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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Mail Bag

Letter to the Editor: English teaching fellows seek more

Graduate students of the UH English Department who work as teaching fellows reached out to President Renu Khator hoping to begin a dialogue about teaching fellows working conditions on Monday. Low wages are at the heart of matter for TFs, who make between $9,600 and $11,200 per year; rates have not changed since 1993. Without adjustments for inflation, these rates of pay situate TFs beneath the bottom 10th percentile of Houston salaries and just below the poverty threshold as reported in the 2011 U.S. census.

Likewise, TFs pursuing doctorates pay about 16 percent of their annual income back to UH through fees, which were increased last year to nearly $1,685.70 annually. For TFs pursuing MFAs, this amount is closer to 19 percent of their $9,600 annually. Workplace law obligates students to work only for the University, making it illegal for TFs to work the extra jobs requisite for survival.

Chances are if you’ve taken an undergraduate writing course at UH, your instructor was a graduate student TF. First-year writing courses are large, capped at 27 students in 2012, but are still the smallest classes most first-year students take. Graduate student TFs are often the only instructors students know intimately. Where in other departments, teaching assistantships function as partnerships between graduate students and senior professors, English department TFs are entirely responsible for the instruction of first-year writing courses, of which they teach two sections per semester. This means that graduate student TFs instruct an average of 54 students per semester — that’s 54 names to learn, 54 individual writing levels to accommodate, 162 papers to grade and comment on and 54 final grades to assign, all in addition to the TFs’ own course load of three graduate seminars per semester.

As if this weren’t enough to juggle, a recent survey revealed that 71 percent of English TFs work an average of 1.9 outside jobs in order to cover basic living expenses, receiving an average of 42 percent of their income from outside sources; 81.6 percent of English TFs believe they “would be able to deliver a better educational experience to UH undergrads if (they) did not have to work additional jobs.”

The petition the TFs sent to Khator presented a series of statistics displaying the inability of TFs to uphold the University’s mission statement of “creating an environment in which student success can be ensured,” according to the University’s website. The petition culminated in several requests, the first of which was a response from Khator and the initiation of an open, honest and respectful dialogue about student working conditions. Khator has not responded.

As members of the UH community, TFs are now appealing to our fellow UH students, both graduate and undergraduate, for support. Our aspirations are simple and pivotal not only to the collective success of we, the TFs, as we pursue our academic and pedagogical goals, but to our undergraduate students as well. We hereby publically petition for the following:

  • A fair and just salary of $19,213.00 (Houston’s living wage)
  • Full remission of fees: $1,685.70 per year
  • All insurance expenses to be covered by the University: $766.71 per year
  • This comes to an estimated raise in pay and benefits valuing $21,665.41 per student per year.

— The Teaching Fellows of the UH English Department

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