Unionizing was not the first solution explored by exasperated teaching assistants in the computer science department.
Facing what they saw as systemic issues within the department, such as overworking and inaccurate hour logs, the TAs sought department help. They communicated with and met department leaders and secured a raise for their colleagues. But they found that change insufficient.
Months after presenting their concerns, a group of computer science undergraduate TAs announced their intention to unionize in an Instagram post on Monday. Organizers described issues in the department in their announcement, including TAs frequently working overtime, underreporting hours and playing the “role of professors” by “writing handouts, rubrics and lecture slides,” according to the Teaching Assistant Labor Organization’s press release.
And these issues span courses across levels in the department and are persistent, The Herald found through interviews with organizers, other undergraduate TAs and department officials.
Before the union was officially announced, The Herald interviewed nine students involved in organizing TALO about departmental issues and TAs’ attempts to address them prior to unionization. They said TAs often work more hours than the University allows, are tasked with developing large portions of course material and have worked without official positions through Workday — the University’s human resources management system — which causes hours to be backlogged and has led to students choosing to work without Workday positions.
Working without Workday positions violates labor laws, said Tom Doeppner, associate professor of computer science in research and the department’s director of undergraduate studies.
Seven other TAs not involved with the union’s organizing committee had noticed many of the same problems but said issues vary between courses, and larger classes with fewer TAs feel a more intense burden.
TA workloads have “been a tough problem,” Doeppner said. “Many TAs felt that (their) course really needed them to work, and they would put in the time.”
Doeppner, who spoke to The Herald on behalf of the entire department, noted that the department has procedures in place meant to alleviate many problems that TAs and TALO described. But union organizers said that implementation of the guidelines varies across the department, and when problems arise there is no formal avenue for TAs to report concerns.
If TAs have an issue with a professor, Doeppner has encouraged them to reach out to him or Roberto Tamassia, professor of computer science and department chair. He added that when students bring him complaints, he will discuss them with the professor for those students’ courses and send the relevant faculty member the anonymized complaint.
Several TAs also noted that intense pressure and emotional burden comes from being overworked and bearing responsibility for course development.
“I feel like the CS department could not exist without the TA program,” said Parker Simon ’24, a head teaching assistant for CSCI 0330: “Introduction to Computer Systems.”
“Growing pains”: A rapidly expanding department
In 2011, 57 students graduated with degrees in computer science, including joint concentrators, Doeppner said. In the spring, 366 computer science concentrators graduated from the department.
This semester, CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science” has 424 students enrolled, according to Courses@Brown. In 2016, the same course had 323 students.
The TA program has grown as well, with “about 400” TAs working for pay or course credit this semester, according to Doeppner. Those TAs are primarily undergraduate teaching assistants and HTAs, who manage and hire UTAs and help plan courses.
UTAs are primarily responsible for grading assignments and answering student questions during office hours and on Ed Stem, the department’s online forum for students to ask questions about courses. The role’s responsibilities are outlined in the UTA missive, a document written by department representatives and meta teaching assistants, who oversee the department’s hiring and physical space assignments.
“The department across the board is dealing with these growing pains,” said Daniel Ritchie, assistant professor of computer science and instructor of CSCI 1230: “Introduction to Computer Graphics.”
“A central question we’re dealing with (is) how do we scale to the demand we’re experiencing,” Ritchie said. To address issues in the past, “typically informal processes worked” because “the department was small.”
“As things scale up, you need to impose more structure sometimes,” he added.
Last spring, an open letter from UTAs and HTAs circulated within the department asking the department and University administration to work with TAs to change how they were treated. Signed by 44 people, including 33 who identified themselves as TAs, it called for clearer expectations for workloads and job descriptions, better compensation and reduced course material creation responsibilities after the start of the semester.
Eight TAs who spoke with The Herald said their work creates an emotional burden. The letter noted that “TAs have often felt personally responsible for a course’s success and operation.”
The open letter also called for “formalized reporting mechanisms,” which the department lacks, said Nick Young ’23, a five-time TA who was not involved in union organizing.
The letter was written after the first of four meetings last spring between nine TAs and three department representatives: Doeppner, Kathi Fisler — professor of computer science for research and the department’s associate director of undergraduate studies — and Ugur Cetintemel, professor of computer science and chair of the department at the time.
The meetings prompted some changes, said Colton Rusch ’23 and Eva Lau ’23, HTAs for CSCI 0320: “Introduction to Software Engineering” who helped write the letter and served on the union organizing committee. The union organizing committee and working group have overlap but are not the same.
This summer, the department received University permission to raise TA wages roughly 20% across the board, Doeppner said. UTAs are now paid $15.50 per hour, HTAs are paid $17.50 per hour and MTAs are paid $23 per hour, according to an August email sent to the department reviewed by The Herald.
The department also edited job descriptions and the missive for HTAs and UTAs, Rusch said.
