Letter to the editor: English TAs express concerns over stipends

What does it cost to live in Buffalo? This is a question Teaching Assistants in the Department of English here have been asking. There are different measures for what a living wage is in New York. One could turn to the Coalition of Economic Justice’s estimate that a living wage for full-time work is $15 per hour, adding up to a $30,000 annual income, a number that New York governor Andrew Cuomo has also embraced. We could also turn to a figure closer to home; according to the UB Financial Aid Office website, the Graduate Cost of Attendance for the nine-month cost of attendance, for the 2016-2017 academic year, has been $20,584 for off-campus living and $17,891 for on-campus living. This figure excludes tuition, fees, and mandatory health insurance. This also does not factor the costs Teaching Assistants face in the summer months paying for housing, food, and transportation. Excluding the four-year fellowships some students receive, the basic stipend English TAs received this academic year was $14,180 for ten months, an amount that after taxes is close to $12,000.

The $8,500 gap between stipend amounts and the figure the university has defined as the cost of living in Buffalo has affected the ability of students in the English program to complete their degrees. A recent survey run by Teaching Assistants in English reported that this situation has caused 81 percent of the 62 students who responded (47 percent of the student body) to work additional jobs, 51 percent to take out student loans, and 72 percent to require financial assistance from family, partners, or friends.

This gap also inordinately affects the lives of international Teaching Assistants who in most cases are legally not permitted to work in addition to the 20 hours on campus, which coincides with their assistantships. Not being eligible to apply for loans, international Teaching Assistants also endure additional fees tied to their status, such as an international student fee. As a condition to be allowed to start teaching, international students must pay $75 to take the Speak Test. It doesn’t seem to matter that each of them, including those coming from countries such as India, where English is an official language, has already paid $170 to take the TOEFL test, specifically designed to measure their English speaking and writing abilities.

It is often assumed that graduate students are at similar life stages as undergraduates, but many graduate students have adult responsibilities, such as childcare. Female graduate students have found that their options for postpartum support discourage continued life in the program. One student was offered the chance to teach an online course the semester of giving birth with the option of having six of those weeks covered, without pay, by a substitute - not enough to live on, let alone support a newborn. When it comes to paying for childcare to resume Teaching Assistant work and work towards one’s degree, the unlivable stipend offers no real options for parenting students of any gender identity. There is on-campus daycare that sets Teaching Assistant parents back $300 per week, in effect exceeding their stipend pay. Some might cite the recent efforts Governor Cuomo has made to make childcare more affordable in the state, but those strides in equitable access still exclude workers, like Teaching Assistants, not legally recognized as employees.

As the end of the semester approaches, we all feel the pressure of exams and final papers approaching. Now imagine that pressure compounded by the stress of teaching a class most students would just as soon not take - and working a job that doesn’t even pay your bills. What you’re picturing is the life of many, if not most, Teaching Assistants here at UB. We’re students, too, but we’re also instructors - and many of us can barely afford to do our jobs. We suspect there are similar stories in other departments across campus who experience a gap between stipend amount and the cost of living in Buffalo. Those of us in the Department of English who have been asking these questions have begun to take these concerns outside of our department in the form of a petition that we developed with members of our faculty. So far we have gathered 320 signatures, spanning faculty and students in the university, with a strong showing in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as the Law School, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Graduate School of Education.

To learn about the petition and to sign, visit: https://goo.gl/forms/x7t9WBT7aeXTpU3m2

- Concerned English TAs