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Op-Ed: In the UC strike, professors can’t keep up with grading. Students will suffer

Workers with picket signs that read "UAW on strike: unfair labor practice"
Academic workers picket at UCLA on Nov. 16.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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When graduate teaching assistants strike, my work becomes impossible. I’m a professor at the University of California as we see the largest higher education strike in U.S. history. My 250 students — mostly new to UC San Diego this fall — have lost their teaching assistants to the picket line. They rely on TAs for feedback on their work, answers to their questions, and in-depth discussions of the course material in small group sections. While TAs strike, 250 students’ assignments languish unassessed. Final papers will come in next week. Student grades for the term are due in two weeks.

Three weeks into the strike by 48,000 academic workers, a disaster is coming, but the University of California’s labor negotiations team seems in no hurry to get our TAs back into the classroom.

The failure by UC to reach an agreement with nearly 50,000 academic workers on pay increases and other benefits tarnishes a higher education system long seen as the best in the country.

Nov. 9, 2022

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I have long seen the TAs struggle to stay in stable housing in a hot housing market. I see them take on second jobs just to make ends meet, dragging out the time they must stay in school to complete their PhD research. Graduate workers facing high housing and child-care costs can end up living in their cars, moving far from work and outrunning evictions. Nine out of 10 pay more than a third of their salary to rent; 1 in 20 have experienced homelessness, according to a UC study.

UC and UAW, the union that represents graduate workers, have been negotiating wages for eight months. UAW has compromised on its demands, but UC has barely budged — agreeing to raises on Tuesday for 12,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, though they remain on strike in solidarity with the 36,000 graduate student employees. So UAW workers as a whole continue to pursue a contract that covers their costs of living as they do the essential work of the university.

In the meantime, students won’t get what they came for. As a professor, I want students to grow and have strong foundations for more advanced work. I respect the sacrifices students and their families make to get to college. Students deserve feedback to help them learn, and they deserve a respectful and thoughtful appraisal of their efforts. With grades due in two weeks, and without teaching assistants, we professors simply cannot give students what they deserve.

Even if I were willing to break the picket, it is impossible for me to complete the grading myself. First, there are the assignments that students turned in just before the strike: 250 short papers at 10 minutes a paper adds up to 41 hours of full-time grading work. Their final paper covers more material; at 20 minutes a paper, that’s 82 hours, or two full-time weeks of work. That’s three weeks of grading work to be done in two weeks — during which I’m supposed to continue my own full-time role and its job duties.

The standard University of California graduate student worker experience resembles indentured servitude.

Nov. 17, 2022

What will happen when the grades can’t go in? College bureaucracy morphs from nuisance to existential threat. Without grades to confirm their progress, students may lose their financial aid and, with it, their rent, food and tuition. Veterans can lose VA educational benefits. With incomplete transcripts, graduate school applications will get stuck. Students may find themselves unable to graduate.

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The UC administration suggests a range of half measures to help professors defuse the crisis. Water down the assignments, replacing observation and analysis with multiple-choice questions. Cancel the final, robbing students a chance to bring up their grade. Unable to educate students, we’re told to simply certify them and move on. These measures disrespect the work of college, asking professors to scab for TAs while devaluing high-quality teaching.

Teaching assistants are the essential workers who make coursework into an education. I teach to an audience. My TAs teach people. I basically produce television content. The teaching assistants connect the material to students’ aspirations and struggles. The teaching assistants are the ones who figure out how to engage students or notice when they fall through the cracks.

We want a public university that can serve more and more of California’s students, but we cannot connect with students’ diverse aspirations and capacities at scale without the often invisible care and expertise of tens of thousands of teaching assistants.

It may be hard to see this invisible labor from the UC office of the president in Oakland. I invite UC President Michael Drake to come survey the site of bureaucratic and pedagogical disaster in large classrooms like mine. Students who already endured two years of pandemic school are now facing an administratively manufactured disaster.

As UC negotiators drag their feet on wages, I’m in a bind. TAs are on the picket. And California’s students lose.

Lilly Irani is an associate professor of communication at UC San Diego. @gleemie

Updates

2:04 p.m. Nov. 29, 2022: Updates to reflect tentative deal on Tuesday with some striking workers.

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