The Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science couldn’t teach its classes without its more than 200 graduate assistants, said Ted Zorn, the associate administrator.
Since the role of graduate assistants varies so much throughout departments, the University doesn’t have any statistics about how much undergraduate instruction they do. But according to the Graduate Students Organizing Congress, it is estimated that teaching assistants do 40 percent to 45 percent of the teaching at the University.
Some graduate assistants say undergraduate education would be improved if the graduate assistants teaching those classes were more involved in making decisions that affect them.
And GradSOC members say a graduate assistant union would give graduate assistants that voice. GradSOC is currently holding a card-signing drive to obtain a union vote.
To gain a union vote, GradSOC needs signatures from 35 percent of the 3,700 graduate assistants at the University, but it wants to surpass that and get 65 percent. GradSOC is currently more than half way to its goal of 65 percent, said GradSOC steering committee member Britt Abel.
Before an official count of the cards comes out, the signatures need to be legitimized by the state Bureau of Mediation Services. Only graduate students employed by the University can sign a card.
If the BMS determines GradSOC has enough support, graduate assistants would have a union election for which they need 50 percent of votes plus one to gain an affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which have recently merged. If GradSOC wins the election, it will start bargaining with the University to create a contract.
Teaching and research assistants serve roles that are vital at a major research university, said Christine Maziar, dean of the Graduate School and vice president for research.
“We’re going to work real hard and improve support for our grad students,” Maziar said, adding that support for the graduate students will improve the graduate program and the undergraduate experience.
Jamie Ohlden, a senior majoring in German, said the majority of her language classes have been taught by teaching assistants. She said the assistants are important because they do a lot of preparation and work for the students.
“The supply and demand isn’t balanced without the teaching assistants,” Ohlden said.
Graduate assistants are absolutely fundamental, said Joel Weinsheimer, director of writing and undergraduate studies in English.
The English department has more than 70 teaching assistants who serve four functions.
They can be graders in lecture classes, recitation leaders, independent class teachers and writing lab tutors, Weinsheimer said. Most graduate assistants start grading assignments and work up to teaching their own class.
To teach a class, graduate assistants go through training and can then teach certain classes like expository writing and composition.
Abel, who is a teaching assistant in the German department, said graduate assistants teach all the language classes in her department.
Greta Williams, an undergraduate German major, said about half of her language classes have been taught by teaching assistants.
“They are very important,” Williams said, adding there aren’t enough professors and they don’t have enough time to cover all the German classes.
Maziar said research and teaching assistants share a fundamental purpose of education and research with the rest of the University committee.
Research assistants, who work with a faculty adviser, are often very involved with the work, Maziar said. They can do a series of jobs involving simulation, laboratory work and survey work.