This December, Columbia graduate students representing a unionization campaign announced that a strong majority of teaching assistants and research assistants support the formation of a graduate workers union. If the National Labor Relations Board approves the Graduate Workers of Columbia's petition to form a union or the Columbia administration agrees to recognize them voluntarily, graduate workers will have the right to bargain collectively to improve their working conditions.
As undergraduates, we're excited to hear about this development—a graduate workers' union will directly benefit our education. Similar unions at more than 60 public university campuses across the country have mobilized against tuition hikes, advocated for increased research funding, and worked to resolve an issue we've been concerned about for years: growing section sizes and smaller numbers of TAs per class.
Columbia promises its students a world-class education, but that promise depends on individualized attention and detailed feedback from our TAs. Such support is impossible when TAs are assigned an unmanageable number of students.
As political science majors, we've seen the effect that unreasonably large workloads for TAs have on our education. In some departments, TAs are responsible for more than 50 students. When that happens, office hours for some classes are too full to accommodate all of our questions. Individualized attention from TAs is critical to a college education, but when TAs have to balance teaching obligations with children, late or inadequate pay, and full-time research and coursework, they may not be able to give us the focused, personal attention we need. When, on top of that, they're saddled with impossible teaching loads, they're often too busy to comment on drafts, clarify difficult concepts, offer career advice, or form meaningful connections with students. TAs are some of the hardest working people we've ever met, but their responsibility for an unreasonable number of students undermines their ability to teach us.
The solution to this problem, however, isn't to cap the size of popular lectures, it's to ensure that there are more TAs in large classrooms so that they can give every undergrad the attention that we expect from an Ivy League education. We're not alone in thinking this. Graduate student unions at numerous public schools have advocated for more TAs and smaller, capped section sizes. Graduate and undergraduate students at Harvard have made a similar push through the Harvard Teaching Campaign.
Despite all the challenges, we've all seen TAs try to uphold the integrity of our education under the burden of large sections. We've seen them lead invigorating discussion sections despite struggling to get by because the University delayed their paychecks. We've received extensive comments on papers and exams while our TAs were raising children without adequate childcare policies. We've had TAs reach out when they knew we needed support, even as they had nowhere to turn to combat sexual harassment in their departments. In fact, most of us have probably received help with a tough problem set or complicated essay from a TA who wasn't sure how to make rent at the end of the month, even if we didn't know it. Just imagine how much richer our educational experience would be if precarious working conditions no longer hampered the professional commitment our TAs make to our education.
TA working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions. We support GWC-UAW Local 2110 because a quality undergraduate education at Columbia depends on their success.
Sejal Singh is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science. Jared Odessky is a Columbia College senior majoring in history.
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