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Wednesday, December 07, 2022
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‘There’s just no information flowing’: Math department TAs struggle with new duties, unclear communication

Vague contracts mean graduate TAs can be assigned duties beyond their expectations

Graduate TAs in the math department are frustrated with a lack of communication from the department’s administrative board members.
Graduate TAs in the math department are frustrated with a lack of communication from the department’s administrative board members.

*Editor’s Note: The Spectrum spoke on the record to four TAs in the Math Department who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of backlash from their department. The Spectrum doesn’t usually grant anonymity to sources unless they “may face danger, retribution or other harm,” as enumerated in the SPJ Code of Ethics, but has made the decision to do so here in order to protect these individuals’ identities. The anonymous sources will be referred to by the pseudonyms, which will be marked with an asterisk on first mention.

Makenzie Cosgrove, a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant (TA) for the math department, has been teaching since fall 2017. 

He anticipated the average TA experience. But he was thrown for a loop when he found himself with unexpected proctoring responsibilities mid-September in 2020 as his department adapted to a remote format due to COVID-19.

“We received an email with a [test] proctoring schedule…they distributed it more or less at the last minute with no warning,” Cosgrove said. “These are unprecedented things that have never happened, and they’re responding to changes in the environment which are also unprecedented. Some communication seems natural, and there was just none.” 

He added that there were no mentions of this new system over the summer or in the email that John Ringland, then the associate chair of the math department, sent a week before the semester started, assigning teaching or grading duties.

“And you imagine you could let some of that go,” Cosgrove said “Except for their response when people started asking questions.”

Cosgrove replied to the email to ask for clarification on an informal agreement between himself and a professor and listed his concerns about the new responsibilities: TAs weren’t informed that they would be proctoring, weren’t aware of proctoring concerns and might exceed their contracted 20 hours of weekly work with the new proctoring obligations. Ringland responded to the question regarding the clarification on the informal agreement  in less than an hour, but neglected to address any of Cosgrove’s other concerns.

“My main concern in all this is that I don’t know anything. I’m not in the faculty meetings and I’m not being told anything by our department,” Cosgrove said. “There’s just no information flowing… we do need to be informed of what the decisions are in a reasonable and timely manner and that just hasn’t been happening.”

Graduate students in the department do not have voting rights regarding decisions made, as the “assignment of duties is an administrative function of the department,” Ringland told The Spectrum in an email. Ringland noted that the department asks their graduate workers “in detail” every semester about their preferences towards their duties and “make every effort to accommodate them.”

During the end of fall 2020, math department teaching assistants received an email offering extra service compensation: $60 for proctoring a three-hour final exam and $40 for a two-hour final exam.

TAs are expected to work 20 hours a week. Extra service compensation was no longer offered by the spring 2021 semester as international students’ visa regulations meant that they could not work more than 20 hours, yet teaching assistants were still expected to proctor for free.

“If you set the precedent that this is extra work by providing extra service compensation, then now you don’t get to say ‘Oh, it’s actually not extra work,’” Cosgrove said. 

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He says that a lot of graduate worker’s contracts were “fairly open-ended” and that a lot of the contract “defers to agents of the university” to note employee’s work responsibilities.

Sally Rodriguez* confirmed to The Spectrum that they filed a formal grievance to the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) about the additional unpaid proctoring duties in March 2022.

“Proctoring on Zoom… had never previously before been an actual responsibility,” Lawrence Mullen, an English Ph.D. student and GSEU Business Agent, said. “In fact, people had actually been paid before to do that job, and now we’re told to do it for free… it’s a combination of that and the fact that what it means to be a TA in the math department is not explicitly stated in the offer letter you receive, and that’s something that must be done per the contract.”

Article 20 of GSEU’s contract states that offer letters should include information like a job title, stipend amount and a “general summary of duties and responsibilities of the position.”

The math department could choose to pay extra service if it paid domestic students during the semester and international students during finals week, where the hours would be considered outside of the semester, according to an email sent by Mullen to the department’s employees.

Rodriguez’s grievance is still open as of Oct. 27, and is being appealed at the state level with the New York Office of Employee Relations after SUNY failed to respond to their appeal hearing for over 124 days, four times the maximum amount of time they have to respond as per their contract.

