A career opportunity or slave labour

On Sunday the Independent ran an article entitled ‘Postgraduate students are being used as ‘slave labour‘ discussing how more and more teaching is being done by postgraduates, in order to save on teaching costs. This dovetails quite nicely with an email I had from our Postgrad representatives in Senate last week asking about standard practice in my department: How much teaching do postgrads do? Is there training? Are we supported?

Personally, I love teaching. I love teaching rather too much, and have been banned from teaching next year as – given the opportunity – I would probably prefer to be debating with undergrads and demonstrating labs and writing schemes of work than actually getting on with some research. Sometimes anyway.

While I could be cynical about various departments’ reliance on PhDs and Masters students teaching their undergrads, there are definitely times when I think a postgrad genuinely can do a better job than a Professor. I remember only too well what it was like to be a scared first year: so I’m encouraging; I don’t mind staying late to explain things; I can relate to the troubles with remembering things and can still call my own mnemonics (A Course In Karma Sutra Should Further My Orgasm!) to mind with ease; and I’m not yet too specialised. This isn’t to say that I won’t improve with experience, or that I could lecture on a particular topic with more flair than the academics in my department. But when it comes to small group teaching on a broad range of subjects, there’s something to be said for a certain kind of postgrad.

Applying for teaching hours was, for me, a no brainer. With the rent I was paying when I first started grad school (plus train fares thanks to a long distance relationship and outrageously expensive music lessons) I was pretty strapped for cash, and I’d just come from working in a school, so I knew I had the aptitude. Teaching even seemed relatively well paid: around £11/hour for lab demonstrating, and slightly more for group teaching. Given my uncertainty about pursuing an academic career, maintaining my teaching skills seemed a sensible career move, and if I was paid a decent rate then all the better.

But there’s £11/hour and there’s £11/hour. When you’re paid for a two hour lab, you’re expected to read up before hand. That’s fine when it’s your supervisor’s prac, and the reading is a 10 minute skip through a practical you could single-handedly run. When you’re teaching plant anatomy and you’re a geneticist or an ecologist then suddenly the length of time you’re actually working for can double. And when your tutorial group asks you to cover the material from the Ecology lectures before their exam… but didn’t actually go to the lectures so can’t tell you what was covered, but just expect you to cover everything on the syllabus, then an hour’s tutorial can turn into an entire evening’s prep.

I know I’m lucky. There’s no question that I should teach for free, or in exchange for my stipend, which I know is the case for many. And I enjoy teaching, so even if it tires me out it feels worth it. But the prevalence of short contracts and by the hour pay rates puts many postgrads into a position where they’re essentially just being exploited. The department gains cheap labour, and with so many students struggling for money there will always be someone willing to do it, no matter how low they push the bar.

Some how, I don’t see this situation changing any time soon.

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