Columns

Papendorp ’17: TAs are underpaid

By
staff columnist
Thursday, December 8, 2016

When I accepted a position as an undergraduate teaching assistant this fall, I assumed that I would be paid in accordance with the hours I worked, like any other job. So imagine my surprise when I received an email from an administrator in the department of neuroscience, informing me that I would be paid for a maximum of 84 hours over the semester, or six hours a week.  Between attending class, meeting with other TAs, preparing for section, leading section, holding office hours, answering questions on Piazza and grading exams, I can easily spend 12 or more hours a week — double what I’m paid for — on TA duties. I am sure that in some other classes the gap between the hours for which TAs are paid and the hours that TAs are expected to work is even greater.

In 2010, The Herald reported that the department of computer science had moved from a stipend system to hourly pay for TAs. At the time, there was an uproar: A group of head TAs objected that “TAs have historically willingly accepted a flat stipend throughout the semester for their work, viewing the rewards of shaping course development and impacting students’ learning processes as more important than monetary compensation.” Similarly, faculty members in the department worried that the move toward hourly pay constituted “social engineering” that would destroy the special role of TAs in computer science classes. But paying undergraduate TAs fairly for the work they do isn’t “social engineering” — it’s just the way wages are supposed to work. TAs are certainly privileged to work closely with students and professors. But at the end of the day, being a TA is a job, not some sort of magical experience that transcends monetary compensation.

The unrealistic cap on hours was particularly surprising to me because I had worked as a TA at Brown over the summer, and I was encouraged to log and be paid for 15 to 25 hours a week. Of course, summer courses are more condensed than typical fall and spring classes. But because summer TAs are funded by the School of Professional Studies rather than the departments themselves, the policies about wages are completely different. Over the summer, having the freedom to spend up to 25 hours a week motivated me to be a better TA. Knowing that I would be compensated for my time, I held more office hours, created original practice exams and study guides and spent extra time reviewing the material with struggling students. In contrast, with the six-hour cap, I’m forced to make tough decisions about balancing my TA responsibilities with classes and my other jobs.

The 2010 statement from CS TAs claimed that “a policy that requires TAs to be paid hourly directly impacts the amount, and quality, of work that TAs can do and will have an adverse effect on the way students learn in computer science classes at Brown.” Actually, I would argue that the opposite is true, both from my personal experience and drawing on basic economics. With a flat (and inadequate) stipend, undergraduate TAs have no financial incentive to do a good job. If you’ve ever felt like your TA was doing the bare minimum, maybe it was because he was being paid the bare minimum.

Ironically, despite all the uproar in 2010, effectively nothing has changed. After all, hourly pay with a cap on hours is mathematically no different from a flat stipend. This problem with wages also stems from a larger lack of organization and accountability surrounding undergraduate TAs. For example, though undergraduate TAs are sometimes included on course evaluations, this feedback is too little, too late. Without regular evaluations, undergraduate TAs operate with very little oversight, and the value that they add to the course can vary drastically. Furthermore, Brown should evaluate not only individual TAs themselves but also the effectiveness of an undergraduate TA program. Maybe if the system were under central administration (like it is during the summer), rather than left to individual departments, there would be more consistency and accountability. At the very least, there should be common guidelines, pay structures and evaluation systems across all departments.

Until the undergraduate TA program is more organized, other departments could take a cue from the department of computer science. For example, the department has established an endowment to fund undergraduate TA positions and gives undergraduate TAs the option of taking a half-credit course to offset the time commitment of serving as a TA. CS TAs are also trained extensively before the semester, unlike TAs in many other departments. These exact policies may not make sense or be financially feasible for every department, but it is crucial that each department take a realistic look at the role of TAs in its courses and pay them accordingly.

I urge Brown to review its policies on paying undergraduate TAs and make sure they are consistent and fair. At the very least, Brown should be more transparent about the fact that TAs in many departments are still effectively receiving a flat stipend rather than pay that accurately reflects the time they spend supporting professors and students. The University must decide whether undergraduate TAs are a vital part of the “University-College” learning experience; if so, we need to pay them fairly.

Carin Papendorp ’17 can be reached at carin_papendorp@brown.edu.

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