Wednesday, September 3, 2008

An Analysis of the Situation

Arguably, the Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) grievance appears as mere whining of a privileged class of spoiled people. After all, I don't see a problem – students are still passing your classes, even graduating. So why are you complaining? Teaching isn't so hard, so why is it taking you unqualified graduate students so much time? You just stand in front of a class for an hour a day and grade my (excellent and underappreciated) paper every once in a while.

Most people don’t see a problem, just a group of disgruntled graduate students. Or maybe the problem is too complicated to raise most peoples’ interest and the sight of disgruntled GSIs is sufficient to form an opinion without having to go into the petty details.
What people need to see is a dissection of the problem and its presentation in a clear, concise, and simple (!) summary immediately comprehendible by an individual not familiar with all the details of the disagreement. Maybe it would be worthwhile to analyze some of the friction points.

One of department’s (and some of the posters') arguments is that teaching two of the same classes does not require significantly more resources than teaching one class.

Side note: I'm not using the word “effort” because it may incline one to argue that “you could do it if only you tried a little harder”. You may “try” as hard as humanly possible but you will not grade a 5-page paper in 5 minutes (as suggested by a previous poster). Certainly not such that a student's abilities are evaluated, weaknesses identified, and suggestions proposed that will result in the required skill development leading to the meeting of stated course objectives.
(end of side note)

The answers to the following questions are instrumental to the understanding of the circumstances arising from taking on an additional class. (Is it possible to set up a survey on this site?)

How much time in preparation is needed for teaching an additional course?
How much time is needed for office hours for an additional course?
How much time is needed for grading of an additional course?
How much time is needed for student communication related to an additional course?

Side note: The argument (raised on this forum earlier) that additional grading can be done during office hours is fundamentally flawed. The purpose of office hours is to provide personal consulting to students for which the class time is not sufficient to digest all aspects of the subject matter or who haven't developed sufficient skills to work on assignments individually. The abilities of all students attending a class are not equal; there will be students that are strong, students that are average, and students that are weak. Since the course objectives are the same for all students, a class must be designed accordingly. Optimally, the class is designed so that the utilization of the abilities of average students is maximized, leading to a work load that doesn't quite utilize the full potential of the strong students and is exceedingly challenging for the weak students. Office hours should mitigate the challenges the weak students are presented with by providing additional guidance thus compensating for the difficulty of the course that is designed for average students. If we want to consider that instructors allocate sufficient time to grade papers during office hours, we must assume that the course is designed accordingly --- such that students don't bother instructors during office hours. This can only be done by reducing the rigor of the class so that the weak students don't need additional guidance offered during office hours. This scenario certainly doesn't represent optimal use of the limited time allocated for instruction. Notwithstanding the argument about the experience or lack thereof leading to poor resource allocation of GSIs, suggesting that instructors can take on an additional class because they can grade during office hours presents an obvious contradiction: In order to allocate office hours for grading, the level of students’ skill development must me reduced.
(end of side note)

Graduate student instructors had a contract reflecting an agreement with the department regarding services performed by GSIs and compensation for those services. The increase in workload naturally raises several obvious questions:

How are additional services (increase in teaching load) treated in the contract?
How is additional compensation treated in the contract?
How does the union representing the GSIs respond to the modifications in the contract?

Is the increase of workload without adequate compensation covered by the contract? If it is, the union did not negotiate a reasonable contract for its members. If it's not, the union did not adequately protect the interests of its members by renegotiating the contract or sheltered the GSIs from work that is not subject to the contractual agreement.

The answers to the above questions are a key to devising a plan for future action.

More involvement of the union may be necessary to adequately represent the students such that a reasonable agreement can be reached. Otherwise, if the union's representation of its members is not adequate and the GSIs demands are reasonable, then union membership is detrimental to the GSIs interests and ties between the GISs and their union should be severed.
The only context under which the union representation is adequate relies on the premise that it is possible to teach and additional courses with no additional resources. (The buy-one-get-one-free deal.)

This notion is reflected in another argument frequented by the department and some posters: GSIs can take on an additional class if only they stop being so incompetent. The GSIs are not efficient enough with their time; if they improve their efficiency, they can take on an additional class. If the department is critiquing the GSIs time resource allocation practices, it would be constructive to provide guidance to its GSIs relating to improved time management resulting in improved use of limited time allowing for instruction of more students.

(An alternative explanation of this argument involves the idea that GSIs are developing their students' abilities far beyond what's required and should curtail their efforts in order to distribute attention to more students. The department is essentially stating: You're doing too good of a job with these students, do a bit worse job with more students. Spread that knowledge a little thinner.)

An undergraduate curriculum is designed on the basis of checks and balances. What are the objectives? How are the objectives met? Guidelines designed by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools are followed in the process of building a curriculum with the goal of meeting requirements for accreditation (

The academic core of these guidelines pertaining to English courses can be summarized into following questions:

1. What skills must a student acquire to qualify for a degree?
- understanding/analysis of ideas conveyed in written form
- ability to articulate an original argument
2. How is the acquisition of skills demonstrated?
- assignments (papers) and class participation
3. How is the demonstration of acquisition of skills evaluated?

A syllabus is constructed reflecting the above guidelines and an instructor is assigned (often in reversed order). A crucial aspect of the process is the evaluation of resources necessary for the compliance with the guidelines:

- What material is covered? How much time does it take to cover the material?
- What amount of writing is adequate to demonstrate the acquisition of skills? (four 3-5 page papers in the case of freshman composition courses)
- What amount of time is adequate for satisfactory evaluation of the demonstration of the acquisition of skills (minutes/per page)?
- What amount of time is adequate for satisfactory preparation for one week's worth of four-credit lectures?
- What amount of time is adequate to provide additional guidance during office hours?

It would be interesting to organize a survey of GSIs experience including the last three questions. The answers would provide some insight into the possibility of instructing two or more classes while advancing in one’s own education.

These topics should be addressed during the training of GSIs which doesn’t appear to be adequate for an accredited undergraduate program.

I suspect the number of hours of instructor’s time required to adequately satisfy the requirements of a course is higher than what the administration assumes. This would explain the duress the GSIs are under and why so many GSI seek counseling. Unfortunately, their cry for help is answered by the means of prescribing mind-altering medication. While the treatment of psychological hardships is handled well by the university (there isn’t a drug that a GSI can’t get prescribed), the area of prevention appears to be lacking.
I wonder how many GSIs are on mind-alerting medication. It would be interesting to know the university administration’s position on the proportion of GSIs on medication as a result of fulfilling their professional duties. I wonder what the opinion of the public on the topic is. The medical consequences the GSIs are facing as a consequence of their workload don’t seem to follow the guidelines in the health section presented by the accreditation board.

One question remains: What will happen next? The answer is: Nothing. That is unless the GSIs get their act together, present their case, and fight for it. It’s not going to be easy to revert some of the advances the administration has made. It would require either the reduction of courses taught by the GSIs or the deallocation of resources (number of hours an instructor will devote to course-related activities) through reduction of course objectives, reduction of methods of demonstration of acquisition of skills, and/or reduction of means of evaluation of demonstration of acquisition of skills. Naturally, deallocation of resources will curtail students' skill development. This can only be compensated for the by reduction of academic standards (same GPA for less skill/work), which may interfere with accreditation requirements and the administration has every reason to do whatever it takes to avoid the loss of accreditation.