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I am a second year STEM PhD student at a large R1 public university in the United States. When I chose to come to this program, the department told me that I would have a teaching load of 3 classes per year. That is, I would be expected to teach two classes in one semester, and one class in the other semester per academic year. The language in our contracts is not in terms of classes taught or credits taught, but a vague statement to the effect of "teaching xx hours per week". Since a statement in terms of hours per week is obviously vague, I inquired about this when I choose to come to this program, it was explained to me that it was simply 3 classes per year and that the load is not as high as it seems on paper. Other graduate students had the same experience.

Now, they have changed their promise and are now expecting me, and some other graduate students as well, to teach four classes per year. We are upset about this because we feel as if the department intentionally misled us with the language of the contract. Since the department is not increasing our stipends, we also feel they are exploiting our cheap labor. This has also led to resentment among graduate students since some did not get chosen to teach extra classes, and it was essentially random who got stuck with a higher teaching load.

My question is: Is it reasonable to ask the department to increase our stipend or compensation for this additional work? If it isn't, what is reasonable to ask of them? Should we just get over it?

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    Are all these classes of equal credit value? Teaching a 1-credit class should be less work than a 3-credit class, so it's not unreasonable that the same teaching load could be broken up into different numbers of classes. From your description, though, it does sound like the extra class is an objective increase in the workload. – Nuclear Wang Oct 16 at 13:25
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    I wouldn’t consider this a loophole, but simply lying and abusing your dependency. – Wrzlprmft Oct 16 at 13:25
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    @nuclearwang All classes are of equal credit value. For example, I teach a particular class and I've always taught three sections of it per year, and now I'm being expected to teach four sections of it per year. Other graduate students are in the same boat. My old assignment worked out to 9 credits of teaching and now it is 12 credits of teaching. – unhappyphd Oct 16 at 13:29
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    The load (even 3) seems high to me. It sounds like they are treating you like regular faculty which probably has a similar teaching load, though the faculty probably teaches higher level courses. But there may also be external forces (public funding) that make it impossible to continue as in the past. The cost of delivering your education may have increased substantially due to indifference from State legislators. The blame for this may be widespread. Things change. People have to adapt. So do universities. Certainly not ideal, but a fact of life in the real world. – Buffy Oct 16 at 13:43
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    it was explained to me that it was simply 3 classes per year — Was it explained to you on paper as an amendment to your offer letter/contract? Sadly, verbal agreements are only worth the paper they're printed on. – JeffE Oct 16 at 13:45
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I think this is unfair, but there is probably nothing that you can do about it. In my STEM department, TAs all nominally are responsible for the same number of work hours (twenty hours per week), but with different courses and different grading responsibilities, it is inevitable that there will be some iniquities—including some students teaching more sections that others. Sometimes students unfortunately get saddled with extra work unexpectedly. Mostly, the students grin and bear it, knowing that we try to have the extra work average out over time (see below).

As a practical matter, funding for teaching assistantships at an R1 institution mostly comes from outside the department (probably from the dean's office). There is a set number of fully-supported TA slots available, and the department has a certain number of courses that it needs to have covered. There may be a bit of extra money in the departmental budget, but if the department suddenly and unexpectedly increased the teaching load for some of its TAs, that suggests that the department may be in a precarious financial position, with little to no extra money available to support the TAs who are working harder.

It will not hurt to ask for additional money. However, even if there was enough money to pay the overloaded TAs a bit extra, the department would probably say no. If they did start paying some TAs more than others, that could provoke even more ill will and dissension among the graduate students; the ones who were not assigned extra sections would be (quite reasonably) angry that they were not getting the same opportunity to make extra money as some of their fellows.

So, I think it is quite unlikely that you will get any extra funding for teaching one extra class section per year. What you can realistically ask for is to have the extra teaching load spread around between different TAs; this year, maybe half the TAs have to duty extra duty, but next year, those additional courses will fall on the shoulders of the other half. The department may already have it in mind to do this, but it would not be a bad idea to get it stated as an official policy goal to handle things this way.

One final thing that might be relevant. The amount of teaching that faculty members do in R1 STEM departments is far from uniform. In biology, chemistry, and physics, full load for professors is typically teaching one or one-and-a-half courses per semester. In other STEM areas (geology, mathematics, neuroscience, etc.), the course load for faculty can be about twice that. That means that different kinds of STEM departments have different amounts of slack in what the faculty are available to teach. Depending on your field (and the local departmental culture), it might or might not be viable to have professors take up some of the extra course responsibilities. It is too late for that to change for this semester and maybe the next semester too, but things might be different next academic year. (Again, however, this is probably something that the departmental faculty have already thought about and discussed, so any complaint you make is unlikely to make a great deal of difference in what ultimately happens.)

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I will guess that xx is something like 20, which is probably the maximum you are allowed to work before the university has to provide you regular benefits. My understanding at my state university is that if graduate students are being made to work more than 20 hours in a single week (not even just on average), then there is a serious violation of university policy, and it needs to be addressed.

If the situation is that with your previous teaching load, graduate students were working less than specified number of hours per week in practice, and now are forced to work xx hours per week, there is nothing you can do.

However, if you are being forced to work more than xx hours per week, or perhaps you can't do a good job working only xx hours per week, then you should definitely do something. My first suggestion is to discuss this with your fellow grad students (and any grad student association if available), and document how many hours people are working per week. Then bring this information to chair and graduate director. Hopefully they will work with you to find some sort of solution. If not, then you should explore other options like speaking with the dean, ombudsperson or if necessary the media.

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