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Neuroscience TAs face unclear expectations with hourly based pay

Undergraduate teaching assistants cite confusing expectations with cap for billable hours

Contributing Writer
Monday, November 27, 2017

Undergraduate teaching assistants in the neuroscience department are not allowed to work more than 84 hours during the semester, which averages to six hours per week. But in order to complete the job’s expectations, neuroscience UTAs are working more than the average hourly cap, five neuroscience UTAs told The Herald. On Nov. 14, Michael Paradiso, professor of ophthalmology and visual science and one of the professors for NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience,” informed the class’ UTAs that some of them had already hit the 84 hour limit and instructed those UTAs to stop billing hours, according to multiple UTAs.

Paradiso declined to comment on whether these students were expected to continue working for the class despite hitting their maximum billed hours.

According to David Berson, chair of the neuroscience department, professor of ophthalmology and visual science and professor of medical science, UTAs cannot be required to work more than the 84 hour cap. “TAs who have already reached their semester cap can’t bill any more hours and can’t continue to work as TAs,” Berson wrote in an email to The Herald. “The department certainly does not expect TAs to put in a month of unpaid work.”

The neuroscience department receives its funding from the University’s Division of Biology and Medicine. While the department declined to release its total budget, Berson wrote in his email that the department allotted $20,319 last years for its 22 TAs, who earn between $10 and $12 an hour.

University policy and federal law mandate that UTAs are paid hourly for their work, regardless of whether it exceeds any cap created by a department. In June 2011, the Office of the Provost sent out a memo to the faculty reminding them that any duties students performed for a department were subject to compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the U.S. Department of Labor, according to the memo. Undergraduate student workers are legally considered non-exempt and must be paid an hourly rate.

The Brown student employer handbook currently stipulates that “students must be paid for actual hours worked each pay period including overtime when applicable.”

The experience of a NEUR 0010 UTA

“It’s almost impossible to fit in your hours and be an effective TA with the cap that the department is putting on,” said Risako Kimura ’18, an undergraduate TA for NEUR 0010.

When Kimura worked for the first time as a UTA for NEUR 0010 last fall, she received an email from the department’s financial coordinator explaining that she had submitted over 68 hours as of Nov. 12. She was told that she couldn’t bill more than 16 hours total through Dec. 17.

The official TA obligations for each week — two hours and 40 minutes attending lectures, a 30-minute TA meeting and two one-hour sections — already put Kimura over five hours per week. But she consistently needed to work around 10 hours a week: primarily preparing slides and presentations for section while also meeting with students and responding to their questions via Piazza and emails, she said.

After receiving the department’s email last November, “I put a fake hour amount in for the remaining weeks,” Kimura said. “Even though I was working more than I was recording.”

Though this semester Kimura has learned to be more efficient — especially because she can reuse her slides from last year — she acknowledges that most of her co-UTAs, the majority of whom have not TA’d for the class before, do not have that option.

“It’s admirable that students are enthusiastic and feel so strongly about performing this work, but there do have to be caps for budgetary and academic reasons,” said Chief of Staff to the Provost Marisa Quinn. “Part of the cap  — it’s not just budgetary — it’s about making sure the student who may be very enthusiastic about this work (is) not overburdening themselves. 

But the majority of NEUR 0010 UTAs interviewed said that in order to do their job to the best of their abilities, they felt responsibility to take on additional work and needed to spend more than the allotted time to prepare for section.

Lack of communication fosters uncertainty

Berson said that since he took over as department chair in January, he has not heard of TA compensation concerns. UTAs are responsible for managing their own hours under the cap they are given, he said

“We think the hours specified are reasonable,” said John Stein, senior lecturer in neuroscience and a professor for NEUR 0010.

UTAs can use their time in lectures to review material and update their slides, he said. According to Stein, UTAs for his class might be taking on extra work they are not formally required to do, and which the departmental budget can’t afford to compensate for, such as holding office hours for students or responding to questions through emails.

“We tell them that they shouldn’t be meeting with students, that they should be careful of their time,” Stein said.

Instead, Stein said that he asks UTAs to post student questions sent via email to Piazza or else forward them directly to him. Rather than having to individually meet with students, he asks UTAs to direct these students to come to his office hours.

All five of the NEUR 0010 UTAs interviewed said that they are often unable to complete their slides during lectures and frequently need to spend at least one to two hours outside of class to prepare for their sections.

Berson said that the department makes clear to UTAs that they “can’t continue to work as UTAs” if they have already reached their semester cap.

But communication between the department and the UTAs about the logistics of the hourly cap was poor, according to multiple UTAs.

“They didn’t tell me anything about the pay or the cap of hours before I committed,” said one NEUR 0010 UTA, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions. Two other NEUR 0010 UTAs also said they did not know the exact cap or hourly pay before they committed.

Rather, UTAs for NEUR 0010 received emails in early September from the department’s financial coordinator — after the start of the semester — explaining that “this position carries a maximum of 84 hours for the semester.”

“They did not tell us we should not respond to emails or meet with them,” said the second NEUR 0010 UTA, who also wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions. “It’s the culture of the class for us to do it. The professors haven’t said we are not supposed to do that. I get … dozens of emails in the week before each exam — am I really supposed to refer all of those to the professors?”

In addition, several of the NEUR 0010 UTAs said they were not told what would happen if they went over the 84-hour cap.

