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The life of a UW-Madison teaching assistant
The work is hard, the wages are low and the payoff is uncertain
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Credit:Sarah Rose Smiley

Rachel Gross emerges from a classroom to face the crush of students charging through the corridors. The labyrinthine hallways and riot-proof walls make the UW Humanities Building feel like a medieval fortress under siege during class change. Gross has just a few minutes to herself before her next skirmish -- with a room of 13 undergraduates.

She is a fifth-year graduate student studying environmental history. Her focus is the history of outdoor clothing and gear. She's finished her master's thesis -- "Synthetic Wilderness: Gore-Tex and the Paths to Mastery in Outdoor Recreation" -- and is now working on her dissertation. In order to earn tuition remission and fund her research, Gross is also working as a teaching assistant, or TA, this semester.

Teaching assistants are graduate students who work for the university in exchange for tuition remission, health insurance and a living stipend. They are paid little and work hard for their keep. A typical TA with a 41% appointment might make $12,091 in a year. And there is no question the University of Wisconsin-Madison could not operate without them. TAs teach half of all lectures, discussions and labs. In the College of Letters & Science, home to almost 70% of the university's TAs, graduate and professional students teach more than 85,000 credit hours.

"Grad students do wonderful work on this campus, and I don't know how we'd get along without them," says Brian Bubenzer, assistant dean for Graduate Student Administration.

Bubenzer allows that being a TA "really is a balancing act." They must cope with the pressure of their own studies and tend to their personal lives.

"We've all heard horror stories," Bubenzer says, referring to graduate students who end up living in the library or their office. "Grad student lives are very complicated, and we do ask a lot of them."

Accommodating students

"Who wrote the Pittsburgh Platform?" Gross asks her class, a section of "The American Jewish Experience." Thirteen undergraduates are seated in a circle of desks, assembled for their 9:55 a.m. discussion section. None of them speaks.

Long class silences are among the many challenges faced by TAs. Gross says that when she started out, "silence in a room could be scary." After five semesters of practice, however, she believes that students check out only when instructors "haven't set them up for success" by asking clear questions or providing clear expectations. The silence lasts for about a minute before a student calls out an answer and the ice is broken.

TAs get some instruction but are mostly on their own. The College of Letters & Science's graduate school requires eight hours of pedagogical training for every new teaching assistant, although individual departments have the prerogative to decide how those hours will be spent. Most departments take advantage of four hours of training provided by the College of Letters & Science itself, with remaining hours filled at the behest of individual professors. The UW also offers an optional certificate in designing and teaching college courses called the Delta Program. Yet graduate students are often told by their mentors to focus on their own research.

That doesn't reflect Gross' priorities. "Teaching students in good faith is the right thing to do," she says.

She goes out of her way to become a better teacher -- time and effort that are uncompensated. She attends meetings of the Radical Teaching Collective, a voluntary association of teaching assistants who meet regularly to help each other with their teaching. She is also a member of the Joint Committee on Teaching Assistants, a group within the history department responsible for evaluating TAs.

Not everyone takes teaching as seriously as Gross. "Not all TAs are interested or think it's their job to accommodate students," she says.

To break out of that mold, the graduate student has to do a lot of work. As Bubenzer says, "It's incumbent on the individual to seek out help."

Bubenzer says teaching appointments are arranged in a way that would allow an "average TA to do an adequate job." However, Bubenzer says it's not uncommon for TAs like Gross, who take pride in doing more than an adequate job for their students, to overwork. "I think most of our grad school TAs want to do a really good job," he adds. "TAs need to be in constant communication with their supervisors and each other."

On the front line

The history department, Gross' academic home, has 185 graduate students. Leslie Abadie, the history department's graduate program coordinator, says TAs are on the "front line" of higher education.

"They do almost all the grading. They handle the errands involved in a class, like getting blue books, carrying maps, preparing audiovisual materials and handling all the small questions students can have. They set up makeup exams and tutorial sections."

Of course they're also students themselves. "They're usually taking one to three seminars per semester, with one to three books per seminar they have to be ready for," says Abadie. "Then there are papers. They're trying to give conference papers, get published and apply for fellowships. Meanwhile they're also looking for next semester's funding if they're not guaranteed. So there's a lot they do."

Gross leads four sections this semester, with a total of 76 students. She estimates she spends close to 350 hours per semester on her TA work. That's 55 hours more than the 295 hours she's paid for.

