Grades Are Due Soon, and U. of California Professors Are Struggling

Professors nationwide are currently immersed in an end-of-semester ritual: grading. At the University of California, however, fall grades have been thrown into disarray as a strike involving teaching assistants reached its one-month mark.

Many professors say they are forgoing the submission of final grades, either out of solidarity with striking workers, or because they simply can’t grade hundreds of assignments without the help of readers and TAs — even with grading deadlines extended through the holidays.

What’s more, communication from administrators — on a campus- and system-wide level — has been vague and unrealistic, with messages repeatedly stressing the obligation to maintain “continuity of instruction,” several professors said.

“It’s a mess,” said Paul V.A. Fine, a professor in the integrative biology department at UC-Berkeley. “I’m surprised that the administration hasn’t been taken more to task by this, because I feel like they’re letting us all down.”

Instruction he received from his department for administering finals and grades, Fine said, was essentially reduced to a general directive: “Follow your conscience.”

Meanwhile, Berkeley lecturers are being offered additional pay for picking up extra grading work at the end of the term. A spokesperson for the university confirmed the offer and told The Chronicle that the move was part of the university’s attempt to mitigate the impacts of the strike.

At Berkeley, grading has been extended to December 31; other UC campuses are taking a similar approach. But Fine is frustrated. “Even if you extend the grade deadline, [then] what? You’re supposed to just do that instead of enjoying a holiday break? Forget that. That’s ridiculous,” he said.

Despite the strike, Fine continued teaching his undergraduate course on the ecosystems of California. Typically a graduate student works alongside him as an instructor and is responsible for half of the course’s grading. The course’s enrollment is small enough — 22 students — that he could complete grading by the deadline. But he said he won’t turn in grades until the strike is over, in solidarity with the graduate students.

“Although I am doing my job because I care a lot about my undergraduates’ education, I’m not going to do extra work,” Fine said.

Adding to the turmoil are questions about next term, which starts in a couple of weeks. Many classes don’t even have teaching assistants assigned to them yet. On Wednesday, the UC-Davis Academic Senate sent out guidance suggesting that professors could do some of their winter-term teaching asynchronously — for up to two weeks after the strike ends.

‘At a Breaking Point’

The strike, which began November 14, initially involved four bargaining units made up of 48,000 UC graduate students, postdocs, and researchers.

Last week, postdocs and researchers overwhelmingly approved new contracts with the university system that secured wage increases, transit benefits, and paid family leave. They ended their strike on Monday. University officials and the union representing the remaining academic workers have agreed to continue negotiations through a third-party mediator.

“We remain committed to securing a fair and reasonable contract with the union that honors the hard work of our valued graduate student employees,” Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations, said in a statement. “With the help of a neutral mediator, we hope to secure that agreement quickly.”

In the meantime, UC campuses are scrambling to find solutions to the chaos — including paying lecturers to pick up struck work.

The union that represents lecturers across the UC system, UC-AFT, released a cease-and-desist letter alleging that Berkeley’s offer interferes with lecturers’ right to refuse to pick up struck work under California law. The letter states that the union is aware of similar plans on “several other campuses.”

When asked if UC-Irvine was extending similar offers to their faculty, a university spokesperson said that deans and department chairs “have been advised to consider a range of approaches to support continuity of instruction,” which may include tapping lecturers to help.

The Chronicle did not receive responses from the other UC campuses on Wednesday.

They have to figure out a way to solve this strike in a way that doesn’t harm students and also doesn’t try to exploit other vulnerable workers.

Unlike tenured professors, lecturers have a no-strike clause in their contracts. While some faculty members opted out of teaching their courses in solidarity after the strike began, lecturers had to continue.

Joanna Reed, a continuing lecturer in the sociology department at Berkeley, kept teaching, though she said lecture attendance “absolutely plunged” after the strike started. But she has told her students to expect a delay in getting their grades. (Reed is married to Fine.)

Reed would usually have eight readers to do the vast majority of grading for her two undergraduate lecture classes, for which the combined enrollment is over 300. It would be physically impossible, she said, to grade hundreds of assignments before the end of the month.

Still, she’s pushing ahead with the work she’d usually do at the end of the semester: preparing rubrics and answer keys, dealing with plagiarism issues, and getting the gradebook cleaned up. She’ll submit final grades after the strike ends and the graduate students can resume their work.

As Reed sees it, refusing to grade final assignments, which is considered struck work, is a way she can show solidarity with graduate students while continuing to fulfill her contractual obligations as a lecturer.

A lecturer at UCLA, who asked to remain anonymous because he fears speaking out could put his job at risk, said he feels pressure — both from the university and from students — to submit final grades. It doesn’t help, he said, that guidance from the administration on finals and grading arrived in the last week of classes after he already released plans for his final.

But the lecturer, who teaches two courses with 300 students total, said it’s impossible for him to release accurate grades at the end of the semester. The lecturer has hundreds of essays from the semester ungraded — work that is partly done by the lecturer’s team of TAs. That’s not including the finals the classes completed last week.

Although the deadline to turn in grades has been extended to January 2, he doesn’t plan to release grades.

“Those of us who don’t have job security, like me, are just at a breaking point,” he said.

Uncertainty Abounds

Many faculty members say they are torn between wanting to respect the picket line and feeling an obligation to their undergraduate students.

Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies at UC-Irvine, said she won’t file final grades with the registrar until the strike is resolved. But she plans to evaluate her students’ work and share grades with them directly. At 39 students, her class is small, and she doesn’t depend on a TA to help with grading. At UC-Irvine, the deadline to submit grades was extended to January 19.

Debates about obligation are complicated by questions about how withholding grades may impact undergraduates — including student athletes, veterans, students on financial aid, or graduating students seeking jobs. Some campuses have stressed that these students will not be affected if grades are not submitted. On other campuses, the possible implications remain unclear to faculty, and some are making arrangements for students in vulnerable situations.

At Berkeley, Reed said, some graduate students in her department have said they will work with professors to make sure students with a documented need receive grades. But Reed said the burden shouldn’t fall on instructors to protect students.

“The university created this situation with their unfair labor practices. So in my mind, it’s their problem to solve,” Reed said. “They have to figure out a way to solve this strike in a way that doesn’t harm students and also doesn’t try to exploit other vulnerable workers.”

And if the graduate-student strike continues into 2023, professors will have to figure out what to do about the next term.

This is a question that we’re all asking ourselves this week: What do we do in January?

With uncertainty about whether TAs will be on the job in January, UC-Davis instructors will be allowed to switch lab hours and discussion sections, normally taught by TAs, to asynchronous instruction, according to the Academic Senate’s guidance. Instructors must maintain as much in-person instructional time with students as they would normally.

The university “will allow these course adjustments to remain in place for up to two weeks after the end of the strike, at which point courses must return to their normal instructional modes,” the guidance states.

“I have a feeling that this is going to make a lot of faculty pretty unhappy,” said Stacy Fahrenthold, an associate professor of history at UC-Davis. “The implicit language in this policy is that faculty will be responsible for taking on not only the grading but also the instructional duties of their TAs if they remain on strike.”

Fahrenthold, who is scheduled to teach two undergraduate courses with a combined enrollment of 150 in the winter term, said she won’t be opting into the asynchronous option. “I see it as an attempt to break the strike or remediate its impacts,” she said. As for what next quarter will look like for her courses, she says that’s an open question.

“There’s about 450 faculty who are actively on sympathy strike,” she said. “And I think this is a question that we’re all asking ourselves this week: What do we do in January?”

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