GSEU sometimes asks departments with grievances about overworking for a handbook, or a list of duties TAs are expected to perform in their specific department.

“There are many departments that do not have handbooks for their graduate workers,” Mullen said. “This leads to departments being able to add additional tasks, being able to change what you do, because there’s no set standard for what it means to be a TA. One way that we’ve tried to combat this is by trying to get departments to make those handbooks because that at least sets a kind of standard for what it means to be a TA.”

Requesting a handbook was not as simple as Cosgrove thought it would be. 

He sent an email in October 2021 to Gino Biondini, the department chair at the time, with a list of questions regarding the making of a handbook as well as TA and faculty duties. While Biondini stated in his reply that Cosgrove had made “a reasonable request” and that they would try to create a handbook, he had reservations, stating that “no document can ever cover everything.”

“Just FYI, please understand that doing so [creating a TA handbook] is extra work for the administration, that we will never be compensated for, and that will come at the expense of the other million duties we have (teaching, administration, research...),” Biondini said in an email to Cosgrove. “If every duty must be spelled out in writing, should a departmental administrator have it written down in his/her contract that they need to create a TA handbook?” 

Biondini concluded his email with: “I’m unfortunately way behind on 100 tasks, which I all need to try to catch up on, so I won’t be able to continue this conversation by email. Sorry.”

This semester, first-year graduate TAs received an email with the new math department handbook before their orientation began. But none of the existing TAs have been sent the new handbook, according to Cosgrove, who  learned there was a handbook in mid-October.

“They never told us,” Vincent Hobbs* said. “We only found out because Makenzie was coming in and waving and was like ‘What? There is a handbook!’ no one knows — besides the first years [TAs].”

Proctoring is now listed as a possible duty on the manual, something that Cosgrove says feels almost like “gaslighting.” 

“There’s kind of a huge history here that you have to acknowledge and now they’re expecting to hold returning TAs accountable to this new manual, but they didn’t share it with us,” Cosgrove said. 

Both Cosgrove and Mullen note that it would be difficult for existing TAs to decline their employment if they didn’t agree with the duties listed in the handbook, as many students live out of town or are from overseas.

“If I chose to decline my TAship, next year I would have to pay for my tuition and my fees, and I would lose my health insurance,” Mullen said.

“The amount of duties for a TA/GA has not changed substantially for decades,” Ringland said in his email response to The Spectrum. “Graduate workers are explicitly told by the Associate Chair, and in the TA manual, that if their duties do seem to exceed expectations, they should first raise it with the instructor… then if necessary with the Associate Chair, who will intercede to resolve the issue.”

He also stated that the TA handbook acts as a guide to new TAs “by outlining clearly what the expectations have been and continue to be.”

The mathematics administrative board has changed for the fall 2022 semester, with Ringland as department chair, Bernard Badzioch as associate chair, Joseph Hundley as director of undergraduate studies and Naoki Masuda as director of graduate studies.

Rosalie Meyer* believes that “a lot” of the problems graduate students struggled with in the past have “sort of” been resolved with the change in administrative board.

“A lot of people had issues with certain aspects of how Dr. Ringland engaged with the graduate students and ran the workload of the graduate students, but he’s the [department] chair now,” she said, noting that Ringland has already made positive changes as department chair.

Clara Laing* says that there’s a double standard between graduate employees and faculty.

“You’re new to something, you make mistakes,” Laing said.  “You’re sometimes unprofessional, you’re sometimes rude, you’re sometimes inconsistent. But we can’t be any of that… you [mathematics administrative board] expect us to be perfect all the time.”

The graduate workers hope for more communication from their department — not just for when they roll out new instructions, but when they make decisions that will impact the graduate employees.

“They [administrative heads of departments] could implement a policy that allows their graduate workers to be in these meetings, and it really doesn’t detract from the meetings at all,” Mullen said. “It lets graduate workers be able to provide the experience that they have to hopefully create better policies or programs or training for future graduate workers in your department.”

Jasmin Yeung is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at jasmin.yeung@ubspectrum.com

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