A GTA Prof Recollects Our Last Two Years…

In a recent provincewide meeting, a question came in about why workload had become a major issue in this round of bargaining, when it wasn’t as prominent in, say, 2017.

Now, at some level that’s a simple question — it was the membership that determined that workload was the #1 priority. They did this via pre-bargaining surveys, 24 Local demand-setting meetings, and the provincewide final demand-setting meeting (that delegates of each Local attended). So the simplest answer to why workload was the new top priority in this round of bargaining is “democracy”.

The question of why faculty determined that workload was the top priority is a bit more nuanced, and a Zoom chat boxes wasn’t necessarily the best place to provide thoughtful analysis, but I speculated that the issue was set up for crisis by the increasing tendency of supervisors to max out the SWFs of full-time faculty to the 44-hour limit, coupled with the (obviously related) increase of class sizes, and that the switch to emergency pandemic learning tipped workload into a crisis situation, generally.

I received an e-mail yesterday that supported that interpretation (and that highlights the little-discussed concern regarding academic integrity during emergency remote teaching). I’m happy to share it below — I’ve edited it for length and clarity, and to remove potentially-identifying information.

Hi One College Prof,

Your recent post resonated with me and I thought I’d share my experience over the last 2 years of online education.

As the pandemic opened, none of us expected to still be in this situation, including administration. Mistakes made in the early days of this can easily be forgiven. As March became April, and the Winter semester became the Summer semester it became more and more obvious that this was not going to be a quick pivot back to the classroom. At this point, I turned to my department leadership for advice on things like delivering assessments that we could have some confidence in. There was a stunning lack of support for doing any sort of proctoring or attempting to enforce integrity standards. It is indeed a thorny issue, but that’s why leadership was needed, so that we didn’t have ad-hoc solutions being deployed. The advice I received was, “Don’t proctor, it’s not worth it”.

I suppose in a short term crisis we can accept this, and support the notion that we want to reach the students we can, and those that choose not to engage honestly will bear consequences when we return to face to face or when they reach industry. Smacks of kicking a problem down the road, but again, short term crisis measures can be forgiven.

In those early days there were many requests to overload the number of students beyond the typical 40 per section. Without physical limitations of the classroom, and with potential layoffs being discussed, many felt they needed to do their part to help out. The budget savings were found by not renewing part time contracts and by minimizing factors such as total contact hours on the SWF by increasing class sizes instead of opening and staffing new sections. Once more, crisis measures can be forgiven for their aggressiveness, and we certainly felt the pressure to make this work. One side effect of this increase in students was an increase in email support for panicked and disconnected students. That was volunteer work. We stepped up to be professional and support our students as much as possible because we do indeed care.

Enough history, however–let’s get back to the present day! These conditions still exist. Some students who have never faced a proctored assessment are nearing graduation and lack the skills their diplomas claim they have. Contract cheating is running rampant in many classes. There is still no solution for delivering assessments online being promoted by “leadership”, indeed permission must be given to proctor, and then only for the largest assessments. While some students have done well in their studies and have learned a great deal, these are often the self-motivated students we know would do well regardless of the format. My experience doesn’t suggest these are the majority of students. These students are worried that when they graduate, their diploma will be looked at with skepticism. They are worried that their cheating classmates who have obtained higher grades may edge them out of jobs. They are discouraged and frustrated with the institution of higher learning’s abdication of its responsibility to assess learning …. and they are justified in their feelings.

As always, the faculty are bearing the brunt of this, and what do we do about it? We counsel, we listen, we suggest things like out of class projects that they can put in a portfolio to set themselves apart, or practicing their interviewing skills so that employers will be able to perceive the validity of their education from their answers. We certainly don’t shrug our shoulders and walk away.

[. . .]

What about those in the middle? Many are floundering. Many are getting the fully reasonable consequences of not being diligent students. Yet with whatever compassion we have left in our bag of tricks we are working with them, trying to support them, trying to keep them away from further depression and anxiety, trying to cram those essential bits of learning outcomes into their heads so they can try to pick up the pieces of their semester. It’s that time of year where the emails are normally a deluge, and with increased class sizes, it’s become a tsunami.

In the midst of all this, Doug Ford says we don’t have the right to bargain for a wage increase above 1% as inflation soars around us. (Probably not going to buy the teacher’s vote anyway, better to find a few bucks in the budget on the backs of the public service to pander to “the base”.)  The CEC says, “Everything’s fine, here’s our offer–take it or leave it”, but lacks the backbone to force a vote on it … they know full well that the system is running on volunteer labour.

[. . .]

It seems once more that there’s an attack on the people who actually do the work that the institutions provide – be they nurses or professors. Organized labour has always been the enemy of management that wishes to take advantage of workers because employers have always wielded a disproportionate amount of leverage on individuals. As management asks us to be compassionate towards our students, and towards their challenges at maintaining their budgets, it’s about time they turned their gaze back to the front lines and recognize that we are tired and we are fed up with demands from both students and from administration to make this online environment work with the modicum of support that’s been given. Stop trying to figure out how we’re going to go hybrid in the fall, or offer half the classes online through Continuing Education until you figure out how to restore the quality, in collaboration with faculty. Come down out of the Ivory Tower and strike a fair deal that recognizes the value of the work that is being done to support your lifestyle.

I encourage everyone to endorse the strike vote and send a clear message that we’re tired of “figuring it out” month after month without support.  Send the message that we’re tired of being asked to demonstrate compassion without some acknowledgement of the cost of that compassion. Send the message that it’s not ok to keep trying to find ways to use non-union workers to do our work by contracting out and skirting the rules

As sure as god made little green apples, if they impose a contract, it will lack article 2 that protects the creation of full time, meaningful positions.

Give the union [members] the power to say, “When we’ve hit our limit on administrative hours, we’re forwarding the emails to management to deal with”.  Give them the power to find many, many creative job actions other than a picket line to make the point that we are worth every cent [the colleges] spend on us.

A very tired [. . .] College faculty member.

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