Next semester, upper level history graduate students may find it harder to find teaching positions in the department.
While graduate students in history are guaranteed two years of teaching, students say that once those years are over, it becomes increasingly difficult to find positions as a teaching fellow, which are the only source of income for many students. And though administrators say that no policy changes have been made, graduate students say that the history department registrar, Marcy Kaufman, has been instructed to apply restrictions on the allocation of teaching fellow positions in order to minimize costs.
In an email obtained by the News, sent on Nov. 12 to history graduate students who are not in their teaching years, Kaufman said “[her] ability to place non-teaching year students in history courses may be negatively affected going forward.”
During their two guaranteed teaching years, students’ salaries remain constant regardless of how many total sections and students they teach, said Abbey Agresta GRD ’16, a graduate student in history and a member of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization’s Steering Committee. However, she added, once students complete those four semesters, their salaries depend on how many sections they teach — and teaching only one section is a pay cut from the salary given during the teaching years.
A graduate history student who communicated with the registrar and asked to remain anonymous said that in the past, the history registrar had tried to be mindful of these income issues by having teaching-year students teach only one section, while not in their teaching year students were given the opportunity to be assigned to more than one section. That, in turn, allowed the not in their teaching years students to benefit from the dramatic salary difference between teaching one and teaching more than one section.
They added that from next semester on, students not in their teaching years will no longer be allowed to teach any sections before all the teaching year students are placed in two sections.
Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean of the Graduate School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said there has been no change in policy. Schirmeister wrote in a Monday night email that she does not know why the registrar would send out such an email to non-teaching year students, explaining that programs have always had the same ability to assign students to teaching positions within their own departments. While there may not always be the same number of positions available, the guidelines for allocating them have not changed, she added.
These restrictions, said five graduate students interviewed, are likely to have negative impacts on both graduates and undergraduates.
Michael Blaakman GRD ’16 said the situation has been on the downhill slope for some time.
“It is definitely getting harder and harder for students in the sixth year and above to get teaching positions,” Blaakman said. “It gets harder every year. This policy is just another step in the direction the administration’s been headed for at least the past four years.”
Agresta said that while she has not received any communication from the department, she heard about the changes from older graduate students.
Mattie Fitch GRD ’15 also said she thinks the policy is part of the effort to cut costs and avoid supporting graduate students in their seventh year.
“This is a policy change that will affect the working conditions of many graduate teachers in the history department, and it’s troubling that it was made without input from teachers or from students,” said GESO Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18.
Still, Schirmeister added that the guidelines regarding teaching fellow allocations, which are designed to provide students with good teaching experience, have been in place for many years.
“Graduate students who are no longer on the financial aid package are not guaranteed teaching, but almost without exception, they are able to find teaching assignments, if not in their home department, in adjacent programs,” Schirmeister said.
History Director of Graduate Studies Carolyn Dean also said that to her knowledge there have not been any variations in the allocation of teaching fellow positions in the department.
But according to both undergraduates and graduates, the current teaching fellow allocation process is fraught with other potential problems as well.
Richard Anderson GRD ’15 said that under the current policy, most teaching fellows have to teach a class outside their area of expertise at least once. Anderson said that this is generally not optimal for the teaching fellow, or for the undergraduates who are learning from someone who is not an expert in that field.
History major Jonah Bader ’16 said that in his experience, sections are always richer when the teaching fellow is an expert on the subject.
Robert Peck ’15, also a history major, said that he has seldom had a good experience with teaching fellows in the history department. They sometimes do not seem to be interested in the class or able to explain what is going on, he said.
Agresta noted that the process could be a lot more transparent than it currently is, adding that the initial assignments that go out are not necessarily guaranteed.
Anderson, who is Canadian, also suggested that uncertainty regarding teaching positions may be a particularly significant problem for international students, some of whose visas depend on having guaranteed teaching positions.
Additionally, Agresta said she thinks that more senior, non-teaching year graduate students, whose teaching will be limited by the future policy, often make the best teaching fellows.
“The upper year students are the most experienced teachers and the most expert scholars that the department has,” she said. “It’s a shame not to actually use them to teach history.”