“We were told to think of it as a stipend, which seems to be implying we will be working more than 84 hours. … ‘Just don’t bill more than 84 hours’ is the only message we got from them,” said the second anonymous NEUR 0010 UTA.

Marilyn Bravo ’18, a NEUR 0010 UTA, said she was also told to think of the cap as a “stipend.”

All the neuroscience UTAs interviewed — along with the department chair and NEUR 0010 professors — explained that they believed a stipend system would be better for everyone.

“A stipend system would be more up front and fairer, because when you have to log things by the hour it feels like you should be able to charge,” said the first anonymous NEUR 0010 UTAs.

The neuroscience department is unable to offer a stipend in place of hourly compensation due to University policy. “The system of compensation might be simpler and clearer to the UTAs if a stipend system was used instead of hourly pay, but the hourly system was mandated by the University years ago,” Berson said.

An educational experience vs. a paid position

“When considering the issue of TA paid compensation, it is worth remembering that the benefits of the undergrad TA program extend beyond the monetary,” Berson said. “We view these UTAships as an integral part of the professional growth of the undergraduates who participate, complementary to their academics and research work in the department.”

“You always learn from teaching, but people should be paid for the work they do,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. “These are separate points for undergraduate cases.”

Unlike undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows can receive stipends because they are being explicitly trained as educators, and working as a TA is part of their educational experience, Mandel said. 

While every student interviewed said their primary motivation for working as a neuroscience UTA was not monetary, the majority explained that they still felt they deserved to receive full monetary compensation for their time on the job.

“Those other benefits are some of the reasons we become UTAs,” the second anonymous NEUR 0010 TA said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that we should be paid for all the hours that we work.”

But the lack of full compensation for all the hours worked could be a deterrent for students with heightened financial burdens.

Being a neuroscience UTA “is not a viable option if you need to do work study,” the third anonymous NEUR 0010 TA said.

While almost all NEUR 0010 UTAs expressed frustration with the departmental policy and wished for more transparency and an expanded cap, they acknowledged that their professors were forced to work within the confines of department and University policy.

“I think this is on the University and the TA culture as a whole,” said the first anonymous NEUR 0010 TA. “The university says being a TA looks good on your resume — ergo ‘You should be grateful that we are paying you at all.’ But that doesn’t mean (UTAs) are not putting in real work.”

Hourly caps stir inner and cross-departmental disputes

Other departments, such as economics and computer science, do not allow limits to be imposed on UTA hours. But an hourly cap is not unique to the neuroscience department.

Sheila Quigley, academic department manager for the chemistry department, said that the chemistry department does not have an hourly cap policy for its 66 UTAs.

However,  UTAs for CHEM 0360: “Organic Chemistry” are subject to a five-hour cap, wrote Professor of Chemistry Matthew Zimmt, who teaches the course, in an email to The Herald.

UTAs from CHEM 0360 disagreed on whether the cap was consistent with the amount of time they needed to spend for their position. One UTA, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, told The Herald they consistently worked more than five hours a week to meet the minimum requirements of their job. However, two other UTAs in the class, who wished to remain anonymous for the same reasons, said any additional time spent — like meeting outside of class with students — comes from their personal choice.

“An hourly cap is morally and legally wrong,” said Vice Chair and Associate Professor of Computer Science Tom Doeppner, who oversees the undergraduate UTA program for the CS department. “We have goals for budget purposes, but students have to be paid for the hours they work. It is also illegal for students to volunteer their time.”

Doeppner said that the CS department — which has over 270 UTAs — pays each student for all the hours that they bill. The department allots approximately $800,000 for its UTAs, and while the University contributes “a couple hundred thousand,” most of the money comes from a departmental endowment fund that has over $8 million pledged to it, he said.

In the CS department’s four introductory courses, UTAs are mandated to receive academic credit as compensation for attending lectures and holding office hours each week. They are also paid hourly for their work related to grading assignments, Doeppner said.

He added that students identified by the University as low-income have the opportunity to drop the academic credit mandate and bill for attending class and holding office hours.

The neuroscience department does not offer the option of academic credit for UTAs. Stein said that the neuroscience UTA responsibilities were “not rigorous enough” to be set up as academic credit.

University responds to neuroscience UTAs’ concerns

Mandel affirmed the need to pay students for every hour they work, but also stressed the need for better communication between the departments, faculty and their UTAs. She encouraged students who have worked more hours than they have been paid for to approach the department manager or chair with their concerns. She was uncertain about whether students, like Kimura, who had worked more than their billed hours could be retroactively compensated.

For this academic term, “if students have worked over 84 hours, the University will ensure that they get paid, but students need to come forward and report their hours,” Mandel said. “They can’t get paid if they don’t come forward.”

She added that the department — while obligated to pay students for their work — can tell students not to work anymore if they have fulfilled the hour cap obligations in their contract.

“It’s also the department’s right and responsibility to specify the expectation for the number of hours the work should take,” Mandel said.

But the second anonymous NEUR 0010 TA was not willing to approach the department.

“We were told we have this cap by an administrator in the department and, personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching a professor and refuting it,” they said. 

“I think the bare minimum work is what we get paid for, but obviously that’s not the only reason we do the job,” said the first anonymous NEUR 0010 TA. “Only working six hours a week is not being a good TA, it means presenting the material at its barest level and not making any extra effort to make class easier for students.”