Opinion guest column

Improving education at MIT through graduate student unionization

A union would alleviate the burden on graduate workers acting as students, teachers, and researchers

I came to MIT excited for an excellent graduate education in Materials Science and Engineering. After my first few weeks, it became clear to me that much of the work of crafting an education for both graduate and undergraduate students fell to the TAs. They were responsible for attending lectures, drafting problem sets in advance, teaching multiple recitation sessions each week, preparing review sessions, holding office hours, updating and configuring Canvas, drafting exam questions, proctoring exams, and grading problem sets, term papers, and exams. They do all of this while still being expected to conduct world-class research and take on many additional administrative and maintenance tasks.

Under the current system, faced with a massive workload and limited by time, TAs have two choices: 1) work very long hours to make sure students have the information and practice they need to be successful in the course, while also continuing research for their thesis, or 2) maintain a healthy work-life balance and keep a normal work schedule, but give fewer resources and less help to students, and be less productive with research. Much thought has already been given to how graduate students could win comprehensive mental health, vision, and dental care; more affordable housing options; protections for international students; and fair working conditions for researchers through unionization. However, education should not be overlooked. Through unionization, graduate students would have collective bargaining power to negotiate more support for TAs and ensure students, both graduate and undergraduate, receive a world-class education to match MIT’s impressive reputation.

After arriving at MIT, eager to tackle my first classes as a graduate student, I began to struggle to apply broad lecture concepts in practice. I stared at the homework with no clue how to begin despite having a good grasp of the material from the lectures. I found that problem sets were often created years ago and recycled despite there being massive changes to the course curriculum and faculty teaching the course. Repeatedly, definitions and concepts differed between lectures and problem sets, causing massive confusion since they were all still so new to me.

While I hoped that recitations would clear things up and give some much-needed example problems, we had only an hour to cover a few problems out of the dozens I was supposed to learn, practice, and master. Professors rarely wrote the problems themselves, and as a result, the practice rarely prepared me for the exams. 

My TAs did try to help bridge the gap by holding extra office hours, and although they all wanted me to succeed, many didn’t have enough time to devote to teaching while simultaneously conducting quality research. Some TAs weren’t able to attend lectures, review or modify recycled problem sets, upload solutions consistently, or finish grading exams and homework before the next problem set or exam. But addressing all of these issues that hinder student learning would take an incredible amount of time — time TAs certainly don’t have!

TAs face the unfair conundrum of whether to prioritize being good teachers and researchers or working extremely long hours to attempt both with limited success. Some students TA because they need funding, to complete a course requirement for a minor, or because they were involuntarily assigned the position by a department in need of more teaching staff. Still, some do it because they genuinely really enjoy teaching. Whatever their reason for becoming a TA, they face a massive challenge with relatively little support. 

While many professors are trying to juggle myriad other responsibilities such as advising students on their research, traveling for conferences, writing textbooks or papers, serving on committees, and securing funding, they are often unaware of or fail to address these issues and stresses placed on TAs. While most professors care deeply for their students and many have a passion for teaching, the system for higher education is designed to put teaching second to research. For many professors, research — what brings in funding and determines their prospect for tenure — is their highest priority. And because TAs are put in a difficult situation where teaching may not be their first priority either, students get the short end of the stick. With the power of solidarity in a union, we could tweak the system to make it much easier for professors and TAs to prioritize providing a quality education to their students.

With a union contract, we can negotiate with MIT to define a clear job description and work expectations for TAs and guarantee certain learning standards for students. We can set guidelines for what TAs need from professors to provide the best support and education they can, and what students need from TAs and professors so they get more from their courses and have more time for their research. 

What TAs need from professors:

What students need from TAs and professors:

When graduate workers receive the support they need as TAs, they are better able to meet these central needs of students. We need to remember that we all have the same goals here at MIT: to receive a quality education, provide fabulous teaching, and do cutting-edge research. Using our collective power to negotiate for improvements that help TAs will in turn benefit students’ learning experience and help professors deliver quality teaching. By voting yes on unionization, graduate students can further the goals of MIT.