Postgrads and undergrads must be in this together

Published

Overwhelmed PhD student

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Kirsten Colligan

Megan Donald
Writer

Graduate Teaching Assistant Megan Donald speaks of how the University is breaking down its postgraduate teaching staff

Undergraduate teaching at the University of Glasgow is bolstered by a vast body of postgraduate teachers – or Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), as they are properly known. GTAs tend to teach first and second year tutorials, seminars and labs and are often the first point of contact for students when they are in need of support for their subjects. Most GTAs spend the majority of their time working on their primary job: their PhD. Their time spent teaching provides a cherished space away from the solipsistic world of research. As teachers, GTAs try their damned hardest to share knowledge, offer support and invite students into the creative and rewarding world of academic life. But this education and support is under threat, affecting both the lives of undergraduates and postgraduates alike. Make no mistake, we are all fighting the same battle.

The views expressed in a recent Glasgow Guardian opinion piece entitled ‘Getting a good seminar tutor shouldn’t be a lucky dip’ are understandable. The author of the article is unhappy with the standard that some GTA teachers provided: they speak of tutors lazily fobbing off students, telling them to “look at the course handbook” instead of answering questions; and they talk of internet memes instead of Real, Hard Facts. While the author’s general malaise towards teaching is fair, it is outright wrong to aim this at GTAs.

As has already been reported by The Glasgow Guardian, GTAs worked for the whole of last semester while receiving no pay due to a still unexplained issue with contracts and human resources. Some are still unpaid. This considered, perhaps ask yourself: would you continue working many, many more hours than you were being paid for?

GTAs feel a personal sense of duty to their students, who work hard and are pressured by multiple deadlines from their multiple subjects. We understand this because, of course, we have been in the same position. The academic trope that our passion for education alone can keep us going, however, must be dispelled. We are also workers and are due fair pay that is on time like anyone else.

Some of us have had pay cuts on top of late payment. These cuts have been made to the hours we get paid to do preparatory work for our classes. Undergrads, if you want know where good teaching comes from, it is in these hours GTAs spend planning your classes. It takes time. We have to read the same readings as our students; figure out timings for the class; collect and prepare materials to add our own spin on things; educate ourselves on the content and structure of the course; attend over-running teaching meetings; hold office hours and answer student emails. Some even have to mark written work during this time. Some GTAs are not even paid for any preparatory work at all.

This is not a “woe is me” complaint. This is what undergraduates need and it is the job of the GTA to help with this. But we simply cannot do this job justice if we are not fairly paid. At a recently held Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) meeting, GTAs from all over the University voiced their problems with pay and labour rights. The scale is vast – there are 1000 GTAs within the University – meaning the topic of GTA pay is nothing short of a scandal. The University would not work without us.

There is however, a deeper pedagogical point that needs to be made and it involves the defence of “internet memes” as teaching material. GTAs, like all University teachers, are not handing out aforementioned Real, Hard Facts for students to memorise and list in exams and essays. What we are often doing, at least in the Social Sciences, is trying to destabilise common-sense understandings of the world so that students might think critically for themselves and approach education democratically. We don’t talk about memes and Instagram because we are trying to ingratiate ourselves with undergrads.

It is with this critical mindset that students are better able to understand the moves the University is making to whittle us down via neoliberalising tactics. I learnt this myself through the thoughtful teaching I received in my undergraduate degree, something I will be eternally grateful for. Vice-chancellors are overpaid while students pay vast fees – and GTAs are barely clinging onto their academic “careers”. This encourages us to want “value for money” for what we pay in. Apply that critical thinking, though, and we can all appreciate that education is not a commodity. The only way to tackle this is not to cause rifts between undergraduates and postgraduates, but to recognise that we must work collectively to disentangle the structures that seem to be breaking us down.