Graduate Students Caught in the Crunch

One of the first discoveries Radcliffe and Harvard students make during their four years here is the pervasive role of graduate students in their education. Harvard's register offers the prospective undergraduate virtually no idea of the fact that graduate students provide close to one-half the teaching and most of the face-to-face instruction at the University.

Like Lewis Carroll's ubiquitous Cheshire Cat, the teaching fellow (TF) appears everywhere--in the laboratories, lecture halls, classrooms, libraries and house--available for assistance, advice, instruction and recommendations. The TF is the intermediary between the undergraduate and a harried junior and aloof senior faculty; the TF is the basic source of personalized instruction standing between the much touted 6:1 student-faculty ratio and the unmentionable $3200 yearly tuiton.

The Harvard teaching fellowship is, at least, an important resource for administration, faculty and undergraduates alike; it is, at best, a problematic resource for the graduate student.

The central role of the teaching fellow at Harvard is itself a recent development. During the 1960s, as the number of instructors--junior faculty who at a relatively low salary handled the bulk of smaller classroom teaching--first declined and then vanished altogether, the University looked elsewhere for its daily instructional staff.

Graduate students, whose numbers had correspondingly increased over the previous decade because of the bountiful outside support of the federal government and private foundations, seemed a likely choice. Out of their vast numbers they could provide even more personalized teaching than the instructors, and at an even lower salary.

Thus, financial expediency and the existence of a pool of willing graduate students who would have little other chance of gaining any teaching experience gave rise to a revivified tutorial program in which the teaching fellows served as the bulwark.

But the teaching fellowship is, of course, something more than the essential service it provides the University, for it offers the graduate student experiences and opportunities many TFs feel to be the most productive and memorable part of their lives at Harvard. The ability to teach and the possibility of gaining some close contacts with others in the general Harvard community are both viewed by graduate students as a welcome relief after the first two years as isolated students attempting to gain a foothold on the bottom rung of the academic hierarchy.

Few TFs, however, escape the suspicion that the remarkable degree of independence permitted them as instructors might be equally a matter of indifference as of conscious educational strategy, and that whatever freedom and security allowed them as teaching fellows, they find no counterpart in salary--their lives being bound on one side by a persistent and increasingly insistent financial insecurity and on the other by the spectre of unemployment.

Yet, in the past, many graduate students stayed on for several years, preferring the benefits of steady if poorly paid work to the uncertain future of job-hunting in the stultifying academia out of which they had only recently and partially emerged. And the University, for its part, enjoyed the fruits of these inner hesitations and deliberations, namely the heart of its stable, diligent and economical teaching staff.

However, as the outside finds that had made graduate students a profitable enterprise began to dry up, the University reevaluated its graduate school program. In an effort to reduce the number of graduate students and the amount of time they spent in the University community, the administration devised a number of financial aid plans that jeopardize the teaching fellow program at the same time.

Like the Cheshire Cat, the teaching fellow may now dematerialize. Asking for more work in less time, the University has placed the TF in the position of trying to study and launch his or her career while aiding Harvard substantially in the interim. It is an untenable position whose costs must be borne somewhere.

And so it is under these circumstances that graduate students, teaching fellows in fact or expectation, face increasing difficulties in surmounting the social, financial and psychological obstacles of graduate school life. Viewed as a marginal part of the University by their mentors (faculty), their students (the undergraduates), the administration (which sees them in terms of financial slots) and, worst of all, themselves, the graduate student teaching fellows do the essential work of teaching in the University.

The teaching fellow is placed in what has become an ever-tightening bind of bearing the lion's share of the University's real work and trying to finish his or her own research in the hope of landing a position as an academic journey man and gaining a measure of self-respect. Born out of administrative financial opportunism and disregard of the needs of the individuals invovled, the graduate school and teaching fellow programs have been established with financial security as a permanent feature.

Teaching fellows have found their salaries (subsistence wage of $3240 a year) taxed by the University through tuition payments as a way of generating additional University income. Now the University is leaning even more heavily upon graduate students; time constraints and financial chicanery have squeezed that small margin of satisfaction and sense of productive accomplishment that graduate students have been able to enjoy to the edge.

At the breaking point the teaching fellow appears to be nothing; but he or she just as well might be, if not everything, at least something.

The above article, written by the steering committee of the Graduate Student Panel, is reprinted from The Teaching Fellows' Handbook.

"financial expediency and the existence of willing graduate students gave rise to a revivified tutorial program."