Dartmouth's TAs avoid grievances of other schools

by Marta Darby | 5/7/04 5:00am

While striking, frustrated, underpaid graduate students have beset universities across the country, Dartmouth seems to have escaped the epidemic, thanks to measures taken by the College to placate its graduate students. But not all of the graduate students at the College are content: Many cite the tedious nature of their work.

Graduate teaching assistant stipends vary by department. Two years ago, the College raised the base pay stipend from $16,440 per year to $18,084 per year in order to attract more graduate students to Hanover. The College also secured medical benefits for the students. This year's stipend for graduate teaching assistants is $18,528. Next year students can expect to receive $19,020.

The pay at Columbia, where hundreds of graduate students participated in strikes that erupted April 19, is significantly lower. Ninety percent of the graduate Ph.D. humanities students at Columbia receive a base pay stipend of only $17,000 per year in a city where the cost of living is higher than in Hanover.

To keep its teaching assistants happy, Dartmouth also gives out an annual teaching award, which carries with it a $1000 prize, to recognize outstanding graduate teaching assistants. The Filene Graduate Teaching Award is granted to the graduate student who "best exemplifies the qualities of a college educator," according materials released by Dartmouth Graduate Studies.

Biochemistry professor Charles Barlowe attributes the College's lack of strikes to Dartmouth's generous treatment of its graduate students.

"We don't think of our graduate students as a labor pool to staff the labs. We view it more as a learning experience for them," said Barlowe. "Students here don't feel abused because they aren't required to over-teach."

Other, larger schools tend to view graduate students as a labor force, demanding that they teach far more than is expected of the Dartmouth students, Barlowe said.

Teaching loads required of graduate students at Dartmouth varies. Departments with fewer graduate students often require more teaching responsibilities. The biology department requires graduate students to teach one term, while the chemistry department requires students to teach twice per academic year for their first three years.

Despite the College's efforts, graduate teaching assistants expressed mixed reactions about their quality of life.

One graduate student who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that being a teaching assistant is "very frustrating at times," noting that the experience varies depending the professor's degree of involvement in the course. According to the teaching assistant, classes that are poorly structured and out-dated are especially frustrating.

"As a TA I have felt that I am grading repetitive and very basic work that takes a long time to grade. This wastes everyone's time and damages how seriously the students take the subject that they are supposed to learn about," the graduate student said.

The graduate student also expressed frustration regarding the lack of the lecturing and course planning opportunities at the College.

"Lecturing experience is great and teaching helps to consolidate your own understanding," the student said.

Chemistry graduate student Yu Cai, on the other hand, said he enjoys working as a teaching assistant.

"I think TAs are treated well. My students and I respect each other and treat each other as friends," said Cai.

While Cai gains satisfaction from working with undergraduate students, he also noted the significant lack of perks.

Both Cai and other graduate teaching assistants noted that one of the biggest downfalls to being a teaching assistant is the time-consuming nature of the position. With less teaching assistant work, graduate students would have more time to focus on their own research.

Graduate students at Columbia are protesting the university's refusal to allow them to unionize. A significant number of undergraduate students at Columbia have rallied to support them by boycotting classes.