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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Lecture Hall

Unpredictable workloads, unlivable compensation frustrate TAs

Teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

Teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are demanding better working conditions and higher pay to address rising living costs and what they say is an unpredictable and burdensome workload.

Large universities like UW-Madison rely heavily on teaching assistant (TA) labor to provide education for tens of thousands of undergraduates, and TAs receive tuition remission and a monthly stipend for their labor in return. At UW-Madison, which employs approximately 2,700 faculty, there are over 2,300 graduate students working as TAs.

Many TAs teach introductory-level courses within the department in which they study. At UW-Madison, these courses often have hundreds of students in lectures. A TA is responsible for grading and leading discussions for assigned sections, which also frequently number over a hundred students. They also assist with lectures, labs and other parts of the course as applicable.

For those pursuing graduate study, working as a teaching assistant in their field is a common avenue to tuition compensation. But as TAs at major universities across America demand better working conditions and higher pay, graduate student workers at UW-Madison say their pay doesn’t reflect their workload.

The annual total of the monthly stipend received by TAs is stated to be a minimum of $23,277 for all 50% graduate assistantship appointments this upcoming year. A 50% appointment means that the workload and compensation are proportional to half of a full “academic load,” or a 40-hour week. 

However, Andy Jones, a geoscience doctoral degree candidate and TA, explained that many TAs do not make even half that. Lower appointments like one-fifth, one-third or 40% are common, and they come with a lower stipend. 

This means the workload is “theoretically lower,” said Jones, but “you’re not getting enough money and life is much harder.” 

“If you take up another job, that’s fine, but you have less time to do your research, and that’s what counts here,” Jones added.”

Fifth-year chemistry masters student Robin Morgenstern cited “skyrocketing” rent as a driver for rising discontent among graduate student workers.

“We really can’t afford to not get organized — if we wait any longer, we won’t have anywhere to live,” they said.

With the nation’s highest year-over-year rises in rent, Madison is becoming an increasingly difficult place to live on a graduate’s worker stipend. A March report from Apartment List found Madison’s average rent increased 14.4% in 2022, a staggering figure compared to nearby Minneapolis (0.2%) and Milwaukee (3.2%).

Research is crucial to progression in graduate and doctoral programs, Jones explained, but teaching is not. 

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“Teaching is completely extra,” he said. “But your coursework and research expectations remain exactly the same.” 

Jones described feeling like he was falling behind his peers while working as a TA for six semesters. He was initially excited to teach but frustrated to find that it held him back. 

“If you’re a good TA and you put in a lot of time for your students, you see no benefit,” he said. “You go to your committee meeting and they ask about your research.”

Both Jones and Morgenstern attributed discontent amongst graduate student workers to feeling undervalued for their work and seeing little reward for a lot of effort. Although Jones’ experiences were with “nice professors who set clear expectations,” he knows the workload is “really high” for others.

Jones described instances where TAs were asked to go above and beyond normal expectations — which, for a contracted position like a TA appointment, draws no additional compensation.

Examples Jones gave included TAs asked to rewrite the lab the night before the lab section so that it better matched the lecture their professor gave that morning or having to “make up labs from scratch.” That’s not how it’s supposed to work, Jones said — professors typically make content while TAs modify and present it.

“Some people have manageable workloads at full pay, other people unreasonable expectations at half pay,” Jones stated. “This is a big problem.”

Morgenstern, who teaches Introduction to Chemistry said TAs are responsible for grading, but also guiding students through their first experience with failure and helping them decouple their performance in a class from their identity. It’s emotional labor that often goes “100% unrecognized,” they said.

Morgenstern is contracted to spend 20 hours a week working as a TA, but they said that does not reflect the time they invest “thoughtfully” preparing for discussion and lab as well as giving thorough feedback while grading.

“I have to choose between working my contract hours and actually being the good teacher that my students deserve,” Morgenstern said. 

The pressure to focus on research over students for career success makes them feel like “just a cog in the machine to the university” unable to use their experience and expertise while teaching in a way valued by their department.

“So many grad students that I’ve talked to love their work teaching and researching,” Morgenstern said. “But there is a growing understanding that we are the backbone of the way the university functions, and they should be paying us a wage that reflects that.”

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Cormac LaLiberte

Cormac LaLiberte is the current editor of the college news desk. He is a junior studying linguistics, and has previously reported primarily on social issues pertaining to UW-Madison. Get in touch on Twitter @CormacLaLiberte.

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