They grade assignments, teach recitations, hold office hours and answer student questions — all while in pursuit of their own graduate degrees.
Teaching assistants are pivotal to our academic lives and the ways we learn. They make up the support systems we rely on when struggling with courses. Higher education wouldn’t be the same – for students and professors alike – without the tireless work of TAs.
Yet, despite their undeniable importance in the classroom, graduate students who serve as TAs are often overworked and underpaid.
Samantha Theis, a second-year doctoral student in the communication studies department, has been a TA for four years. Two of those years have been spent at UNC.
“I both love and hate being a TA," Theis said. "The interactions I have with my students — both in the classroom and online — have been enjoyable, thought-provoking and interesting."
But the work of a TA goes far beyond student interactions.
“I feel that the expectations UNC places on TAs regarding their time and dedication to teaching is unreasonable, especially when many TAs are resorting to working secondary jobs to account for the embarrassingly low pay,” Theis said.
Joey Richards also works in the communications department. They study performance, and have served as both TA and teaching fellow over the last three years.
“The teaching part has been enjoyable," Richards said. "The ways in which the chancellor, [Board of Governors], [Board of Trustees] and General Assembly devalue and actively harm the economic, emotional and physical well-being of graduate student workers are deplorable and reprehensible."
Teaching assistants are not paid livable wages.
The way graduate students are compensated for teaching assistantships and fellowships may be confusing from an outside perspective, but UNC’s Graduate School handbook breaks it down.
Teaching assistants are given minimum stipends for their work per semester – $5,700 for those in masters programs and $7,850 for those in doctoral programs as of the 2019-20 school year. Graduate students are also given student health insurance and tuition remissions or waivers.
“I believe the University has a vested interest in making it difficult to find the information and understand the extent to which they exploit graduate students for their own profit — all the while gaining recognition and prestige from the (uncompensated) work we do for our Ph.D. studies while here,” Theis said.
These stipends are far from a livable wage and place additional stress on TAs as they study, teach and struggle to make ends meet.
"Graduate programs do not have their own budgets. Departments across the College – with undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students – have budgets," UNC Media Relations told the Daily Tar Heel in an email. "Funding for these departmental budgets across the College vary based on each department’s mission, size, operating needs, costs, and alternate sources of funding, such as grants or gifts."
They said a large portion of natural science and mathematics graduate students are paid for their work as research assistants from contract and grant funds. Pay from sources such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health often skews higher, causing TAs in different departments to look at extreme variations in pay.
Media Relations added it was "important to note that a graduate student’s payment is a function of the economy and is not a reflection on their value to the University or their industry."
But, since TAs are employees, UNC has a responsibility to pay a living wage, especially given the salaries of higher-level faculty and administration.
Teaching assistants sacrifice time, well-being
According to UNC’s Graduate School’s policies for TAs, graduate students are “first and foremost ‘students,’” and so their duties as teaching assistants should not exceed an average of 15-20 hours per week.
But Theis points out how unreasonable this expectation is. On weeks when students turn in assignments, thoughtful feedback can take at minimum 10 hours. Lecture planning and other obligations still have to get done, or TAs risk losing their positions.
“We have been forced into a position where what the school is doing is technically allowable, but creates the conditions for TAs where it is actually impossible to take back our time,” she said.
We need TAs in higher ed.
The role of teaching assistants is crucial to the entire infrastructure of higher education. They fuel much of the knowledge creation that happens in academia through their research, independent studies and cooperation with both professors and undergraduate students.
“These people and institutions take advantage of the fact that many of us graduate students truly love teaching and working with undergraduates and collaborating with each other and our course supervisors and faculty,” Richards said.
Without this link in the chain, higher education would see more work fall on the shoulders of full-time faculty and less support for the students they teach. Instead, this burden falls disproportionately on the shoulders of graduate students who are not justly compensated for their academic and emotional labor.
“When we TAs are underpaid, overworked and stretching themselves thin to make ends meet, our classes suffer and our students suffer,” Theis said.
The exploitation of graduate students only follows the existing trend of universities taking advantage of the very labor that bestows prestige onto their institutions. Faculty, especially female professors and professors of color, are undoubtedly underpaid and mistreated.
It’s far easier to extend this mistreatment to graduate students, who are tirelessly making a name for themselves within academia and paving a path to their career goals. Colleges and universities don’t hesitate to exploit this vulnerability.
“My students have taught me compassion, patience and have shown me different ways to challenge systems that are not working for us — systems like UNC, which we’re all enmeshed in right now,” Theis said.
Being a TA is a path many undergraduates wishing to pursue careers in higher education may consider.
To these students, Theis says it's important to have a plan and be sure you’re committed to a career in academia. Otherwise, pursue opportunities where you know you will be fairly compensated for your work.
To UNC, Richards highlighted the changes they would like to see:
First, and most importantly, pay graduate students living wages. In addition, provide full medical and family leave benefits and recognize that being a TA does not exclude graduate students from needing the benefits of any other job. Lastly, create more accessible classroom spaces for our TAs.
“UNC’s architecture, attendance policies, classroom set-ups, access to course materials and more make it clear that UNC only values and supports neurotypical, able-bodied graduate students,” Richards said.
Theis echoes these sentiments and says she is tired of symbolic gestures of support from the University. Real care comes in the form of fair wages.
“We make our own community, we take care of each other, we trust and care and share and learn with little to no help from the chancellor and the provost,” Richards said. “We build community in the midst of a system that does not care about us.”
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