"Every TA I know goes above that," she says.

And in many ways, she has no choice. "If the students need their papers back," she says, "I can't not grade them."

Bubenzer advises teaching assistants to track their hours throughout the whole semester so they pace themselves. "The only unsolvable problems are the ones we hear about late in the game," he says.

Bubenzer cites the many campus offices and groups available to help foundering students.

"Part of this institution's greatness is its size and scope," he says, but that's "also part of the challenge."

Money matters

It's Friday morning in Espresso Royale, early enough that State Street is still quiet. Gross and three of her history doctoral-candidate peers meet here weekly to give each other feedback on their dissertations. This week, it's Ariana's turn.

Ariana Horn has been in graduate school for seven years. She did her master's in medieval history at Western Michigan University but transferred to UW-Madison to pursue work in American history. Her research focuses on the Milwaukee public schools during the civil rights era, and the working title of her dissertation is "Education Over Action: The Consequences of Justifying Religious and Racial Pluralism through the Human Relations Program in Milwaukee." This week, however, Horn is seeking help not on her thesis but on a fellowship application.

She came to Madison without guaranteed funding. Unlike Gross, who was promised four years of stipend and tuition remission, Horn has had to work multiple jobs to fund her research, and usually under uncertain circumstances. She was slated to work as a TA in religious studies this fall, but the offer was rescinded in August at the last minute because of low enrollment. She found herself in a position no graduate student wants to be in -- without tuition remission and without work. Though she luckily picked up a TA position from the history department, she does not know how she'll support herself in the spring.

"Every semester I don't know if I'll be able to survive," she says.

Horn has been forced to take on a lot of debt. If she lands one of the fellowships she is applying for, she'd be able to make ends meet for the next academic year.

Every fellowship application is an ordeal, "an intimidating process no one explains to you until it pops into your lap," Horn says. Most require a completed chapter of one's dissertation or a lengthy dissertation description, a work plan, an overview of experience in the field, references, transcript and a curriculum vitae, an academic's resume. Applications must also be tailored to the specific foundation or institution. Horn estimates that every application takes a full week to prepare.

"I didn't have to teach this week, and that's the only reason I was able to finish this," she says. Some departments at the UW -- including sociology, economics and many of the hard sciences -- are fully funded, which means that all accepted graduate students are guaranteed tuition remission and a living stipend in some form for at least a few years. The history department is not fully funded, though Abadie says the administration has been considering it.

There are downsides, however. Faculty would have to be cut, the program would lose intellectual diversity, and not as many faculty would be able to work with graduate students, Abadie says.

Horn, too, has mixed feelings. Because of rising student debt and the currently poor academic job market, she can see the advantages of a fully funded program so that future students "won't have to go through what I've gone through." But on the other hand, she's noticed that unfunded students often have more "heart" for their work.

"They're the people who are working three jobs, who really love it, who come up with really creative projects."

The hour of critique is friendly, but Horn's peers pull no punches. Their suggestions run from tweaks in verb tense to whole structural revisions. By the time the four graduate students are finished with Horn's fellowship application, State Street is crowded with students plodding toward campus.

Power in a union

Michael Billeaux sits in the Memorial Union, meeting with undergraduates about their recent exams. The place is packed, mostly with people enjoying a beer on the Terrace during one of the last fine days of autumn.

Billeaux is a fifth-year graduate student in sociology, a TA for Soc. 170: Population Problems, and one of the co-presidents of the Teaching Assistants' Association, the oldest graduate student union in the country.

Before and after exams, Billeaux's schedule swells with worried undergrads. Making appointments with students who want help instead of holding weekly office hours is one way Billeaux tries to manage his time efficiently.

His master's thesis is about the early history of the TAA, which began in the late '60s as part of Madison's storied resistance to the Vietnam War. Draft deferment for undergraduates was based partially on grades, and many teaching assistants, who were responsible for grading, resented being responsible for deciding who would be enlisted and sent overseas.

Soon, the graduate students involved in this effort expanded their vision. The TAA's first strike in 1970 was over a range of issues, including health insurance, wages and a greater voice in pedagogical practice. These issues have continued to be central to the TAA's campaigns. Since 1986, the TAA has operated as an official, authorized union, with payroll dues, a seat at the bargaining table, and direct access to campus administration. That was all jeopardized in February 2011, when Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, or Act 10, threatened to destabilize Wisconsin public-sector unions. The TAA had a central role in organizing the massive rallies against the bill, now known as the "Wisconsin Uprising."

