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UA’s pandemic teaching incentive criticized

by Jaime Adame | December 17, 2020 at 6:52 a.m.
University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE — A $4,000 incentive to teach face-to-face introductory English courses at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has graduate teaching assistants and others saying it exploits a group that is vulnerable because of low pay.

The offer from the university’s “central administration” extends to teaching assistants and instructors beginning this spring. They would receive $4,000 per section of Comp I or Comp II, with the incentive made available for up to 20 course sections in total, according to a Tuesday email from William Quinn, chair of UA’s Department of English, that was distributed to instructors.

Leaders including Chancellor Joe Steinmetz and the University of Arkansas System board of trustees have called for an increase in face-to-face instruction. Steinmetz has said it is safe despite the ongoing pandemic. More than 2,800 cases of covid-19 have been tied to the UA campus, according to the state Department of Health.

Emma Van Dyke, 28, is a fourth-year student in the university’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing and a graduate teaching assistant. She also has Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disorder thought to be caused in part by a malfunctioning immune system.

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“I honestly thought about compromising my own health and safety for the opportunity to make this much money,” Van Dyke said.

Like other students in her program, she receives a $12,500 stipend over nine months. Several graduate students began a public advocacy effort over the summer seeking to boost stipend pay across departments, citing higher pay offered at other large public universities in disciplines that include history and sociology.

In an email sent Tuesday to Department of English faculty members, several graduate students opposed to the incentive plan cited their low pay as teaching assistants.

“At the height of this global pandemic, during a time in which TAs at the U of A are suffering and going without enough food, the U of A is once again preying on its lowest-paid workers by incentivizing TAs to accept unsafe and inadvisable working conditions instead of distributing relief monies fairly among all TAs,” the email states.

Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, did not directly respond when asked if incentives are planned for other courses. He described the incentives as part of an effort to reduce the size of course sections to better enable physical distancing as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“While our faculty and students have done an outstanding job adjusting to remote instruction during the pandemic, face-to-face instruction continues to be an important mode of learning,” Rushing said in an email.

The university’s provost, Charles Robinson, has pledged support to college deans for the “creation of new, smaller sections of courses so that appropriate social distancing could be maintained,” Rushing said. He added, “Without this, some larger sections of courses could not be conducted in-person as appropriate social distancing would not be possible.”

Rushing said “some deans” responded by “requesting financial resources for instructors who volunteered” to teach the sections.

“Fulbright college specifically requested this support in order to create more face-to-face English sections,” Rushing said. “This was never an effort intended to be viewed as mandatory, nor focused on placing graduate students as instructors in face-to-face classes. The offer was designed to support the colleges in meeting the diverse learning needs of students.”

Quinn’s email states that the incentive “is a one-time opportunity to be funded by federal relief monies.” Rushing did not respond when asked to specify the funding source.

Geoffrey Brock, a distinguished professor of English, said graduate teaching assistants “have been underpaid pretty egregiously for a long time.”

Brock said that graduate teaching assistants in the Department of English carry a teaching load that’s equal to most full-time faculty members, teaching two courses per semester. “Yet they’re not paid a living wage,” he said.

Faculty members in UA’s Department of English worked Wednesday to draft a letter expressing disapproval of the incentive pay plan for instructors and teaching assistants, Brock said.

“It offers them a sort of Faustian bargain, having to either risk their health in order to get a living wage, or be food insecure and not risk their health. It’s a terrible choice to offer people, I think,” Brock said.

He called it a “bad idea” to offer more face-to-face classes this spring given the current surge of covid-19 that’s straining hospitals in the region. Brock said he’s not aware of UA offering full-time English faculty members any incentives to teach face-to-face this spring.

“It seems like kind of a terrible time to be encouraging more face-to-face classes. If anything, they should be encouraging more remote teaching,” he said.

Brock said he’s a member of the UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965, which pushes to boost the pay of graduate students. On Wednesday, the group released a public letter addressed to Steinmetz.

“We respectfully ask the university to change its goals: Use the money to help graduate students, period. They shouldn’t have to risk their lives for it,” the letter states.

J.D. DiLoreto-Hill, president of UA’s Graduate-Professional Student Congress, said there is external pressure on the campus to increase in-person instruction. The issue of graduate student pay is being worked on, he said, calling it “woefully low.” He said the issue has “been worked on aggressively throughout this semester by a campuswide task force formed by Chancellor Steinmetz.”

A recommendation on graduate student compensation is expected this spring, he said. Rushing said UA is “working very deliberately to increase graduate assistant stipends.”

Van Dyke said she works two part-time jobs, as a technical writer and as a grader with UA’s Department of Engineering. A boost of $4,000 would be a “life-changing opportunity to build some savings, pay off debt.”

But she said she quickly decided against pursuing the incentive dollars as doing so would amount to “risking my life.”

“This attitude of, like, dangling this money in front of us when they don’t pay us a living wage in the first place, is I think deeply offensive and discriminatory,” Van Dyke said, calling the plan “ableist,” a term that refers to unfair treatment or prejudice toward those with disabilities.

Tessa Swehla, an English doctoral student and teaching assistant, said she views the incentive offer “as being rather predatory by the university.”

UA’s use of incentives to try to boost face-to-face teaching appears rare among colleges and universities, said Chris Marsicano, founding director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. The initiative tracks how colleges and universities respond to the pandemic.

But conflict over teaching in person has developed on other campuses, including the University of Florida, where a push to offer more in-person courses this spring has graduate students bracing for what amounts to an “indirect” mandate to teach more in person, said Bobby Mermer, co-president of the Graduate Assistants United group on the campus. Mermer said the University of Florida is not offering financial incentives to teach in-person courses.

In general, Marsicano said, students “undeniably” want to take in-person courses, leading to opposing forces on college campuses.

“You have student demand for in-person and faculty demand for online,” Marsicano said.

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