Monday, April 27, 2009

Fair Pay Day 2009

The Lilly Ledbetter act is a start, but there is still much more work ahead. We will never be able to legislate away all injustice—nor should we. We can’t write a law for all the thoughtless and venal things that people do1. But we can call people on them and ask them to account for their actions.

I will celebrate Equal Pay Day with a story that I hope is less common today.

Let’s go back to 1985, when my honors Freshman Chemistry laboratory professor and teaching assistant (TA) were both female. (This would turn out to be the last time in my entire 8 semesters at Berkeley that I would have a female professor in the sciences.) My TA held office hours at the ungodly hour of 8:00 AM. Usually, I found her working alone in her office during office hours. Occasionally, she sat and knitted while we chatted. I asked her why she held office hours so early; if she held them at a reasonable hour, surely more students would attend.

She laughed. That was precisely why she held them at the earliest allowable hour. “Let me tell you something. They give PhDs out for research, not teaching.”

Hmph! I would never be that jaded. I would be there for my students!

Fast forward to 1990 during my last semester of teaching in grad school. I had made the mistake in 1988 and 1989 of performing my work as TA for all upper division Physical Chemistry classes diligently. The professor (Prof hbar) who taught Quantum Mechanics declared that I was the best Quantum TA he had worked with in 20 years. So long as I was available, I should always be assigned that course.

But the department chair (Prof A), who made the teaching assignments had a different agenda. He believed that Freshman Chemistry was the front lines of teaching and no one should be exempt. The normal teaching load was 2 sections of Freshman Chemistry; 10 hours workload for each section gave a halftime appointment. Prof A said I had to teach Freshman Chemistry. Professor hbar said I had to teach Quantum. They compromised. Prof A assigned me one section of Freshman Chemistry, plus Quantum Chemistry and Thermodynamics for Biochemistry majors for good measure.

He gave me credit for 5 hours for each of the two upper division classes. I was supposed to attend all lectures, hold office hours, write and post homework solutions and sample laboratory reports, hold office hours and grade homework, quizzes and exams for three different classes.

There was no way I could do that in 20 hours. Just attending the lectures for three classes would have taken me 10 hours a week. I appealed to another senior professor (Prof B) for help. Prof B told me to keep track of my hours and then stop after 20 hours each week, returning all uncompleted work to the main professor for each class. He also told me to alert all three professors of my workload. All three decided to maximize my time by skipping their lectures. LOL

I also began to hold office hours at 8:00 AM on Friday mornings so that students wouldn’t bother me while I did my own work2. I had become what I loathed, but my former TA was right. Self preservation came first.

The point of this story is not that I was a great or lousy TA. It’s that equal pay for equal work is a slippery and elusive ideal. People and job responsibilities are rarely exactly equal. Someone has to divvy up the work and decide equivalence and evaluate performance. Those people are fallible humans.

As heavy as my workload that semester was, one of my friends had it even worse. She was given the entire class, all three sections, of Chemistry for nursing majors. Those students need more help than those from any other class, mainly because they lack the foundational Mathematics and Physics required to study Chemistry. To make up for that, they were given extra time in lab and a “problem-solving session” led weekly by the TA. This was easily double the normal teaching assistant workload.

Surprise! This assignment was always given to a woman.

Several women who had borne the brunt of unusually heavy teaching assignments went together to Prof A’s office to seek fairness. He said that he assigned that class to female graduate students because the students were all female in that class.

Why should it matter if they are taught by a woman or a man?

He switched tactics. He said that he gave the more difficult teaching assignments to the better TAs. We received our work assignments because we all had received such high marks for our teaching skill. The women left and appealed to another senior professor (Prof C) who queried him privately.

Prof A told Prof C an entirely different story. He said that he gave the men lighter teaching assignments because they have research to do if they hoped to graduate. Prof C asked about the very high number of women who dropped out of the department with a Masters (instead of a Phd) and told him to spread the pain around.

Prof A said that he couldn’t do that. If he gave the men the same heavy workloads as women, the men would complain.

Umm, what exactly had the women done? Was he even listening?

Fortunately, the other professors held a meeting and relieved Prof A of his job assigning teaching duties. And I continued to hold office hours at 8:00 AM on Friday mornings.


1. Would you want to live in a society with that many lawyers?

2. I rue the day a student from another section walked into my office hours and asked for help. He started to show up EVERY SINGLE Friday at 8:00 AM sharp, sometimes beating me to the office. WTF?

He explained that he had failed Freshman Chemistry the first time around due to partying and was determined not to let that happen again. He was paying a tutor $30/hour and the guy didn’t know as much as I did. Plus, I was “free”. That’s the life of a graduate student. Slave labor.

From End the University as We Know It:
The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

1 comment:

  1. I was a Masters/Ph.D. student from 2001-2007 and I can tell you that, at least at my school, workload limitations were strictly enforced. I can't even imaging TAing 3 courses at the same time!!

    On the other hand, I only TAed 2 courses that were not "Physics for Life Sciences" in 6 years. And I was assigned to the 100-level course every semester for all 6 years of grad school. Why? Because those Life Sciences students need "extra TLC", so of course it made sense to them to staff that course with as many women as possible. I'm still not sure whether to be insulted by that because actually (this was a physics department) the women in the dept generally *were* the better teachers / communicators.

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