Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ask the Administrator: A Grad's Gotta Eat!

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a graduate student (of the Master's variety) at a private university in {Very Big City on the East Coast}. The field in which I'm interested in pursuing is a concentration in the field of English, one that is not widely offered, so when I had begun looking at graduate programs, my options were limited. I'm in my early 30s and had come to college later than many (I graduated with an undergraduate degree in 2007) and had to consider various factors, both personal and financial. I ultimately decided on the university that was closest to home; this would allow me to commute and not have move to another part of the country (thereby not having to leave a long-term partner), as well as be able to commute from home. I felt this was a decent decision, since I would not have to worry about the expenses of moving and finding a new place to live, neither of which I could afford, but because I was a newly certified secondary English teacher, I would theoretically be able to teach while I studied for my Master's degree. (The other university that had accepted me is out of state.) School A, which had accepted me and which is out of state, had a better program and was stronger overall, but School B, where I am currently studying, suited me well enough, and also offered its graduate students teaching fellowships, research fellowships, and teaching assistantships. I was accepted fairly late but still managed to be offered a teaching assistantship; in fact, I've since been offered three, as well as a research fellowship, which has helped finance my education, and which is especially helpful as I continue to struggle to find a teaching job. 

At the end of last spring, I was offered a teaching fellowship, which permits me to teach a freshman writing class; it offers a small stipend and tuition remission. A few weeks ago I had thought there was a possibility of a  teaching gig, which I desperately need: I need the income much more than I need a teaching fellowship. Although the deal fell through, and it was late in the summer, during the time in which I thought there might be a conflict, I immediately contacted both my mentor (who would be guiding me through teaching the freshman writing class) and the graduate student advisor. My mentor seemed to be willing to make some small concession (an afternoon class), but of course that was for naught. However, my graduate student advisor seemed outright put out (if you will). She expressed disappointment that I, as she put it, put this teaching opportunity as something that isn't a solid commitment, and went on to say that when a time is agreed upon, that to her was a set deal.  I felt this was a bit harsh, and in reply, I tried to express my desire to teach both at the university which I attend and which had offered me said teaching opportunity (which I really am eager to do), but that I also had to consider a salary and benefits. I am no kid anymore and sorely feel the need to maintain those fun adult responsibilities like paying bills. I emphasized that this has come to nothing, of course, and that I would still be teaching the originally agreed-upon section, and that I hoped she could appreciate the situation in which I am placed.

Was there another (and/or better) way I could have handled this? Obviously, in a perfect world, I would have a full-time teaching gig (I would like to be teaching at a middle school or high school, and utilize my training, after all) and not have to shirk any other teaching opportunities. But I feel that my needs as an adult are not quite being recognized by some parts of my department, either. Your feedback would be very much appreciated.

I'm not a fan of people who punish the desire to make an adult living. They're out there, and in dispiriting numbers, but that doesn't make them right. That said, though, your advisor's reaction isn't necessarily out of line.

In many graduate programs, as I understand them – and I don't work in a graduate program, obviously, so comments from folks who do are especially welcome – TA lines are relatively scarce and prized. Their value isn't so much in their cash wages, which, as you correctly say, don't correspond to adult responsibilities. It's in the combination of tuition remission and health insurance. Although you don't feel either of those as cash in pocket, they're both real costs to the institution, so they aren't given out lightly.

The idea behind such (relatively) costly compensation for graduate students is that TA lines are supposed to allow for some actual mentoring of your teaching, and some time for your research. I won't deny for a minute that there's often a gap between theory and practice here, but that's what distinguishes TA's from adjuncts. TA's are far more expensive to the institution than are adjuncts; what the institution gets back for its (relatively) greater investment is supposed to be successful graduates of its program.

By trying to couple a TA line with a regular job, you're defeating both institutional incentives for providing TA lines. You won't be around much for mentoring, and the extra time for the regular job is likely to slow down – if not halt – your progress in your program. You're asking for TA compensation for adjunct work, and the institution has little reason to agree to that. Put differently, your advisor would have a hard time defending that when other advisors go to bat for their advisees.

Your question about handling it is hard to answer on its face, since personalities differ and seemingly minute changes in circumstance can matter a great deal. But the seemingly-irrational response of your advisor actually makes some institutional sense even if, as you correctly point out, it offers you a choice between poverty and stasis.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.