*Editors’ Note: The Spectrum spoke on the record to a TA in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures 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 this individual’s identity. The anonymous source will be referred to by the pseudonym Janet Dunlap throughout this story.
UB hired a net 224 full-time instructional faculty between the fall of 2012 and the fall of 2020, allowing the university to keep up with record enrollment numbers and maintain a ratio of roughly 13.5 students per full-time faculty member.
But the same can’t be said for the graduate assistants (GAs) and teaching assistants (TAs) who play vital roles in many undergraduates’ educations. The number of graduate assistants (GAs) at UB has decreased as enrollment has increased, going from 1,155 instructional teaching assistants (TAs) in fall of 2012 to 999 instructional TAs in the fall of 2020. The student-to-TA ratio has risen from approximately 17 to over 22 in that same time period.
Some TAs say the burgeoning enrollment figures and dwindling TA ranks have left them struggling to keep up with an increased workload as UB moves to accommodate a growing student population.
“The understanding is that the average is 20 hours of work per week for 10 months out of the year… They work far more than 20 hours per week, and we’ve only seen that increase in the past few semesters,” Lawrence Mullen, an English Ph.D. student and Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) business agent, said. “They’re teaching more recitation sections than they used to, because the department says that they don’t have enough TA lines. They couldn’t bring in more graduate workers, so then the work just falls on the current graduate workers who are now expected to do more at the same amount of money.”
GSEU represents graduate student employees at UB, and advocate for changes such as a living wage and waived fees for the workers.
TA lines were cut in 2019 when the College of Arts and Sciences increased its stipends for Ph.D. workers from $15,000 to $20,000 and decided the college had “no money” to fund the change, according to Mullen.
“If there’s still the same number of undergraduates, and you are lowering the total number of TA lines, somewhere, someone is doing more work to make up for that and that’s not just disappearing somewhere — that’s falling on faculty. It’s falling specifically on graduate workers,” Mullen said.
Janet Dunlap*, a TA in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures (RLL), acts as the “instructor of record” for a five-credit class, a role Dunlap says involves doing “everything,” including teaching, lesson planning and grading.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into five-credit [classes], and we’re having to do that semester after semester,” she said. “The assessments we produce have to go through two rounds of corrections… There are often so many revisions to the point where sometimes the whole exam has changed. We cannot reuse any exam ever… Each [revision] takes a couple of hours to do.”
The RLL Department has seen a decrease in class size over the years, according to department chair Amy Graves Monroe.
“No course is larger than 20 students, but is often 15-19 students,” Monroe told The Spectrum in an email.
The department has lowered the number of class sections offered, as some TAs are required to teach five-credit classes that meet five days per week, a change made during the pandemic. Students also receive nightly homework, which the TAs are expected to grade and provide feedback for by the next day.
“I sometimes feel like the semester is only focused on teaching,” Dunlap said. “For the people who are teaching five credits, semester after semester, every day, you do not get to check out from teaching. It’s like our research is pushed to the weekends and breaks when we’re supposed to be recharging, but all of the TAs are burnt out because it is a lot.”
Monroe notes that RLL TAs are offered a first and fifth year without teaching, a coordinator for training course RLL 579 and a program which allows graduate students to shadow experienced instructors.
The coordinator for RLL 579 is responsible for a multitude of tasks, including preparing the syllabus on behalf of graduate students, handling the selection and obtaining textbooks and workbook access for instructors. Coordinators are also responsible for keeping faculty members up to date on the latest research in teaching second-language learning.
Makenzie Cosgrove, a Ph.D. student and TA for the math department, has been teaching since fall 2017.
“We’re running more sections, there are more students taking the course [calculus], Cosgrove said. “And naturally, that means we need more people. Class sizes are pretty large.”
While classes usually had a capacity of 90 students, Cosgrove said his classes used to only be “filled to about 70 or 75” and are now “starting to be filled to the brink,” making it more difficult to teach classes and proctor exams.
“One person standing at the front of the room trying to watch 90 people? That’s a tall order,” he said. “That’s a long time to check and make sure no one’s cheating. It does seem like you would want a team of people to help out with that.” But while TAs and GAs plead for more help in regard to workload and class size, Gina Cali-Misterkiewicz, assistant dean for marketing and communications of the College of Arts and Sciences, says that there have been “no significant changes with respect to class assignments or sizes in recent years.”
“Nevertheless, there are ongoing efforts within departments to balance assignments for graduate students, including conversations before the semester regarding schedule and course preferences,” Cali-Misterkiewicz said in an email to The Spectrum. “Most departments have a handbook to assist students to understand their responsibilities.”
Mullen, who is also a TA for the English department, said that they taught freshmen in an English core curriculum class as an instructor during their first semester as a TA. While they admit that the graduate employees’ work varies, they also stressed that students’ teaching work is vital to the university.
“The core curriculum would essentially collapse” without graduate students, Mullen said. “Because core curriculum courses are basically always taught by or assisted by grad workers.”
Jasmin Yeung is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org