Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Inform, Engage, Strategize, and Defend!

By Kaylen Goodman

Scene: An insignificant cluster of six graduate students/TA’s of the humanities department sit in the UCI pub, abrasive adolescent howling blasting through the speakers—an environment not exactly conducive to a serious discussion about taking progressive action against the UC budget cuts.

Fifteen TA’s had RSVP’d for the 5PM meeting at the student center’s Pub and Grille on Monday, November 9th, but by 5:15 it was clear that developing solidarity between the TA’s would be a stretch, budget cuts an issue so daunting and powerful that the students’ efforts to take action was a Herculean challenge. It took all the strength these TA’s could muster not to forego discussing the issue and nurse their pale cups of flat beer instead.

Blackberries flashing and buzzing on the table, these graduate students obviously had other obligations. Despite, coordinator Emma Heaney pushed on, assigning tasks for the upcoming strike on November 17th protesting the UC fee hike (the strike dated to correlate with the meeting between regents voting on the 32% fee increase). The lack of participation within the graduate student community does not stem from apathy, but in fact, the all-consuming amount of work, finances, and undergraduate students these TA’s must tend to. As the budget and faculty cuts increase, the pressure mounts, and the TA’s are forced to take on larger classes and less funds to manage the workload.

One student at the meeting remained particularly quiet, eyes darting from the football game, to his Iphone, and back to the seductively dressed bartenders taking a break to “dance.” Without notice, the student’s head snapped forward, his tone aggressive, “Graduate students are the first to get hit! My load has literally been doubled and we’ve had no corresponding pay increase.” Choosing to remain off the record, the leather-jacketed activist did not offer his name and gave his attention back to the sports game.

Graduate student in French, Kristina Cristofoli, further elaborated on how the budget cuts have not only increased her work, but her benefits have been effected as well. “The new graduate health care plan has been a real issue for me. Since I'm not living in the Irvine area, it's really difficult for me to access healthcare under the new insurance plan.” And even if illness hampers Cristofoli’s lesson plans the increased class sizes are merciless, “I’ve frequently taught classes where the number of students far exceeds the maximum limit for the classroom (which is set by the fire code). I've had students piling in my classroom, bringing in desks from other rooms, standing, etc. As a teacher, I don't believe in turning away students, so this has created a teaching environment that is far from ideal.”

Obviously, these cuts are University wide. An English graduate student and TA at UC Santa Cruz, Brian Malone, explains that while TAships come with “full tuition remission for the quarter that is TA’d, the most immediate effect of the budget cuts is the large number of TAships being cut. Over the next three years the humanities department will cut fifty TAships over the division (going from 350—300).” While in the first few years of graduate school, TA opportunities are guaranteed, the jobs become less consistent as the student progresses, Malone comments “a number of advanced PhD students will not be getting TAships they need to support themselves. It's already happening this year: many of my friends in the Lit PhD program only received one or two TAships for the year. This means that these students, for any quarter they do NOT have a TAship, will be expected to pay full tuition and will NOT receive any University paycheck for that quarter. Some of these students I know will be taking out more student debt or taking a leave of absence to wait tables, barista, etc.” Currently a nine-month TAship salary is $15,610.50 with additional health expenses covered (totaling up to $9,167.50)*, however, compensation is minimal in relative hours the TA devotes, the contract stating that TA’s must commit “220 hours during the 11-week academic term”* and classes that enroll 80-100 students only hire one teaching assistant.* Further questionable additions to the TA contract is the vague, tentative nature of the teaching assistant duties—“ While this list of duties tries to cover the most common types of duties you may be expected to perform as a TA, it, by no means, claims to be final. The Department reserves the right to add, delete, change or modify each and any part thereof as long as such change is based on academic judgment.”* Ultimately, TAships are a necessary, yet vulnerable, position for graduate students.

Fee hikes are an even more pertinent issue to the graduate students because the tuition remission received from TAships is only guaranteed by the TA’s current contracts (which expires after 2009). According to Malone, “In past negotiations, the UC has attempted to "cap" this remission at a dollar amount and they will clearly attempt to do so again in our next negotiating cycle. If our union cannot maintain the full fee remission, this means that TAs will be responsible to pay for any future tuition increases out of their own pockets.”

The issue of developing solidarity between graduate students remains. With an increased workload they simply do not have the time or energy to devote to the seemingly inevitable outcome of the UC budget. According to the official UC budget page, the TA salary has already been reduced by $1000 annually. “Many graduate students who work as TAs use their limited salary to support spouses and young children who are not covered by the university's health and medical insurance” states Matthew Russell, a graduate student in the Spanish department at UC Davis, and with five years to complete their dissertation, graduate students need to support their education with supplemental income from various odd-jobs.

Cuts have further evoked a concern for finishing dissertations by the five year mark, "I think that some people are concerned because they were so surprised by the decision that they were worried we could get another 'bomb dropped on us,' and we'd have even less time to finish" comments Russell—less time because of the increasingly scarce funds provided for TA’s.

What can undergraduate students do to support our anchors of education in the University? “Inform, engage, strategize, and defend” says Cristofoli. “It isn’t an issue of not caring, but not knowing. It’s both the job of the TA and the undergraduate to inform others about what’s going on, make it a topic of conversation and people will start making waves.”

Unfortunately, the waves were mere ripples at the meeting on Monday night, the UC Regents seen as an omnipotent force, an impending hurricane.

Contracts Referenced:

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