COGS takes aim at undergrad TAs


Tom Jorgensen

The University of Iowa Campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.

The University of Iowa officials and the graduate-student union don’t agree on why the College of Engineering is seeing more undergraduate teaching assistants than in previous years.

This year, the engineering school has 263 undergraduate TAs. This is a 74 percent increase from 2010-11, when the college had 151 undergraduate TAs. The number has for the most part increased steadily since 2010.

Members of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students contend that the undergraduate teaching assistants are being exploited by the college as officials take advantage of undergraduates’ vulnerability and financial desperation, as opposed to paying higher wages to graduate students.

“Reverting to undergraduate labor just goes to show the extent administrators are willing to go to denigrate the quality of undergraduate education in order to make a profit and save money,” said Ruth Bryant, a COGS spokeswoman.

Keri Hornbuckle, the engineering school’s associate dean for academic programs, said undergraduate TAs are paid around $9 an hour. According to the UI website, teaching assistantships are a “great source of income for graduate students.” There, it says, graduate students holding a 25 percent teaching assistant appointment are guaranteed a minimum tuition scholarship of $3,807 per semester. Though the number of hours dedicated to being a TA likely varies, an undergraduate TA would have to work 28.2 hours per week to make the minimum amount of money a graduate student would.

According to reports from the engineering school’s Curriculum Committee, increasing the number of undergraduate TAs is part of a strategic plan to save money.

Hornbuckle said the practice of hiring undergraduate TAs benefits graduate students because the money saved is put towards their research.

“Increasingly we want to put our graduate students in the laboratory, in the research environment more and more,” she said. “We appreciate their teaching support, but for many of our undergraduate courses, upper-level undergraduate students can serve that function well.”

“I feel strongly this is the way to go, to provide more research assistantship so they can spend their energy on their research. That’s what’s going to make their future.”

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Hornbuckle denied that the college is exploiting its undergraduates, saying the school has a plan for the money saved.

“It’s not simply to save money that we give away or goes floating in the air,” she said. “We have strategic plans for that money, and the graduate students are a very, very important part of that strategic plan.”

Hornbuckle also said undergraduates serve primarily as graders and never actually teach classes.

“We never put undergraduate students in front of a classroom as the primary instructor; we’ve never done that,” she said. “There’s some exceptions in an emergency, but it’s just not our policy to have TAs as primary teachers.”

This point is something that has prevented the largest college at the UI from pursuing the same strategy.

Helena Dettmer, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences associate dean for undergraduate programs & curriculum, said the school does not have a similar aim.

“We have not purposely been trying to increase the number of undergraduate TAs because they are limited in what they can do,” Dettmer said. ”They cannot grade or evaluate the work of other undergraduates, for example.”

Undergraduates in the engineering school, Hornbuckle said, make excellent TAs and are used for all kinds of functions such as tutors, research assistants, and technicians.

Parker Koch, who graduated from the engineering school last spring, served as an undergraduate TA for five semesters. He said his responsibilities included grading and holding office hours for two of the three classes in which he served as a TA. In the third, he said, he did lecture on occasion when a professor was sick or on leave.

“I can’t say I ever felt exploited,” Koch wrote in an email to the Daily Iowan. “Though, at times, managing my schoolwork and TA work was demanding.”

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