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October 24, 2002 Improving conditions for TAs




by Barbara Black

Teaching assistants at McGill University went on strike April 24, and came out of their labour dispute with somewhat better conditions. It’s not a situation you’re likely to see at Concordia, because the TAs are not unionized, but that’s not to say they’re all happy, either.

Any faculty member will tell you that having a clever, conscientious senior student at your side can be a godsend, but when a committee was struck two years ago to look at teaching assistantships, they found that pay, expectations and working conditions varied widely.

They found four aid categories: teaching assistants, lab demonstrators, administrative assistants and research assistants, and created a salary scale for the first two categories, based on three grades of expertise and independence.

Grade 1 represents the highest level, and pays $19 an hour and up. Grade 2 pays $13 to $18. Grade 3, which is likely to cover fairly mechanical marking and involves little or no contact with students, pays $10 to $12 an hour.

Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Jim Jans, who headed the committee, said that one of the defining elements of its work was reconciling the differences in preparation time. A Grade 1 teaching assistant leading a tutorial in, say, sociology, may need several hours of preparation, but a lab demonstrator in introductory computer science may need no preparation whatever.

In the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, the challenge tends to be one of communication skills, given the remarkable ethnic diversity of the student body.

The most fundamental problem concerning TAs is the lack of money to hire enough of them and to pay those who are hired what they and their supervisors feel they are worth. The longstanding tuition freeze in Quebec universities is the main culprit.

However, determined efforts are being made to improve teaching skills. Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services has given a week-long orientation course at the beginning of the academic year. The Centre’s Janette Barrington reports that 100 attend a series of workshops whose depth and breadth keeps improving.

“The workshops for lab demonstrators was especially well received last year,” Barrington said. “The hard sciences have such different needs [from the arts and soft sciences]. We are trying to be more specific, in both the material and the feedback.” The Centre is proposing a non-credit course in university teaching aimed at doctoral students with TA contracts.

Jans said that faculty who hire TAs should be sensitive to their needs and expectations. “I had a student from out of the province contact me just this morning who was coming to Concordia to take up a contract. She found when she got here that she would only work four hours a week, much less than she needs to live on. She blamed herself for not asking, but still . . .”

Rocci Luppicini, president of Concordia’s Graduate Students Association, characterized the Jans report as “minimal.” He recalled that the School of Graduate Studies started looking into teaching assistants’ conditions a decade ago, but got little support.

Luppicini and GSA colleague Nisha Sajnani revived the subject in 2000 by sending out a questionnaire. “We found quite a bit of variance. There were students installing art projects for
$5 an hour, and others scraping out petri dishes for $25 an hour.”

Luppicini has thought long and hard about the benefits of unionizing TAs, and there are a lot of arguments against it.

“There are so few jobs that many students don’t want to cause waves, and lose their TAship. Also, it creates another entity for the university to deal with, when by consensus the number of bargaining units is being reduced. Our students are part-time, not around the university much, and we have a less significant research portfolio than McGill.”

He recently attended the graduate students’ caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students meeting, which represents about 60,000 grad students. He found that Concordia was one of the few universities in Canada without a TA union.

However, he heard some cautionary stories. There were universities where the TAs were considered junior members of the part-time faculty union, and felt they were just being used to swell the membership lists. In some cases, TA strikes went unacknowledged by the university,
forcing the unemployed TAs to drop out of school for lack of income.

“Even when you have a union in place, the department can get around it. They like to say that [the money available for TAs] is a closed envelope, but every department is in charge of their own budgets, and they make choices.

“It’s an enormous job getting the union cards signed — it took McGill many tries to get their union — and a cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t support it.”