Academic Hunger Games

Maybe I should do more complaining because otherwise people don’t know how bad it’s gotten in public higher education.

This is what happened two weeks ago, for example. We usually hire graduate students to serve as TAs and GAs. They teach lower-level sections, help with research, work at our labs, provide free tutoring, etc. There is a stable number of these graduate hires each department makes year after year. In Chemistry, for example, graduate students teach 28 sections of Intro Chem. Without them, the department collapses.

Graduate students expect to be hired for these jobs when they apply. It’s part of the package they are offered. At my university, graduate students don’t get tuition waivers if they aren’t employed as teaching assistants. So if we don’t offer these jobs, grad school enrollments plummet.

So this year the new neoliberal administrator decided that the number of graduate students we can hire should be cut by 75%. This makes zero financial sense but having fewer employees us always good, right?

Department Chairs were gathered and told that we have to battle it out with each other for the remaining 25% of graduate students we’ll be allowed to hire.

You can imagine what happened. Losing this many workers is potentially catastrophic for many departments. It was total Hunger Games. Of course, who’s going to win in that kind of situation?

People who can yell the loudest.

People who have no inhibitions and no qualms about publicly destroying a colleague from another department.

People who have a commanding presence, a loud voice, and who lack a strong accent in English.

People who happen to be close friends (or who look aesthetically pleasing to) high-ranking administrators.

If, however, you are on a quieter side, maybe somewhat introverted or timid, guess what? Your department is screwed. Other people tear off a huge chunk of the loot and you go home hungry. And it’s not just you who loses, which would be more bearable. It’s all the people who are working at your department and who need you to bring back a decent number of these graduate students.

In the end, people start hating each other for being more successful at this game. Group solidarity is broken. Suspicion sets in. Why did that person get more than I did? Something shady must be going on. Graduate students who were admitted under the expectation of having a job and a tuition waiver suddenly lose both one or two semesters in. And you have to look at their stunned, scared faces and know that it’s your fault because you didn’t yell louder or eviscerate another Chair in front of everyone.

So yeah. It’s bad.

The Teaching Load

I’m bringing this from under the password protection because people seem not to know about this.

Usually, tenured professors teach a certain number of courses per semester under their contract. At my university, the teaching load is 3:3, meaning 3 courses per semester, which is high.

In reality, however, many people teach up to 6 courses per semester. If your course is underenrolled, you either consent to teach it for free, or it gets cancelled. In many cases, cancelling the only section of an advanced course means students don’t graduate on time. If the program is already struggling, this can pretty much put the whole program under the threat of extinction. So people consent (and actually beg) to teach up to twice their contractual load because they can’t face letting down the students and want to save the program.

I make the schedule for my department, and I keep asking my faculty members, “Are you sure you want me to do it? These are 6 courses I’m scheduling for you in the Fall. Are you sure?” And yes, they are sure because they don’t have a choice. We don’t have this issue in Spanish but in French, German and Chinese, it’s what always happens. On one occasion, my German faculty member taught a whopping 7 (seven) courses in a semester. He’s a Full Professor, and his contractual teaching load is 3.

We used to have lecturers, TAs, adjuncts. But it’s all gone. This poor German professor is doing the job that we used to spread among 3-4 people.

It’s worse in Physics, though. Those guys are really suffering.