Friday, 29 June 2012


Just making the obvious official: I'm not finding time to write anything here, and I have a very busy summer ahead, so I'm going to put this blog on the back burner for a while. I'll probably put up occasional notes and links, and I hope to return to more regular and substantial blogging eventually, but for the next few months there won't be much to see here.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

GTA pay

The British Postgraduate Philosophy Association has published a survey of GTAs' working hours which suggests that many UK institutions, including Lancaster, pay their GTAs less than minimum wage in real terms.

I was first startled by this, and then ashamed that I hadn't done more, in my role as Part I Convenor (and therefore our GTAs' line-manager) to check with them how much work they were actually doing.

Brian Leiter posted about this, and got a little bit of discussion, including from me:
[1st comment]
I convene part I philosophy at Lancaster, one of the intitutions picked out by the BPPA as paying less than minimum wage in real terms, and I therefore manage the excellent group of teaching assistants who are being paid so badly. I have several responses to this survey:

1) I agree that GTAs are underpaid and generally undervalued, and I’m pleased to have some extra ammunition for arguing that case with the people who set wages and conditions at Lancaster. I hope the UCU and other unions will also do some pushing here.

2) I find the results worrying in a different way. Working backwards from a real pay less than £6.08/hr and our official rate of pay and hours (2 hours of prep for every hour in the classroom), a GTA doing 3 seminars/week would have to be doing about 6 hours of prep and marking per seminar, per week, to be getting less than minimum wage. Someone doing 6 hours per group per week is not working efficiently, and needs training and mentoring. I’m unhappy that my GTAs are overworking to this extent, and while I do not believe that amount of preparation is necessary for the teaching we ask them to do, I clearly need to do more here.

3) There’s a tension in how we understand GTA work. Traditionally in UK universities, it’s a valuable apprenticeship in university teaching offered as part of postgraduate training, on the assumption that our students plan an academic career. Pay isn’t the central point, and we rely on our GTAs to be enthusiastic amateurs who do the work for its own sake and for career-development purposes, not just to put food on the table. But UK universities increasingly rely on professional adjuncts including GTAs to deliver first-year and other undergraduate teaching, and adjunct teaching is turning into a career, or a substitute for one. The UK is following a path already taken by the US in this, of course. If that’s what being a GTA is, then it ought to be paid and supported far better, and be far less precarious, than it is. But I’m not convinced that the way to make that case is to advocate increasing hourly pay, or adding an extra hour or two of prep. Why shouldn’t being a GTA be a proper part-time job with a salary?

[2nd comment]
Addendum: It’s been pointed out to me by one of Lancaster's GTAs, Sarah Hitchin, that prep time includes marking every 5 weeks, so my claim in (2) that an average 6 hours of prep per week per seminar is inefficient work isn’t fair. What I intended as the main point of (2) – that I and probably others who manage GTAs need to do more to monitor and help them to avoid overwork, as well as to push for better pay – stands, though.
Some further calculations:

Over a 5-week period of teaching 3 groups, we pay:
  • 15 taught hours = 45 paid hours
  • 15 hours of seminars leaves 30 paid hours for prep (= reading, planning), marking, and admin (= attending plagiarism and standardisation meetings, office hours, email, physically getting coursework to and from Gillian, etc.).
  • 2 hours per week lectures = 10 hours lectures leaves 20 hours for prep, marking, admin
  • 2 hours a week prep (total, not per seminar) = 10 hours prep leaves 10 hours for marking
  • 10 hours to mark 45 pieces of coursework = less than 15 minutes per piece (which isn’t enough, obviously)
  • no time at all for admin
This is clearly inadequate. At this rate of pay, a GTA would either have to skimp on the work, or - much more likely - allow themselves to be exploited.

Over a 5-week period with 3 groups, to be paid minimum wage in real terms, i.e. £6.08 per hour’s actual work:
  • total pay = £41.55 x 15 hours = £623.25
  • divided by £6.08 = 102.5 hours (= 20.5 hours per week)
  • 15 hours of seminars leaves 87.5 hours for prep and marking
  • 2 hours per week lectures = 10 hours lectures leaves 77.5 hours for prep and marking
  • Guesswork from here on:
  • 4 further hours per week prep and admin = 20 hours leaves 55.5 hours for marking
  • 55.5 hours to mark 45 pieces of coursework = nearly 1¼ hours per piece
  • So to be paid less than minimum wage, some or all of marking, prep and admin are taking even longer than these estimates.
Comment: more than an hour to mark a 1,500-word piece of coursework strikes me as excessive. I realise that this includes preparation (e.g. reading) for the marking as a whole and some double-checking and returning to borderline cases, but I do think there's room for training and mentoring to speed this up. It takes me about an hour to mark and write extensive comments on a 5,000-word third-year essay, for comparison. I'm more experienced than most (not all) of our first-year tutors, but I don't have some special magic talent for marking fast, I've just learned to do it efficiently.

More detail still: the PHIL100 coursework isn't all essays: it's (1) a close reading exercise; (2) 'critical thinking', i.e. formal and semi-formal logic exercises plus a short essay; (3) a bibliography; (4) an essay. My experience of marking samples for standardisation is that (1) and especially (2) are quick to mark, (3) rather slow, (4) middling. If that's true for others, this suggests that the average of 1¼ hours per piece includes the bibliography (3) taking a lot more than that each. Perhaps that coursework needs to be redesigned.

A first sketch of a more realistic rate of pay, again for 3 seminar groups over 5 weeks:
  • 15 taught hours
  • attend 2 lectures/week = 10 hours
  • PREP: 4 hours/week prep including reading, planning, office hour, email = 20 hours
  • MARKING: ½ hr for each of 45 pieces of coursework, plus 2-3 hours for standardisation, plus 2-3 hours for plagiarism cases, plus a bit of leeway = 30 hours
  • = 75 hours total actual work (15 hours or 2 days per week)
= Rate of pay of 5 hours per taught hour (compare our current rate of 3/1)

A pie-in-the-sky idea: Why shouldn't being a GTA be a proper part-time job pro-rata on the official salary scale, with benefits?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Poetry news

Obviously The Onion is great in general, but this is something like a work of genius.

Paul Fussell is dead

NYT obituary here. His most famous book is The Great War & Modern Memory, but Wartime, which is about the second rather than the first World War, is the one I'll remember him for. It pushed me into thinking that I should write about war and soldiers (my 'Under the Mountain' is forthcoming in Res Publica); just as importantly, it suggested that I was allowed to write in the way I wanted to, rather than the professional academic way I believed I had to.

UPDATE: Jay Winter in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Civic Health Talks

The series of talks I organised is now done. I recorded them, with their question-periods; click on the talk titles below to listen or download.

1. Derek Edyvane, 'Civic Health & Civic Vitality'
2. Sam Clark, 'Good Work'
3. Kerri Woods, 'Solidarity, Vulnerability, & Civic Health'
4. John O'Neill, 'Living Well Within Limits'

I'm glad I did this, even though it was quite a lot of work and stress - I'd slightly forgotten what it was like to fret about whether anyone's going to turn up to the play or gig I'm promoting. Thanks again to all the speakers.