I just wrote a letter to the Board of Regents. Maybe if we all write letters, they will understand us.
I am writing to you concerning today’s meeting with COGS. I am a second year PhD student in the Dept. of English, and I teach in the Dept. of Rhetoric. I would like to share a bit of my experience with you in hopes that it might provide some insight into why graduate students are proposing contract changes. Of course, the university is under tremendous financial constraint. However, mitigating these constraints by way of reducing the quality graduate student working conditions is not right.
I graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in 2007, and I became a public school teacher in a suburb of Minneapolis. I worked for six years teaching full-time middle school Language Arts while earning my MA part-time at the University of Saint Thomas. I took out loans for my MA, but my district incrementally increased my salary as I earned more credits.
In my k-12 teaching job, I worked very long hours–especially when I was doing my MA at the same time. Much was expected of me, and our district maintained high teacher standards. Yet, I was given a small salary increase every year, 10 sick days a year, leave for funerals, free insurance for singles and options to add family members for reasonable fees, cost-free professional development opportunities, the occasional PTA lunch, and unpaid maternity leave (which I did not use because I do not have children). Although I spent money out of my own pocket on classroom resources, I did not have to pay my district for copying papers, using the computers, or for use of the basketball gym.
I knew I was giving up a lot to come to Iowa and pursue my PhD. My husband and I did a lot of soul-searching and financial analysis in the decision-making process. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to study literature and to teach in the college classroom. I do not regret my decision in the slightest. However, I am shocked by the discrepancy between what the University expects from graduate instructors and what they give to graduate instructors. In the department of Rhetoric, I teach one section of Rhetoric per semester–all on my own–and I work 6 hours per week in the Speaking Center. I am not a TA; I run my own classroom 4 days a week. I take much pride in my teaching, and I spend a significant amount of time outside of class working on my lessons, answering emails, meeting with students, and providing quality feedback. I believe my Rhetoric students deserve an excellent experience. At the same time, I take three graduate classes per semester. I am expected to produce quality research, go to conferences, publish scholarship, and to finish my degree in a timely manner. While these expectations–to balance teaching with being a full-time graduate student–are very difficult, I believe that I still, like most of my peers, make a significant contribution to the university. This past weekend (just Saturday and Sunday), I worked over 20 hours. I am not relaying this information in hopes of a day off; I understand that working professionals are expected to do overtime. I am relaying it so that you might see the quality and quantity (the value) of my work.
Graduate students make important contributions to the university in good faith, while being paid very little (and asked to pay student fees, on top of that). Currently, I make $1,217.43 a month after taxes, healthcare for me and my husband, and $25.00 in union dues. I am very fortunate to receive financial support from my husband because rent alone in the Iowa City area is about $700/month for a studio apartment. Many of my peers can not afford to eat nutritious food, to find time for exercise, to pay for healthcare, to buy books for school (which are over $500 a semester), and to have a decent heat temperature in their apartments. For how much labor we give to the university, we receive little compensation (monetary and through benefits). In addition, my department was recently vacated from the EPB due to a mold infestation.
I am not asking for anything unreasonable, here. Though I am 29-years-old, and most of my college friends have well-paying jobs, I do not regret my decision to do my PhD work at Iowa. I am so thankful to have this experience. However, I ask that you consider the quality of life for graduate students when you make your decisions on the COGS contract. Graduate students don’t expect to make big bucks or to have tons of free time. We expect to work hard, but we do not expect to be taken for granted or exploited. We expect to have a good quality of life and to be able to take care of our bodies with healthy food, fair housing, health care, and at least a couple hours per week for self-care. Right now, a lot of students simply can not afford to do these things.
Please consider graduate workers as a valuable part of the University of Iowa. While efficiency in the university is a priority, there are other avenues to cutting costs and generating revenue that will not negatively impact university workers, among them, graduate students.
I appreciate your time.