As a teaching assistant in the music department at University of California, Santa Cruz, Lisa Beebe is regularly assigned to classes that have more than 350 students.
The third-year Ph.D. candidate has already had four – popular survey courses on topics ranging from the history of world music to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead.
Beebe said the work is overwhelming, and the lack of individual attention is causing many students to fall through the cracks.
“I’ve noticed that the large lecture hall format is hard for students to be directly engaged with the material,” she said. “You can’t have a class discussion with 380 people.”
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Seeking to address these concerns across the system, the University of California’s academic student workers union recently filed a complaint against the UC Office of the President demanding that discussions about class size be a part of their contract negotiations. The union has been bargaining with UC since last summer, and its contract expired at the end of the year.
The UC Student-Workers Union, which represents more than 12,000 teaching assistants, tutors and readers across the UC system, is seeking a regular forum to talk about class size with faculty and UC management, said Josh Brahinsky, a Ph.D. candidate in the history of consciousness at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the bargaining team.
According to a 2013 UC study, the ratio of students to faculty increased more than 10 percent from the 2005-06 to the 2010-11 academic year, which Brahinsky said puts increasing pressure on assistants.
As “front-of-the-line teachers” who do most of the grading and office hours, teaching assistants have a valuable perspective on what is workable in the classroom, he said. “There’s no snap-of-the-finger fix, but we’d like to be able to discuss it.”
Charging that UC management is failing to address teaching assistants’ working conditions, the union filed the complaint in late January with the Public Employment Relations Board, a state agency that administers the collective bargaining statutes of California public employees.
The president’s office said it has received the complaint and its position statement is due in late February, but it disputed that the union’s complaint has any basis.
“Wages and working conditions are the types of issues that are addressed in labor negotiations,” spokeswoman Shelly Meron said. “Class size is an academic issue, not a bargaining issue.”
She pointed to the academic student employees’ last contract, which states, “No action taken by the University with respect to a management or academic right shall be subject to the grievance or arbitration procedure or collateral suit.”
The academic student workers’ union argues that class size is an essential part of assistants’ working conditions.
Jessica Conte, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in East Asian languages and literatures at UC Irvine and a member of the union’s bargaining team, said the number of students in her first-year Korean language classes determine how thoroughly she can grade assignments and how much time she can devote to her own studies.
“Even just doing 20 hours (a full-time teaching assistant schedule), when it’s on top of your own course load and working on your dissertation, it’s quite a task,” she said. “It’s a constant juggling. What am I going to sacrifice?”
Besides affecting graduate students’ research and “ability to be effective teachers,” Conte said it blows back on students, who receive less feedback and opportunity for mentoring.
“It’s kind of sad but we’ve gotten into a mode where we grade very quickly and put probably less thought into it than we want to,” she said.
Though there is no clear timeline for a decision on the complaint, Brahinsky said, the UC Student-Workers Union hopes the Public Employment Relations Board ultimately rules that discussions over class size must be part of their contract negotiations.
“We can provide a lot of useful feedback that the university doesn’t seem to want,” Beebe, the UC Santa Cruz teaching assistant, said. “We’re learning to become educators so we want to make sure that we’re involved in this process.”