Justin Doran

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The College of Liberal Arts TA task force released recommendations Thursday addressing issues concerning graduate TAs and assistant instructors (AIs). The recommendations include defining TA responsibilities more clearly, alleviating the amount of grading and increasing job security. 

The task force distributed a survey to 1,300 current or former TAs and AIs assessing their satisfaction with current job policies. The task force received 681 survey responses.   

Based on the responses, the task force put together a report of recommendations, which will be passed off to chair members and committees for consideration, according to Esther Raizen, COLA associate dean for research and graduate studies. 

“The College is committed, from the dean down, to making sure their recommendations are seriously considered and implemented to the degree that it’s possible,” Raizen said. 

The recommendations included both a contract between the TA and the professor and a TA handbook. Justin Doran, task force member and spokesman, said both measures are intended to decrease confusion about job responsibilities and to protect TAs from excessive amounts of work. According to the report, 26 percent of survey respondents work more than 20 hours a week.

“One of the things that we found is that [a majority of the] time of graduate teaching assistants is spent on grading,” Doran said. “Grading is a chore. It’s extremely time consuming because it increases linearly with the number of students you have.”

Doran said he hopes initiatives, such as the contract, will help avoid unnecessary amounts of grading. The task force will reconvene at the end of the semester to review their recommendations.

The Graduate Student Assembly will look at the issue of TA rights in its upcoming Graduate Student Bill of Rights legislation, according to Elizabeth Cozzolino, GSA student affairs director. She said both the task force and GSA might face problems enforcing the recommendations.

“Even if the recommendations are expected by the college, there is no enforcement mechanism,” Cozzolino said.

The goal is to get TAs to work only 20 hours a week, Doran said, but that may mean increasing the number of TAs and decreasing their pay.

“We would love it if there were more graduate TAs, but as I understand it, there is a set budget for teaching assistants and assistant instructors, and that money hasn’t increased for many years,” Doran said.  

The survey found 64 percent of students surveyed were dissatisfied with their current TA compensation based on their typical workload.

As a result of increased living expenses, TA stipends are approximately $3,500 less than the cost of attending the University, according to Raizen. She said the number of TAs decreased by 12 percent between 2008 and 2013.

“Over time, Austin also has become so expensive that the cost of living here has skyrocketed, and we have not kept up,” Raizen said.

The task force proposed the option for TAs to receive stipends over a 12-month period, as opposed to the current 9 months.  

“We don’t have money, and there’s no question that we want to increase TA stipends, because [TAs] don’t meet the cost of attendance,” Raizen said. “If we reduce the number of TAs at some point, we’ll get to the point where we will not be able to do what we [need] in terms of instruction. There needs to be some new thinking about resources that we can apply.”

The TA Task Force, a group of 22 teaching assistants and academic instructors from the College of Liberal Arts, decided Wednesday to extend its research time for about two months longer than originally anticipated.

With this decision, the task force will postpone the delivery of its final recommendations to COLA administrators so they can continue researching issues related to graduate students in the college. The task force was previously planning to make its final recommendations at the beginning of the spring 2015 semester but will now continue their research until Jan. 28.

“We’ve basically given ourselves an extra two months over the break to finish up our research and make our recommendations,” said Justin Doran, task force member and spokesman.

Since September, the students have been meeting to examine issues related to COLA TAs and AIs. The task force is divided into five committees that work to establish guidelines with professors, define TA responsibilities, examine job security and assignments, work to make sure employment and degree plans align and set standards for TA workload and compensation.

According to Doran, they are determining this information through extensive surveys that will be sent to administrators and faculty members. He said they are also conducting student surveys, for which responses have been collected. The task force will then report their findings to administrators for consideration.

“We want to function as mediators between the COLA administration and the department chairs,” Doran said. “So, [we want to be] both fact-finders and then mediators who are looking out primarily for the interests of graduate students and to kind of negotiate between higher level administrators and department administrators so we can all work together on improving graduate student life.”

COLA executive assistant Lauren Apter Bairnsfather said Esther Raizen, COLA associate dean for research and graduate studies, supports the task force’s decision to delay its final recommendations.

“They have approached their research with an ambitious agenda, and they need the time to complete the research and analysis before making
final recommendations,” Bairnsfather said in an email. “We are grateful for their commitment to the work and for their willingness to continue working into the spring semester.”

Since September, the task force has been formatting and sending out surveys to share with students, faculty and administrators. According to Doran, the first round of surveys was sent to all COLA grad students and looks at how students perceive COLA and its administrators. Doran said the task force received responses from over 50 percent of the students. Doran said the responses are still being analyzed.

“Because of research restrictions, we won’t be able to give anyone access to raw data about that, but probably in our preliminary report you will see executive summaries of that data,” Doran said.

Doran said the second round of surveys will go to administrators and faculty members to get an idea of how particular departments are being run.

“The final report will include how administrators see things are going on,” Doran said. “So we will be able to compare how graduate students perceive what is going on and how administrators are intending things to be happening.”

Additionally, Doran said the task force plans to work with Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services to format digital tools that allow administrators to share information about their departments’ policies. The collaboration is still in the preliminary phase.

“It turns out that nobody has really pinpointed the fact that this is really an information sharing program,” Doran said. “Since our task forces goal was basically to uncover all of this information, what we have discovered is that this information isn’t just out there, and since it isn’t just out there, nobody can be analyzing it.”

Vance Roper, Graduate Student Assembly vice president, said he thinks TA and IA positions are important for graduate students because the jobs provide a source of income and educational opportunities. He said students, faculty and administrators should be represented in the research done by the TA Task Force.

“It’s definitely something that should be researched from all angles and that the research should be fully vetted out before any decisions are made,” Roper said.