I am a teaching assistant at Michigan State University. The last week has been trying for all people connected with the school. But the administration wants us to go back to our instruction on Monday, less than a week after a gunman opened fire in one of our classrooms. The administration has given no clear written instructions. This is unacceptable, but part of a larger trend at big research schools brought to sharp relief in times like these.
Only yesterday, the Friday after the event, were the TAs in my department forwarded an email that paraphrased a memo sent to the dean of our college from the provost. This accompanied the notes from a meeting to which less than ten TAs showed up, outlining how we should be “models” for our students as they come back to campus. While I attended the meeting and told them many of us are upset that the administration had no plan in place, unlike the first responders who did an incredible job protecting everyone, I was told that “you are being heard.” I was offered no apology. And more importantly, no clear path was given for us to take when dealing with undergraduates who may have lost friends or family and are clearly traumatized.
We are the front line of most of the massive general education courses. For example, I am responsible for seventy-five students this semester. We talk with the students for an hour every week. We grade their papers. This means we are expected to carry on and support them, while we are given a hodge-podge of counseling options and links to talks and other sources which are to help us teach in the face of trauma. At the same time, the University is putting out slick fund-raisers, like selling “Spartan Strong” t-shirts, to pay for more resources for students. I have yet to get any emails from University-wide administrators which address our position as students and instructors. Administration at the college and department level are forwarding them if you are lucky. This is unacceptable, but not surprising.
I was an adjunct instructor at two schools when covid shut down schools across the country. At both schools, we were given a week to retool our course online. Luckily, I was already online for one of the courses I taught that semester and I had taught the other course, of which I had multiple sections, online in the past. However, many of my adjunct colleagues had never taught online. They had to attend seminars and meet with other instructors to figure out how to do it. While this is not so horrible for those who are paid full-time, at one of those schools adjuncts were only making two thousand dollars a course. The other paid three thousand. We were not compensated for the extra time. And when the semester ended, so did our contracts. No thank you. No gratitude. Just a paycheck and a pedagogical learning experience. I feel like I did then.
Vigils, t-shirts, counseling sessions, and school pride aren’t going to get us through this. There needs to be an acknowledgment by the administration that they dropped the ball here. There needs to be reciprocal communication between those with boots on the ground and those in power. Graduate assistants are a massive army of hidden labor on campuses across the country. We are appreciative of our financial support which allows us to work with incredible people at this research institute. However, we are not always treated as colleagues outside our departments. It was frustrating to get the same communications as the students we are teaching, and then to be expected to move forward as instructors.
I don’t speak for everyone, but I know others share my anger. We are all in this together. The president’s office and its minions should act like it.