End of Quarter, Email from the Provost and More!

Want to know if we’re workers? Ask a grad instructor at the end of the quarter.

Week 11 is one of the busiest times for grad instructors. Whether as TAs, lecturers, or tutors, this is often when we’re supporting students through stress and self-doubt, talking through drafts, running exam review sessions, and answering a wide range of questions—and then grading for hours on end. This is work, and while we pour effort and enthusiasm into it, no mental contortions from administrators or anyone else can deny that fact.

We’re sending love to all of our members getting through the end of the term, and particularly to those teaching this quarter. When someone tries to say that we aren’t workers, your sweat and tears this week tell a different story.

More emails from the Provost, more questions

On Monday, outgoing Provost Diermeier sent another email to faculty and grads about recent “efforts to strengthen doctoral education at the University.” The message opened with an update on the unilateral revamp of doctoral programs that he announced in October (to the surprise of students and faculty alike). In that paragraph, the Provost claimed that by the 2022-23 academic year, “we will have increased the number of funded PhD students in those schools and divisions by 15 percent over last year.” But how is this possible when the overhaul involves deep cuts to the number of doctoral students, with at least one division proposed to shrink by 25%? Is this an acknowledgement of how many of us currently work without funding, in programs designed to take well over the 5 years covered by GAI? Or is it another case of the Provost using misleading statistics?

The Provost’s email also included some nice words about issues that GSU and our allies have been raising for years. We were glad to see it, but we had serious questions about the substance. For instance:

  • Diversity: The Provost made it a point to claim that the new approach “maintains and strengthens our commitment to recruiting, supporting, and graduating diverse students.” However, this explicitly ignores the structural problems that the new framework will certainly create. By capping the number of students in programs and making admissions a “one in, one out” system, these changes incentivize departments to admit students that are a sure bet to finish their programs quickly. This will inevitably lead to a preference for students who already have Master’s degrees from familiar and highly ranked institutions. And who becomes less like to receive admission offers? Students who cannot afford to fund their own Master’s degree or go into further debt and those with degrees from less recognizable or non-U.S. institutions. Admitted students will likely become whiter and from higher-income backgrounds under this new framework, as departments play it safe to ensure their students move through their programs quickly.
  • Food “Access”: Do we even have to say that there’s something wrong at a university where any worker is paid so little that they have to rely on vouchers to local grocery stores to put food on the table? This issue arose in the Provost’s own survey over a year ago, and we’ve been highlighting it. The Provost’s email claimed that they’ve made efforts to respond to reports of food scarcity, but included no links or specific program eligibility info. for those needing help, simply telling students to write to the general email address of a university department. As our members in SSA point out, this is what some call system-level rationing: setting up hurdles to accessing a program. Is the Provost interested in addressing food insecurity among UChicago grad workers, or simply being able to say that he did something?
  • Space: The Provost reiterated that the fourth floor of the bookstore would be converted into “a dedicated graduate student space for meeting, studying, socializing, and other needs.” He wrote that the design team had “the goal of opening the space by the end of Winter Quarter.” But back on May 16, when the Provost announced this initiative, he wrote of “the changes we anticipate for the fall.” With Fall Quarter ending, it seems that the goalposts have moved, reminding us that even on an issue that the Provost chose to highlight, his commitments aren’t binding without a contract.

There was more in the email, and we could go on. But overall, it’s hard to see how the Provost believes he is strengthening graduate education when the new framework imposes completely unnecessary austerity measures. Since the Chicago Maroon reported in October that the number of graduate students in the Humanities Division was to be reduced by 25%, reports have been trickling in from departments indicating that they’ll have to significantly reduce their populations in the next three years in order to comply with the newly imposed caps. Meanwhile, UChicago’s endowment has hit $8.5 billion. Departments faced with these cuts will have to make hard choices about what kind of courses and areas of specialization they’ll be able to continue offering, and may force students at advanced stages of their degrees to finish abruptly or leave the program. Undoubtedly, important spaces of academic inquiry and the quality of departments will suffer.

We don’t need more committees that demand grad workers’ time and labor for “input” that the administration can easily sweep aside. We need a collectively bargained contract.

NLRB Comments

With slightly less than a month before the January 15th deadline, we have a lot of work to do to flood the NLRB with unique comments opposing their proposed rule that would define us as non-workers. So once you’re through the quarter—or better yet, if you want to take a ten-minute break right now—please go to http://aftacademics.org/weareworkers and submit yours. And then urge colleagues, friends, and family to do the same!

Comments can be in any (currently spoken) language, of any length, on any aspect of the proposed rule. One important note, though, is that the comments have to be unique. There’s boilerplate text on the website, but it may be best to delete that and write in your own voice. If the NLRB gets 2 or 20 or 200 comments saying the same thing, they can count it as one comment. It’s not like contacting a legislator, where, they simply count the number of calls. As little as one or two sentences in the commenter’s own voice will go far further than clicking the send button on the pre-populated text.

We have less than a month. Let’s get the comments pouring in!