Letter to the Editor: Not an employee? My teaching record says otherwise.
As a teaching assistant, Sarah McCune argues why she should be recognized as an employee.
Apr. 13, 2016
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I am a teaching assistant and graduate instructor for the Department of History who loves my job and the University of Missouri. I have amazing students who make my work rewarding and an incredibly supportive department and adviser. Every day, I am gaining work experience that will help me secure a job in an ever-shrinking market. And while I do love teaching Mizzou’s undergraduate students, I do not love the labor exploitation that comes with it.
When I agreed to come to MU, my letter of offer (in effect, my contract) granted me a stipend based on my labor as a teaching assistant. But at times, when it benefits the UM System, I am not considered to be an employee and lose the subsequent labor rights and protections afforded other university employees. Because the system claims that I am a graduate student only, and not a worker as well, I am underpaid, once lost my health insurance subsidy (and could again), and am not treated as an equal partner with a say in my working conditions.
My work and the work of my colleagues is vital to our university. In the Department of History, each graduate student teaches about 100 students per semester in discussion sections. Professors, postdoctoral fellows and senior graduate students teach survey lecture courses ranging in size from 50 to 300 students. Without accompanying discussion sections, most students would have little personal interaction with instructors. My colleagues and I also do almost all of the grading in these courses. Without the labor of grad student workers like me, our department and numerous others could not function.
Specifically, I instruct, lead discussion sections, respond to emails, answer questions, make appointments, hold office hours, and recommend books. I help students figure out how to manage their time, take notes, and study for exams. In my six years at Mizzou, I have graded the quizzes, exams, reflection papers and essays of over 500 students. I am motivated by my passion for history and my students, not my poverty-wage stipend but I do work for Mizzou and the UM System should recognize me as such and pay me the living wage that I have earned.
While the university has promised that we will have a stipend increase next year and a health insurance subsidy for one more year, promises can be (and have been) easily broken. The security of the graduate employee population rests on a union-negotiated contract that guarantees our rights and secure benefits for ourselves and future generations of graduate employees.
Sarah Lirley McCune Teaching Assistant and PhD Candidate Department of History, University of Missouri firstname.lastname@example.org