Tuesday, September 2, 2008

English Woes

Pipe Dream Article

Binghamton University Pipe Dream | English woes: workload, conditions irritate TAs, writing teachers

English woes: workload, conditions irritate TAs, writing teachers

Originally Published March 14, 2008
By Alana Casanova-Burgess

As unattributed flyers begin to layer campus bulletin boards, the underground hum of discontent among some of Binghamton University’s graduate students has grown to a roar.

The posters are an outward sign of a backlash against what a recent report on the teaching of writing called an “excessive reliance on graduate student labor” in the composition and writing courses.

The report, written by consultants from Syracuse University and Cornell University in January of this year, included two urgent suggestions: That graduate instructors be given a more “manageable, equitable” workload, and that they also be trained adequately for teaching.

The suggestions reflect a general tone among graduate students who teach writing and composition that their teaching course load — which increased two and a half years ago from two per year to four without an increase in compensation — is too much to bear.

The problem is compounded for composition and writing teachers whose work requires one-on-one meetings with students and lengthy grading on essays.

“In a perfect world, the teaching load would be reverted,” said Kelly Kinney, a professor in the English department and the director of composition at BU.

Kinney, who started working at BU in the fall, has been a proponent of lowering the graduate student workload, which she said has had an unrealistic time estimate since the course increase.

“Even though their contract stipulates they should be working 20 hours a week, an experienced, effective TA would be working at least 26 hours a week,” she said.

Some estimates place the weekly workload even higher.

According to Matt Brophy, a PhD. student in the English department, graduate students can spend 35 to 40 hours a week with their students when a paper is due.

“Graduate school is difficult no matter what, but it’s even harder under these conditions,” he said.

Brophy, who is taking two courses in addition to his teaching workload this semester, has been working with other students and the Graduate Student Employment Union to renegotiate their contract with the University.

Wazir Mohamed, the president of the Graduate Student Organization at BU, said he hoped there would be more dialogue between administrators and graduate students on solutions.

“We don’t want a campus where these kinds of issues are simmering,” he said. “They should be talked about amicably.”

In an interview this week, Provost Mary Ann Swain said there was little in the assessment that she wasn’t already aware of as a problem, but that she was still in the process of finding other perspectives on the issue of workload.

“I’m not as much in agreement with the second recommendation,” she said, referring to the suggestion that the course load be revised. “Both of these institutions [Syracuse and Cornell] are private. Quite frankly, I’m looking at how writing is taught at other public institutions.”

The report also suggested that despite the enormous growth in the University, “resources did not keep pace.” At BU, approximately 95 percent of the composition courses are taught by graduate students who are either functioning as teaching assistants or as adjuncts.

But according to the provost, the infrastructure of the University has kept up with the pace of growth, and has provided adequately for all students.

“The undergraduates are coming in, they continue to graduate on time,” she said. “We provide the courses and the schedule that they need to meet their degree requirements. I think we’ve done a good job of managing our resources and our growth.”

The chair and undergraduate director of the English department declined to comment when reached for this article.

According to Mohamed, graduate students who design and teach their own courses are not being compensated like faculty who do the same, and are also being denied facilities necessary to do their work. They often have to share an office, forfeit access to a computer and a telephone because of a lack of resources, and work on limited health benefits.

“That tells a big story,” he said. “The graduate students should feel they are being treated with respect.”

Mohamed estimated that graduate students grade between 800 and 1,000 pages for their composition classes each semester, and that the intensity of the work made having office space essential.

Kim Vose, a graduate student who has been vocal in the GSEU, has had to share an office with at least seven other TAs. The office had one computer and lacked a telephone, but Vose held her hours elsewhere and gave students her cell phone number so they could get in touch with her.

Mohamed said he has had to hold his office hours in the GSO office because of lack of space, and has also had to use his PODs printing quota to provide teaching materials for his class.

“I have a passion for teaching, this is what I do,” he said. “I would like students like myself to be given the facilities in order to help the institution grow.”

Binghamton University Pipe Dream © 2008, All Rights Reserved.