“The old HTA missive said generally, ‘You should do whatever it takes to keep the course running smoothly,’ ” Ritchie said. Fisler added that the group designed a form meant to assign “key tasks” ahead of time to faculty course instructors and TAs that a “handful” of courses have used this fall, including Ritchie’s.
Still, TALO’s organizers felt the department’s decentralized structure prevents enforcement of guidelines, with some TAs still putting in too many hours and taking on course development well into the semester that is meant for breaks and TA camp — when TAs come back to campus early to put together key pieces of a course. Some also said they have continued to experience problems with their Workday positions.
Doeppner clearly outlined workload expectations for UTAs — and noted that TAs should be paid for all hours worked — in a 2021 all-TA email and a speech at an all-TA meeting during fall 2022 TA camp, both of which were reviewed by The Herald. He relayed a similar message to faculty members, he said, adding that he did not mention HTAs’ workloads to student staff but did to faculty.
On Oct. 20, Fisler reached out to members of the working group, many of whom had joined the organizing committee, to resume work, according to an email reviewed by The Herald. Rusch explained to The Herald that the working group decided not to respond because many of their broader concerns about the department had gone unaddressed in the spring. By then, members were instead focused on organizing the union.
Inaccurate timesheets and working without positions
Earlier this year, two courses entered TA camp with multiple student workers not having positions in Workday, according to multiple HTAs. Both incidents, which were in larger courses with more than 10 TAs and 125 students, were confirmed by Doeppner.
In the first instance, the course began work with UTAs who did not realize they weren’t yet registered in Workday, where TAs log their hours to be paid. Upon learning this, unregistered TAs stopped work until they were onboarded.
In the second, UTAs without positions initially were instructed not to work by their HTAs, but then were instructed to begin course development shortly after — despite not yet being in Workday’s system — in an effort to prevent extending work into the semester. They later backlogged those hours.
In an August meeting at the start of TA camp, Doeppner said students not in Workday were not allowed to work. He also said he received a “number of emails about TAs not having their positions,” according to a meeting recording reviewed by The Herald.
MTAs manage hiring for UTAs in consultation with Doeppner and Fisler, and professors hire HTAs, but it is the department’s responsibility to onboard TAs into Workday, Doeppner said. One administrative staff member is primarily responsible for enrolling the roughly 400 TAs in Workday and managing hours, Doeppner confirmed.
As an employer, the University is subject to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to accurately log time worked by employees. Hourly workers are also required to record all time worked, according to University guidelines.
TAs who have been hired but do not yet have Workday positions over academic breaks or during TA camp often continue to work while waiting for their Workday positions, said Young, the five-time TA. When students do that work, it violates the University’s policy, Doeppner said.
Doeppner emphasized that the department aims to compensate TAs for every hour they work, regardless of if they were in the system — rhetoric that Young said he has noticed.
The department has implemented a new strategy to address previous administrative issues: onboarding TAs onto Workday immediately after they are offered a job, Doeppner explained. Previously, students were onboarded during or after breaks in the academic calendar. Hiring all TAs “by default” keeps the department from making errors, he added.
Course development and professor bandwidth
Course development was mentioned as a source of extra work for seven TAs interviewed, all of whom were involved in TALO.
Each TA said their respective professor took a different approach to course development. Because computer science is ever-evolving, courses constantly change to keep up, Young said.
This semester, Tim Nelson — assistant professor of computer science and the instructor for the course Lau and Rusch TA — has increased his role in course development, removing work that would have previously fallen upon HTAs.
Nelson did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.
“The problem is, that’s Tim’s decision,” said Galen Winsor ’22.5. Winsor, a CSCI 0320 UTA and socially responsible computing teaching assistant, meaning he is responsible for ethics-focused elements of the course, as well as a union organizing committee member, also helped write the letter. The department lacks standards to ensure all professors develop courses beyond lecturing, said Derick Toth ’23, a UTA for CSCI 1230.
Doeppner said CS professors face a “huge amount of pressure” to ensure TAs do not have excessive hours, and that management intervenes if there is concern TAs are overworked. Professors are accountable for their courses through feedback and course review and should be “familiar enough with the assignments to help students that might otherwise go to a TA,” he added.
Anika Ahluwalia ’23, HTA for CSCI 1300: “User Interfaces and User Experience,” said that while course instructor Jeff Huang, associate chair and associate professor of computer science, is involved in course development, HTAs were responsible for adding an assignment, changing the structure of a studio and creating a two-day “user interface camp.” This work stretched into the semester. She attended two union meetings but was not involved in its organization.
In response to questions about Ahluwalia’s workload for his course, Huang wrote in an email to The Herald that he appreciated his HTAs’ dedication and has spoken with them about managing their workload. One provision resulting from those conversations was a 15-hour work limit, after which “work should cease.”
Zack Cheng ’23, an HTA for CSCI 1230 who did not sign the letter but helped organize the union, said that he was polishing course materials — examples of completed assignments — through the beginning of the semester. Ritchie, the course’s instructor, said that he “inherited” the course with the intent to modify its curriculum while keeping high-level topics the same. While Cheng expected to make large changes, he said that work hours were greater than he expected.
