Voices from the Picket Line

Striking CUPE 3903 Workers, in their own Words

Meet Leslie. A course director and PhD graduate.

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Hey, I’m Leslie and I’m a course director at York and University of Guelph. I just finished my PhD in Women’s Studies at York, and throughout those six years I was a TA for seven courses, and in the last year, a course director at York and McMaster and GA at York. Back in 2002, I turned down a spot in the PhD program at a university that I loved because of York’s offer of a teaching assistantship – I accepted not just because I needed the funding, but because I badly wanted to teach. I still do. Now I’m on the picket lines because I am deeply concerned about the university’s attempt to shrink all forms of funding for graduate students and to casualize university teaching – a process that hurts all students.

So what is life like after graduation? Did I walk into a cushy job with great pay and lavish benefits? Of course not – it’s a myth that a graduate education is an automatic ticket to the good life. Like in many professions, we put in hard time at the lower rungs of the professional ladder, building our CVs and our seniority. For me, this means that for the academic year of 2008-2009, my salary from teaching three courses at two universities will be about $20,000. I live in a basement apartment in the Junction with my partner (a PhD student at York), my 9 year-old daughter, and our cat. I don’t own a car, and although I don’t mind taking the TTC and Greyhound, life gets a little complicated commuting to two different places with two different schedules when you have a small child to pick up from school everyday.

We’ve been getting by working as many jobs as we can manage, groveling for an ever-shrinking pool of bursary money, borrowing ridiculous amounts of money from the government, winning scholarships when we were eligible, and accepting occasional gifts from family.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a graduate student, so here’s a few things that I learned:

After the first year or so of coursework, a graduate student is a full-time researcher as well as a teaching assistant and/or graduate assistant. This research is not solely for our own individual academic purposes; rather, the conference presentations, journal articles, reports and book chapters that we write are part of the whole university’s academic production. York gets credit every time one of us presents our research or gets published. We help build the university’s international reputation, secure grants and other funding, and attract students and faculty. So even though we pay full tuition fees long after we finish course work, we are effectively working for the university in our capacity as researchers. It’s a myth, then, that we “work” a mere 10 hours a week – this number only includes our officially paid teaching duties.

Being a teaching assistant at York is hard work. Undergraduates have a right to complain that some of us may not be great TAs, especially when we first start out – let’s face it, we were not trained as teachers before stepping into the classroom. But, the university clearly feels that we are good enough to teach you (the undergrads). (My implication here is that if undergraduates don’t want to be taught by graduate students, they should be asking why the university puts over 50% of teaching in the hands of grad students and contract faculty.) What’s it like to be a TA? I could go on for pages, but I just want to emphasize the importance of the out-of-classroom work that TAs do. TAs grade and comment on student work (the professor does not even see student work in many cases). TAs are the first point of contact if a student is ill, having trouble coping or keeping up, dealing with a learning disability, or in need of any other assistance. TAs help to ensure academic honesty by being vigilant about plagiarism and cheating. TAs seek out additional learning resources like films, pictures, maps, newspaper articles and so on to facilitate our students’ learning. TAs provide feedback to the professor about assignment topics, test questions, and lectures. TAs write reference letters when the professor doesn’t even know the students’ names. These are just some of the dozens of things that we do outside of the classroom, many of which are not officially counted as part of our hours of work and are largely unacknowledged. I loved being a TA, and I wouldn’t change anything about that experience. I just want the university, the students, and the community to value that work, and to understand that it’s just one small part of our “jobs” as graduate students.

Now that I’m fresh out of grad school and working as contract faculty, I’m seeing that the work of Unit 2 members is also devalued here. Once again, I will make the point that the university hires us and thinks we’re good enough to be professors, but not good enough to be paid even a third of a tenure-track professor’s salary, or to have any job security. This is not because I or other Unit 2 members are “second-rate academics.” Another myth! We research, publish, do activist work, serve on committees and so on. What is not really visible to undergrads is that the university is quite happy to provide them with underpaid and undervalued professors, because it is way cheaper for them. Let’s all ask why everybody’s university education is being cheapened in this way?

So how does the future look to me? If we as a union accept the so-called 9% pay rise, I would make a whopping $600 more per year. That is, IF I still have these contract jobs, because the university considers me temporary and will make me reapply for these jobs every single year. I’m applying for tenure-track jobs but these are pretty scarce and highly competitive. Despite a nice publication record and good teaching evaluations, there is no guarantee I’ll be hired. I’m hoping to put my kid in snowboarding lessons, but I’m not sure I can afford it this year. We’d really like a new bed (ours is 14 years old) but to get one we’ll have to ask our families to give us money towards it for Christmas and Hanukkah. Otherwise, it, and many other things, will have to wait until I am better paid. If this doesn’t happen within academia, I will take the amazing skills and knowledge I gained here and put them to use elsewhere, without any regrets. It’s just a bit of a shame that I might never get to use this incredible education in the service of, well, education.

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Written by Gavan Watson

November 14, 2008 at 11:19 am

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