Teaching assistants at Tandon on strike
Undergrad teaching assistants for Tandon’s General Engineering 1003 course have gone on strike demanding competitive wages and an end to alleged administrative mismanagement.
Apr 7, 2021
Undergraduate teaching assistants for the General Engineering 1003 class at Tandon went on strike Monday, April 5, demanding a minimum wage of $25 an hour and better working conditions.
Every semester, hundreds of students take EG1003, a required course for all Tandon engineering students. Due to the course’s large enrollment and labor-intensive syllabus, it employs 107 teaching assistants. More than 80 TAs have signed a petition expressing their discontent with the terms of their employment and working conditions.
The minimum wage for EG1003 TAs is $16.50 an hour — significantly lower than undergraduate TAs employed at other Tandon departments, who typically earn $25 an hour. According to representatives elected by the striking TAs, the pay disparity between departments has led to a high turnover rate for EG1003 TA positions and an increased workload for the TAs who retain their position for the course.
“Over 10 new teaching assistants for EG1003 quit this year before even starting teaching after receiving a higher offer from a different department,” the petition reads. “This is unacceptable. Having a third of the new incoming hires quit before even receiving assignments drastically decreases morale, and definitely puts a strain on the remaining TAs.”
WSN spoke with four elected representatives of the striking TAs as well as four additional TAs who are assigned to the course in various capacities. All of them requested anonymity, as they feared their job prospects would be damaged by publicly associating themselves with labor organizing.
The TAs said they have outsized roles in the functioning of the course and oftentimes must assume tasks they believe should be the responsibility of professors. Two years ago, when the robotics technologies used for student instruction changed, the course became significantly more difficult for teaching assistants, who were required to learn and teach more complex concepts with no change in compensation.
Multiple TAs explained that they are asked to help develop the course syllabus, communicate with students, grade and provide feedback on assignments. They also must respond to sensitive issues such as mental health crises and sexual harassment.
“Our department is set up like a company,” one TA said. “Professors have no effect on the grade of the course, or the students. TAs grade all the lab reports, all the presentations — they have all the effect on grades … What we’re pushing for is the full-time faculty to actually be involved in the course.”
Catherine Wagner, a Tandon alumna, wrote an open letter to the Tandon administration and course faculty detailing her experience as an EG1003 TA. Wagner also charged Tandon with failing to adhere to faculty standards set by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
“Now that I have a full time engineering role, I realize how absolutely absurd the stress of my TA job was,” Wagner wrote in the letter. “Professors contribute minimal work to the development and [maintenance of] this course, and are still paid full salaries off the work of students.”
Unlike other schools within NYU — which overwhelmingly employ graduate students to provide teaching assistance for their courses — the Tandon School of Engineering employs undergraduate students to assist in grading assignments, tutoring students, leading recitations and teaching laboratories. While these positions provide students with leadership experience and employment, undergrad TAs are not covered by the collective bargaining agreement available to graduate students through the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the union representing grad student workers at NYU.
According to an email from a spokesperson for GSOC, which is currently voting on whether to authorize their own strike, the union supports the TAs on strike at Tandon.
“After years of NYU failing to meet student workers’ needs for adequate pay and benefits proportional to the university’s reliance on student labor, undergrads and grads alike are standing up and taking action,” the spokesperson wrote. “The EG1003 workers have the solidarity of grad workers in GSOC behind them in their fight.”
At present, EG1003 course administrators have not publicly acknowledged the strike. Laboratory sections have been postponed or consolidated into online sessions without explanation to students. Students and TAs have reported that course content has been shuffled so that professors can administer the course without TA support.
Jack Bringardner, who teaches EG1003, did not immediately respond to request for comment. A spokesperson for the Tandon School of Engineering has yet to issue a statement.
Trace Miller contributed additional reporting.
Email Arnav Binaykia at [email protected]