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Are graduate students who are expected to work overtime renumerated?

Question

Hello deans,

This semester my adviser was short on research funding, and so to pay my tuition and earn my stipend I am working as a TA. Now, nearly a month into my assignment, I have begun to size up the workload and it seems quite different from the policy advertised in Dean Knuth’s September 7th message to graduate school students.

On Thu, Sep 07, 2017 at 05:30:19PM +0000, Barbara A. Knuth wrote:

TA, RA, and GA activities should average no more than 15 hours/week over the entire appointment period (August 16-December 31; January 1-May 15), and no week should require more than 20 hours.

In my position, I am expected to commit nine hours weekly face-to-face time with students: four hours of recitation sections, two of lab, two of study hall, one of office hours. I must also grade the weekly assignments of nearly fifty students (at least three hours), write and grade a weekly quiz (one to two hours), attend weekly staff meetings for both section and lab content (one and a half to two hours), and do various preparation work for all my face-to-face teaching. On an ordinary week, I have been routinely doing teaching work for something like eighteen hours. This week will not be ordinary—on any of the course’s three exam weeks I am expected to add six to eight hours of exam grading to the routine load—bringing those weeks to as much as 25 hours and my weekly average for the course to nearly 20.

I have spoken with the instructor for the course, and while he sympathizes and has tried to identify small ways to reduce the load, the sum of those suggestions brings it down only an hour or two a week; still well above the suggested 15 hour average! Recent changes to the course simply mean that it requires more work than in previous years, and since insufficiently many TAs were assigned to the course this year we must simply accept the overload and correct it next semester by assigning more TAs. From my perspective, there simply doesn’t seem to be a way to alleviate this immediately without assigning another TA or having the instructor take on tens of hours of grading work. While I understand this and very much enjoy the teaching work, I wonder what the graduate school’s policy is in cases like these. Are graduate students who are expected to work overtime during a given semester to maintain the quality of Cornell’s undergraduate program remunerated for their extra effort? How does the graduate school ensure the policies it advertises are actually implemented?

Warmly,
A very busy grad


Response

Dear Very Busy Grad,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question.  I appreciate you raising this question of TA time commitments related to University Policy 1.3 which specifically states that a Teaching Assistantship is “an academic appointment in support of the teaching of a course of 15 to 20 hours per week, averaging no more than 15 hours per week for the base stipend established by the Board of Trustees.”  Base stipend rates are posted and updated annually.  Currently the base 9-month stipend for a Teaching Assistant is $25,780 (plus Student Health Plan and tuition). 

The academic department for your specific TA appointment pays a stipend that is increased 9.05% above the base rate (~$2300 more than base).  You can talk with your DGS or department chair to understand if the time commitment expectation is increased as well, or if the Policy 1.3 base rate time commitment still pertains in your department even with the higher stipend.

It appears you are carefully tracking the hours you are spending on your TA duties, which is a very good time management skill for all TAs to use.  Having that information will also help in the next step that I advise be taken in this situation, and that is to have a conversation about the time demand of the TA position directly with the faculty instructor for the course so that the faculty member can understand how much time you are actually spending and can then either modify the responsibilities for the TA position or give you tips on how to meet the responsibilities within the time allowed under Policy 1.3 (plus the supplemented time if that is relevant as above).

If talking with the faculty instructor for the course you TA does not solve the problem you face, the next step is to talk with your faculty Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and/or the department chair.  If you’re uncomfortable for any reason talking with those individuals, or with the faculty instructor, please contact me directly and I’ll be happy to serve as a facilitator for the discussions that need to occur to match the TA assignment with the requirements of university policy.

As Dean, I review regularly with each DGS doctoral student survey data regarding the hours students report spending on TA assignments, and we develop strategies for next steps in cases where there appears to be a cluster of students reporting spending excess hours on TA assignments, often involving a combination of structural changes (e.g., reducing number of assignments, not attending every lecture, cutting back on hours spent running study hall) and training changes (e.g. time management skills).

For example, I worked last year with the leaders of an academic unit to develop strategies for keeping TA duties within the expectations of Policy 1.3.  The faculty in that unit took two major actions.  First, they reduced the responsibilities of the TA position (fewer assignments to grade, lower number of undergraduates in each section) and they developed additional training for TAs in time management (skills for spending less time per paper graded while still doing meaningful review and grading).

I also speak at university senior leadership meetings that include all department chairs and college deans about the requirements and expectations of Policy 1.3, and review doctoral student survey data with them so that university and department leaders can actively implement the policy.  At the beginning of this semester, I sent a reminder to all graduate faculty regarding University Policy 1.3 and other policies for graduate students (e.g., workers’ compensation, maternity and paternity benefits, research and conference travel grants, child care grants, etc.) so that all faculty can make sure their own students are aware of these benefits, and so that faculty themselves are aware of the variety of university policies and benefits for graduate students.

In your specific case, in the interests of getting relief for you quickly, I alerted the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) because you noted that you had already talked with the faculty instructor yet still had concerns.  I understand that your DGS has already been in touch with you, and has affirmed that the department takes the time commitment limits of Policy 1.3 seriously, and has been proactive in bringing department courses into line with the policy.  As DGS, he has worked with course instructors when he learned that TA loads in courses were too heavy.  He also encourages students to see him directly if there is a load issue with a course they have not been able to resolve directly with the faculty instructor.  He also noted that he addresses this topic explicitly in the orientation for new students, and advises students that if they find themselves spending more than 15 hours/week on their TA duties they should seek advice from the course instructor and the DGS regarding how to keep their time commitment in line with Policy 1.3.

Your DGS also met with the course instructors for the course you teach after learning about your concerns, and indicated the instructors are eager to take steps for the average TA load to be within the requirements of Policy 1.3.  I understand one of the course instructors will be discussing this with the TA group at the next staff meeting to have clarity from all TAs about the time spent currently and will share the results with the DGS to develop next strategies with the TAs to implement going forward.

If efforts involving your instructors, DGS, and department chair do not result in addressing your concerns, Policy 1.3 describes (p.15) the conflict resolution procedures for handling disagreements and harassment. 

Please let me know if you have other suggestions regarding implementation of Policy 1.3.  I hope my response helps in your specific case, and proves useful to any other students who may have concerns about the time commitments associated with their TA appointment.

Warm regards,

Barb

Barbara A. Knuth
Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School