Grad Student Teaching: It’s Screw or Be Screwed

The semester I decided to (finally) graduate with my doctorate in 2014, I sidelined my teaching.

My students hated it. I had always taken pride in the quality of my teaching; the previous semester, I’d received student feedback forms that said “Sarah is, without a doubt, the best instructor I’ve had since I arrived at IU,” and “Sarah reminds me of why I came to college in the first place.” (I still glow over that stuff, not gonna lie.) But I knew they’d lambast me in my end-of-semester reviews in Spring ’14 for being slow to return graded assignments, or for providing insufficient feedback, or for not always answering emails on the day they were sent.

I was right, and they were right. They deserved better teaching than they got from me that semester, and they rightly told me so.

But I had the chance one day, before class, to explain to three of my students why grading and email were slow. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but by the end of it, all three of them had eyes like saucers.

“I had no idea that’s how it worked,” one guy said, and the other two nodded.

Here’s what I explained:

I am, first and foremost, a student. My primary responsibility is to finish my research and to graduate.

According to my contract, I am being paid 37.5% FTE to work 15 hours per week on teaching. A significant lump of those hours are rigidly allocated:

  • 5 hours of teaching time (I taught two sections, each of which met twice per week at 75 minutes per meeting)
  • 1 hour weekly staff meeting
  • 2 office hours

There go eight of my 15 hours. Let’s add the more flexible, but still essential, additional responsibilities:

  • 2 hrs per week of lesson prep
  • Avg. 2-ish hrs per week of email if I’m really efficient about handling them (more time when deadlines loom; less time during the quiet weeks)

For the sake of argument, let’s assume I have a great week and manage to get all my lesson prep done in one hour and I only spend one hour on student emails. Still, ten of my 15 hours are gone.

Now, the grading. I have about 40 students. In a sixteen-week semester, each student is turning in 8 short papers (four 1-pagers, four 2-3-pagers), a midterm exam, a final paper rough draft (6 pages), a final paper final draft (8-10 pages), and some miscellaneous classroom work, according to the guidelines of the program syllabus which I was required to follow.

If I spend 10 minutes grading each paper, it will take me 400 minutes (6 hrs, 40 minutes) to finish all of my grading for a single assignment. And 10 minutes is not a lot of time to read and provide thoughtful, actionable feedback on more than a single page of student writing.

So even if I’m very conservative with my estimate and I’m using an egg timer to cap myself at 10 minutes per paper (quality of feedback be damned) and under-shooting the time I’ll need to prep my lessons, I’m at 16 hrs 40 mins of work for my 15 hr/week job if I want to turn around all of my grading within a week of a paper being turned in to me.

This also doesn’t account for the extra hours that typically don’t get factored in to our conceptions of teaching hours, such as:

 

  • Before- and after-class miscellanea, including rearranging desks, getting media queued up, writing the day’s objectives on the board, talking to students before and after class — probably about 1 hr/week
  • Administrative tasks, including photocopying, picking up blue books for exams, tracking attendance, or following up with students with troubling behavior or attendance patterns — anywhere from 0 to 2 hours in a week

So, I’m being paid for 15 hours a week. If I want to excel at the job, providing really great, interactive lessons, thorough student feedback on assignments, same-day email turnaround, and a one-week grading turnaround, while also being accessible to my students before and after class for the kind of quick interactions that make them feel like I give a damn about them (because I do), I’d need more like 25 hours, at the absolute minimum.

So basically, the system is set up to screw somebody. Most of the time, I let it be me, because I liked teaching and wanted to do it well. But if I let it be me forever, I would never finish my degree.

Here’s what I didn’t tell those students:

My 37.5% FTE gave me a paycheck of about $15,000 (before taxes) over 10 months, plus health insurance for the year, in the 2013/14 academic year. When I started teaching in 2008 in a different program, the pay was more like $11,000 before tax. I guffawed when this article mentioned that average salary of $30,000+. I WISH. Though I’ll concede that living on $15K in Indiana is probably similar to living on $30K in, say, NYC.

“But Sarah,” you scold, “You also got a tuition remission, right? Isn’t that worth another several thousand dollars?”

Nope. I had achieved doctoral candidacy in 2010, so my 2013/14 tuition was about $600/year.

But, okay, tuition remissions can be worth thousands of dollars for pre-candidacy grad students (including me, before 2010). But the university still comes out overwhelmingly on top.

Let’s assume all of my 40 students were in-state (they weren’t; at least a third were out-of-state and therefore paying a lot more tuition, but let’s keep it simple) and taking an average load of 15 credits at the flat tuition rate of $4,459/term for the Spring 2014 semester. My class was 3 credits, so that means that students were paying about $892 each to take my class for one semester.

40 students x $892 = $35,680 per semester of tuition revenue per semester.

I taught the class for two semesters per academic year, so that totaled about $71,360 of tuition revenue for the year.

Let’s assume that I’d been enrolled in 18 credits (9 credits per semester) of graduate coursework that year, at the out-of-state graduate rate of $994 per credit hour.

That means that the university would have been comping me about $17,892 in addition to my $15,000 stipend, for a total yearly “pay” of $32,892 against the tuition revenue of $71,360.

That is, again, me being generous:

  • That tuition remission corresponds to money that I do not have to pay to the university, which is is not the same as the actual cost of my education which the university absorbs, which is lower.
  • In-state graduate students would have “earned” significantly less in tuition remission. In 2013/14, their tuition was $331/credit hour, compared to out-of-state $994. So the profit margins increase for the school there.
  • Remember, I pretended that all of my students paid tuition at an in-state rate, when a significant number of them paid at out-of-state rates which were over 300% higher.

Even with all these gimmes, the school comes out with an over 50% profit margin to fund administration, facilities, campus infrastructure, and…whatever.

Admin, facilities, and infrastructure are worthwhile expenses for the most part. But regardless, my students, for whom this school is supposed to exist, get a crappy learning experience (and inane student debt), and I live paycheck-to-paycheck while working my tail off to just try to graduate, already, so I can start not living paycheck-to-paycheck anymore, please.

(I know a lot of people who supported kids on a grad student teaching salary. They generally had to take out inane debt while working.)

 

I tried to break down how this would compare to the profit margins on an Assistant Professor, tenure-track. It quickly got out of hand, because Assistant Profs often teach large lecture classes where grading and discussion sections are overseen by (yep) graduate students.

There are some major asterisks to the quick breakdown I’ve provided here. I don’t know how taxes operate on the university end. I did not account for health insurance expenses, which probably added up to a few thousand extra dollars spent on my behalf by the university every year. And it would be worthwhile to further break down how, specifically, the university spends that tuition revenue; the information is publicly available and I’ll probably pursue it down the line.

I’ve said frequently that higher education in the United States is going to need to undergo a paradigm shift in the next couple of decades, because under this model, the people being most screwed are the people these institutions are supposed to be serving.

*I know I didn’t talk about adjuncting. Because that’s a whole separate ugly kettle of university-teaching fish for another day.

 

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