It’s well known that graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) get a raw deal: our pay compares miserably with other staff members, as is often pointed out. But it’s not just about money, the nature and quality of teaching opportunities are also a factor – and they’re not discussed often enough.
My PhD peers weigh success and our relative importance within the department by the number of teaching hours, and the breadth and variety of the courses on which they are invited to teach. At the Russell Group university where I study, the allocation of teaching remains a mystery. We aren’t told how or why teaching hours are assigned.
These simply drop like falling stars on the luckiest among us. No list of teaching opportunities is made available, and GTAs are often excluded from the discussion meetings that pair students with courses. There is no transparency in the process – you simply email a note of interest in teaching, and pray for favour.
For some, this means starring their CV by convening MA courses through the influence of their doctoral supervisor even before they have even submitted a PhD thesis. For others, even one hour teaching undergraduate students is mysteriously withheld.
I have been given one hour of teaching on one module during one semester of the entire three years I have been here. And during that time, the convenor never once spoke to me regarding teaching.
Yet it is crucial that I demonstrate the ability to teach a wide range of courses in order to look employable when I finish my thesis. In an NUS survey 70% respondents said they took the [teaching] job to improve their employability.
But some institutions do abuse the enthusiasm of teaching assistants.
One postdoctoral fellow who recently left Oxbridge for a lectureship elsewhere told me his academic mentor “brazenly” delegated her work to him, work which was time-consuming, administrative and an inconvenience to her. He said he was “undoubtedly exploited” during the fellowship, but at the time he was in no position to refuse. For him, with a good reference at stake, the sacrifice paid off in the end.
Teaching is often regarded as something of an afterthought to doctoral completion, something fobbed off on those considered just competent enough. My university seems to rely on its recent graduates to pick up the slack from faculty on leave, perhaps because they are cheaper to employ than lecturers and still possess the valuable “Dr” before their name that lends credibility in the eyes of students. They soak up teaching hours while living in that precarious zone after graduation and before full employment.
I don’t envy them; it is hard to live on a few hours teaching a week and they deserve better pay. They are, after all, fully qualified. I know of some recent graduates who have even been asked by management to give up their desks to make way for new PhD students, leaving them with nowhere within the department to prepare their lessons.
But some convenors fight tooth and nail to prevent graduate teaching on their modules, believing us to be a lower class of teacher, possibly with some justification. After all, student tutors are rarely given decent teacher training (is anyone in higher education?) and have to learn as they go. They make mistakes that the convenor might have to clean up. Essay marking has to be double-checked; feedback monitored. Students who feel short changed by not being taught “by a real lecturer” complain and move classes.
Next year I probably won’t apply for teaching. The favouritism and in-school politics are off-putting, and there is every chance that I won’t get enough hours to financially support me. I can always wish that a climate of fairness and equality will prevail, but then, I have that postdoctoral fellowship to look forward to.
This week’s anonymous academic is a GTA and doctoral candidate in 20th century English literature.