattern is emerging for graduate education as well, in which we’re reduced to numbers, with the exception that we’re numbers that assign numbers to other numbers — at least when it’s convenient.