"We get credited with an awful lot," says Billeaux, "and I think sometimes too much."

Two months before Act 10 was unveiled, the TAA had independently planned a rally for Monday, Feb 14. They had expected a few hundred attendees, but in the wake of Walker's announcement, more than a thousand turned out. By the next day, public-sector unions started busing in Wisconsinites from all over the place, and protesters brought sleeping bags to the Capitol. The occupation had begun.

The American Federation of Teachers managed to procure a room in the Capitol to act as the center of operations for the TAA, which took on an organizing role for the protests. "The energy on the ground was all undergrads and community members," Billeaux remembers.

Ultimately, Act 10 passed, and the TAA was saddled with an administrative nightmare. Now it has to collect dues by hand and no longer has access to information about who is employed. It also had to lay off its only two staffers, unable to afford the salaries.

In a way, the need for face-to-face organizing has been a return to the union's roots. "On some level, it's a good necessity to be faced with," says Billeaux. Regardless, he calls the situation "the new normal" and says the TAA continues to work hard to represent its members.

Last spring the union launched the Pay Us Back campaign to raise take-home pay. After taking its case to the faculty senate, the union won teaching and project assistants a 4.67% raise.

"The faculty were visibly shaken by our presentation," says Billeaux. The raise, however, "still leaves us 8% or 9% below the Big 10 average," he adds.

A gamble

Back in the Humanities Building, Gross has broken her students up into groups of three and four, each tasked with analyzing a passage rich with historical significance. She floats from group to group, prodding with questions or provoking thought, until a fire alarm interrupts the discussion. The class reaction falls far short of panic -- drills are standard during the first few weeks of classes -- and Gross leads the class outside to Library Mall to finish her lesson. Successful TAs need to improvise, and Gross is hoping to market herself as someone who values undergraduate instruction and has the tools to teach.

"I have been consistent," she says. "I brand myself as a certain kind of scholar."

After receiving her degree, Gross hopes to find a position at a small liberal arts college like her alma mater, the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. There she had small classes and professors who encouraged her to value history and go to graduate school. Despite her prep, Gross knows it's getting increasingly hard to land such coveted spots.

Graduate school is an investment, a gamble. For many graduate students, the payoff is a tenure-track professorship. However, the number of new history Ph.D.s reporting employment at the time they earned their degree has fallen to an all-time low. In 2011, only 42.6% had definite placement in any kind of work, let alone the academy. In 1969 the figure was close to 80%.

Many factors go into determining people's postdoctorate careers. Family needs, financial concerns and geographic preferences can all weigh heavily on someone's decision about where to apply. And the field is brutally competitive. In American history, job advertisers in the American Historical Association report an average of 118 applications per open position.

Jim Grossman, executive director of the association, says that there has been short-term improvement in the academic job market, but that "the long-term trend is that there are going to be fewer tenure-track jobs." This is largely due to tightening university budgets; also, Ph.D.s unable to secure a position stay on the job market.

"There are Ph.D.s from the last five years still looking," says Grossman. "The surplus rolls through."

Outside the academy

Asked what she would do if she were unable to find a position her first few years of looking, Gross hesitates. "I could stay a student longer," she says, adding that the option of delaying graduation isn't open to everybody. Another path is increasing in popularity: The number of new history Ph.D.s taking postdoctoral positions has more than doubled since 1993, from 5.4% to 12.5%.

Grossman also points to the increasing number of history Ph.D.s looking outside the academy for employment. "There are many things you can do with a history Ph.D.," he says.

Grossman says 25% to 30% of Ph.D.s who received their degree between 1998 and 2009 work outside academia in museums, libraries, nonprofits and the public sector.

Another fate awaits academic hopefuls. Squeezed by tightening budgets, many universities have shifted from relying on tenure-track positions to temporary, semester-to-semester academic labor. Adjuncts are paid by the course, and frequently are entitled to neither benefits nor job security. Over 50% of academic faculty at colleges and universities are now adjuncts. Though the proportion of tenure to nontenure positions changes with the type and size of the institution, the number of part-time and adjunct positions advertised through the American Historical Association has increased 8.9% over the last 10 years.

Grossman doesn't have too much advice for Ph.D. candidates like Gross who are hoping to boost their chances at employment. But being a TA doesn't hurt, he says.

"If you have teaching experience, that gives you an edge in the academic job market."

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