“It’s hard to work to develop a course while you’re working on your own courses,” said Rusch, “and trying to be a person.”
Ritchie said that when he sees Cheng getting “overworked,” he has tried to intervene. But Cheng noted that Ritchie does not review materials unless Cheng asks.
Ritchie said he oversaw planning for course development and was happy to “take passes” on materials but does not have the “bandwidth” to write code because of his additional responsibilities in advising and research.
Other TAs, such as Paul Biberstein ’23, Simon and Harisen Luby ’23 — another HTA for CSCI 0330 — said their course development work primarily ended with TA camp. In CSCI 0330, HTAs planned the course’s logistics and wrote a script, but Doeppner is “very involved,” Simon said.
Last semester, TAs for CSCI 0200: “Program Design with Data Structures and Algorithms” struggled with work that began in summer 2021 to develop a course merging former classes CSCI 0160: “Introduction to Algorithms and Data Structures” and CSCI 0180: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction,” said UTA Harshini Venkatachalam ’23, a Herald illustrator.
Venkatachalam is a member of the organizing group, a UTA for CSCI 1810: “Computational Molecular Biology” and a former HTA for CSCI 0200. CSCI 0200 canceled its final two labs, a move TAs encouraged, Venkatachalam said.
This semester, most of CSCI 0200’s course content was “predeveloped,” Seth Sabar ’24 said, noting that the HTAs occasionally “touch up” labs and projects.
Ahluwalia said she often feels like the “face” of her course, a sentiment echoed by other TAs.
“Immense amount of pressure”: TAs working extra hours
In the spring, beyond the changes from the meetings, the working group distributed a survey reviewed by The Herald in which 65 TA respondents cited a culture in which extra work hours were expected. It also showed that a slight majority had underreported their hours when logging them.
Two TAs, who were involved with either the organizing committee or letter group, told The Herald that they had worked significantly more than their authorized 20 weekly hours in 2022 — Ahluwalia this fall and Joe Han ’22, a member of the spring’s working group, last semester.
Department guidelines state that UTAs should work no more than 10 hours each week, Doeppner said. The expectation for HTAs is less “spelled out,” he said, but HTAs should never work more than 20 hours weekly, the University’s recommended limit for undergraduate employees. TAs are allowed to work 40 hours per week during TA camp.
Ahluwalia worked an average of 29 hours per week for the two-week span between Oct. 23 and Nov. 5, according to a payslip reviewed by The Herald. Once she hits 15 work hours in a week, Ahluwalia now meets with Huang, the course instructor, to determine what to prioritize — but still typically works 20 to 25 hours each week, she said.
With 391 students enrolled in Ahluwalia’s course, work tends to exceed the capacity of the 15-person TA staff, she said. Because the course was smaller when it was last taught in 2020, it is understaffed in TAs, Doeppner said; as a rule, each course has one TA for every eight to 10 students. CSCI 1300 has a ratio of one TA to about 26 students.
Huang wrote that “if (TAs) end up working more” than the limit in his course, “they should be paid” for each additional hour.
Han said he logged 20 to 30 hours a week in the first half of the spring 2022 semester as an HTA for CSCI 0200. By the end of the semester, Han’s average dropped below 20 hours per week. Sabar, then a UTA for the course, said HTAs regularly logged more than 20 hours.
With a new course, “mid-semester adjustments” may be needed, Fisler, formerly one of two instructors for CSCI 0200, wrote in an email to The Herald.
This fall’s workload for CSCI 0200 has been different, said Sabar, now an HTA. This semester, he has consistently recorded about 15 hours weekly, aside from the first two weeks when his total was near 25. The class’s unusually high TA-to-student ratio helps keep his workload lighter, he said.
“We’re unhappy if you work more hours,” Doeppner said. “We’re even more unhappy if you don’t report the hours.” Students who work more than 40 hours in a week should receive overtime pay, he added.
Cheng, Simon and Luby separately said that their workload typically ranges from 15 to 20 hours per week, though Luby worked around 25 hours in the first weeks of the semester, she said. She partially expected to go over 20 hours. She enjoys the job, she said, and feels comfortable going to Doeppner with concerns.
“It becomes a problem when professors aren’t aware” of TAs’ extra work, Luby said.
“I feel an immense amount of pressure,” Luby explained. When things go awry, “it’s hard not to feel like it’s your fault.”
“In general, faculty members should be aware of other HTAs being overly stressed,” Doeppner said. “This is sometimes difficult because a student might be feeling a huge burden by the position, and they’re doing an amazingly good job of not letting it show.”
Han recalled one instance of working until 4 a.m. “A lot of people (were) counting on me,” he said, “and I can’t afford to let this go wrong.”
Additional reporting by Sam Levine and Alex Nadirashvili
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cheng was remaking course materials and demos. The Herald regrets the error.
Clarification: A previous version of this article did not accurately reflect how Cheng asked Ritchie to review materials. The story has been updated.
Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.