FEATURE: Bang a TA-it’s the only sleep they will get

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Engaging in a one-on-one meeting with a professor at the front of Leacock 132 for more than five minutes is a fantasy envisioned by many McGill undergraduates. Professors have their own agenda to attend to (think: “publish or perish”) and often cannot provide personal attention to each of the hundreds of students in their classes. Consequently, these professors rely on the help of teaching assistants to grade papers, administer exams, lead conferences, labs and tutorials, and tutor students during office hours. As a medium between the students and instructors, TAs play a pivotal role in McGill’s educational system.

Most TAs have a positive experience. Not only do TAs gain valuable insight into the world of teaching, but they also build a connection with their professors, many of whom become valuable future resources. Farrah*, a TA in the Faculty of Arts, claims that “the professors are really such a wonderful resource for us. They put in so much work and effort on behalf of the students.”

Unfortunately, not every TA benefits from their position. Due to extremely long hours, low wages, and bad communication with their employers, a growing number of TAs are victimized by McGill’s “poorly funded” academic environment.

According to the constitution created by the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill, teaching assistants are legally allowed to work only 12 hours a week, a total of 180 hours a semester. Certified in 1993, AGSEM represents approximately 2,000 teaching assistants, roughly a third of McGill’s graduate student population. Twelve hours a week seems like a reasonable amount of time to attend classes, hold office hours and lead conferences and/or tutorials. But most TAs end up working more. “I usually put in over 25 hours a week,” says Leslie*, another TA in the Faculty of Arts. “That seems like an awful lot, but it’s probably average, at least with the other TAs I have spoken to,”

Because TAs spend so much time working with their undergraduate students, their own graduate studies are often neglected. Emily*, works as a TA in a humanities course, claims that “the work that we’re rewarded for, that we’re expected to do …in a timely fashion…often takes a back seat to our teaching.” Lilian Radovac, president of AGSEM and head of the TA union, asserts that “being a grad student is a full-time job. … At a certain point, a grad student can spend well over 40 hours a week preparing his or her work.” Holding what feels like two full-time jobs at once, many teaching assistants find the overall amount of time spent working to be unbearable. “The time-management aspect can be extremely challenging,” says Farrah. “I’m having a difficult time balancing my TA duties with my regular [graduate] schoolwork.” Even the professors agree. “It’s an extremely heavy workload,” admits a Faculty of Arts professor, who teaches a large entry-level freshman course. “Ideally, the TAs are psychologically and academically prepared to assume their resposibilities. But sometimes it doesn’t work out.”

A lot of these problems depend on the relationship between the TA and the professor that they work for. Emily admits that “some professors have been very respectful that kept track of the hours and shouldered most of the burden themselves. But I’ve also had some very frustrating working relationships. There were times when I felt totally overwhelmed, when I didn’t sleep, where I was grading an obscene amount of papers.” Alan*, a TA in the Faculty of Management, claims that “right now, the TAs are putting in a lot more time than the professors.”

Professors often take advantage of their TA’s position. “Occasionally, we get a complaint that a TA is asked to do some of the professors’ duties,” says Radovac. “There are a lot of situations where professors ask TAs to give guest lectures, or write manuals, in the case of science students. This can be a great opportunity for the TA, career-wise, but it is not technically part of their job description.” Professors claim that, generally, the work is divided up fairly. Nevertheless, “there were some instances of professors being approached by overworked TAs,” says another Faculty of Arts professor.

While teaching can be a full-time job, the majority of the TA’s work remains unpaid. Emily insists that TAs “have to prepare conferences, grading, reading materials, which [is time] we don’t get paid for, so if you really want to know the materials, inside and out-which most of us do, we want to be competent teachers-we’re spending a lot of time pouring over the text and making it digestible to students in the class.”

Radovac claims that graduate students are put into a very vulnerable financial situation. “Many TAs don’t just work as TAs, [they] will also work as research assistants and hold other off-campus jobs. … They need to find a way to support themselves.” Legally, TAs earn $21.52 per hour for their designated 12 hours a week. Radovac asserts that “McGill has one of the lower pay rates of TAs at major universities in Canada. Teaching assistants at York University make $40 per hour.”

TAs at McGill find themselves trapped within a system that aims to exploit them. But they’re not the only ones that are impacted. The plight of TAs at McGill also has a huge effect on the undergraduate student body. Radovac explains that “The biggest quality for good education is one-on-one attention. The bigger the classes become, the harder it is to provide a good quality of education. As negatively as the professor and the TA are affected, the person affected the most is the undergraduate…there would be no university without the undergraduate students.”

*Sources for this article have chosen to remain anonymous. Names have been changed accordingly.