10

There is a negative attitude towards volunteering in academia.

I am about to graduate (currently an undergraduate student). There is a 6-month gap between my graduation date and the matriculation date at another university. I have planned many things to do during the period (to be productive). One of them is to become an unofficial teaching assistant.

I will no longer be a student at the current university. For this reason, it will not be possible for me get a job as an official teaching assistant. However, I have no intention of taking TA jobs away from other potential candidates. Instead, I will only target some courses that 1. do not need TAs 2. need some improvements in the teaching materials. (e.g. rewrite the code in another programming language which is consistent with the degree program; provide new toy examples). I will not do any teaching session. I also have a good relationship with the instructors of these courses. One of the courses had an unofficial TA this year.

I want to do it just for my own academic interest. Is that an ethical decision?

PS: TA is probably not the right term, but for the question you can take it as TA

5
  • 2
    Graduate from what? Undergrad? I have doubts, actually, that it would even be possible, though I don't know about Australia.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:45
  • 33
    "There is a negative attitude towards volunteering in academia." I am seriously questioning this premise, given that academia as a whole seems to be built on a mountain of unpaid reviewing, unpaid conference organising, and unpaid mentoring. If anything we habitually do too much volunteering for jobs that somebody should get paid for (your proposal sounds like one of them).
    – xLeitix
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 16:55
  • 4
    Hmm, if it is not ethical to become a volunteer teaching assistant, is it ethical to volunteer and answer this question? Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 5:38
  • One ethical aspect that I haven't seen you or any other commenters bring up (although I may have missed it) is that by volunteering in a career-adjacent position, you are exploiting your excess disposable income for CV building. When looking for an academic job, this may rank you higher than a candidate with equal (or better!) potential, but whose financial situations or non-work duties prevent them from spending 6 months performing unpaid work for networking and exposure. This is one of the many, many mechanisms that keep people from less privileged backgrounds from contributing to academia.
    – Ottie
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 11:19
  • If you're ever concerned about ethical questions in a university context: They have ethics boards explicitly to answer these questions. Bonus: If the board gives their approval, nobody at the university can fault you
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 13:37

6 Answers 6

13

I believe volunteering is ethical for both the person doing the volunteering and person/organization "receiving" that volunteer work when:

  1. No actual or hypothetical paid position is affected

  2. The volunteer gets a benefit equal or greater than what they put in

I believe these principles apply even if the volunteer work is for a private company or powerful university. Volunteer work for other causes can also be ethical even when these principles are violated, though.

You write:

I have no intention of taking TA jobs away from other potential candidates. Instead, I will only target some courses that 1. do not need TAs

which appears to satisfy #1, though I think some would be reasonably concerned about devaluing TA labor more generally - this is not something easily measured, and I think you want to consider the "hypothetical" job and not just the actual one.

I think you'll have to make a determination on #2, it seems, though, that you do see some benefit, so you'll have to weigh that against the costs.

My recommendation would be to approach this not as looking for a volunteer teaching position, but asking for some mentorship in developing your own teaching resources. You'll need to figure out what exactly you are asking for in this relationship; what it seems you will be providing is access to the materials you produce. It'll be up to the individual instructors to decide whether their time is worth what you provide. I'd suggest that if they spend as much time mentoring you as they would spend if they created similar materials on their own (not necessarily equal to the amount of time it takes you), that seems ethical to me. If they're going to spend almost no time mentoring and get some teaching materials for free, well, I'd suggest you're undervaluing your own time and should consider how to better balance the relationship.

4
  • Great that you mention "1) No actual or hypothetical paid position is affected" it is an interesting point, that i have to think some more about.
    – Hjan
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 17:48
  • I don't understand your #1. Am I assuming too much to think you're saying that if someone does volunteer work which lessens the need for some paid position that it is somehow unethical? Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 19:36
  • @DeanMacGregor I'm giving sufficient conditions, not necessary ones. I think most of the onus is on the person doing the "hiring" rather than the worker, but I do think that people willing to work for free should consider how that will impact people who normally get paid to do that work.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 19:48
  • Great answer, volunteering in and of itself is not anywhere close to being an ethical problem. Institutions, however, have to deal with a bunch of other things that might make volunteering not a simple process, but that is a problem the institution has to deal with, not OP. So, if OP wants to do it, he can go there and submit his wishes to volunteer to the institution (through the instructors, maybe?), afterwards the institution might allow it or not and establish the ground rules on how this will work. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 14:33
9

TLDR: It is ethical by default, unless someone gives a compelling reason why it is unethical (and I have not seen such a reason being put forward so far).

Detailed analysis:

Your proposed volunteering has the obvious potential to do some good for the university where you’ll be volunteering and for its students. It will also benefit you by giving you useful experience and tbe satisfaction of doing good.

The argument that the volunteering is unethical, as explained in @AzorAhai’s answer, relies on a belief that your proposed action can also do harm by devaluing the labor of paid workers and creating a temptation for universities to rely on volunteer labor. In a context in which many university workers already feel exploited, this argument has significant emotional resonance with a lot of people, which is why, as your question states at its outset, “there is a negative attitude towards volunteering in academia.”

Now, even if this argument has some merit, it's important to keep in mind that that does not automatically mean the action is unethical. Many ethical actions have a mixture of good and bad consequences. E.g., when we get on a plane, we contribute to climate change — does that mean flying is unethical? Surely that's not always the case. One needs to weigh the benefits against the harm, and factor in other contextual factors.

In your particular case, the benefits are very tangible whereas the harm is intangible and very difficult to quantify. The strong reaction from @AzorAhai is in my opinion more indicative of the general sentiment of many people in academia that they are exploited than of a cold, rational analysis. It may well be true that there are vulnerable groups of workers in academia that are exploited or mistreated, but the relevance of that fact to your situation is unclear and potentially nonexistent.

I am therefore inclined to agree with @BryanKrause's analysis. In the absence of any specific information that your volunteer work will displace some paid worker, your action should be viewed as ethical.

8

Is it ethical to volunteer at your local Subway to teach them how to make better sandwiches?

No, you shouldn't do this. Teaching and research can be noble pursuits, but we don't live in a money-free society. The university offers courses in exchange for money - either tuition or tax dollars, doesn't matter - and if the university needs labor to improve them, it should pay for it.

Volunteering should flow down from you, as Dan Romik suggests, to something like SPCA, which helps animals in need, or perhaps to disadvantaged students. It should not flow up from workers to things like universities, which are institutions (perhaps of the state), where people like professors enjoy high status. (Or at the very least, sideways, to members of your community, like at a local library, like Buffy suggests.)

This only encourages universities to keep sucking up labor either for free or below market rate.

Perhaps there is a "teaching specialist" role you could be hired in, especially since it sounds like you aren't looking for a full-time job doing this.

21
  • 3
    +1. Really curious if the -1 could explain their vote, but there is no explanation they could possibly give that doesn’t ultimately boil down to not valuing the full worth of labor. Support your fellow workers, -1-er, unless I guess your class interests do not align… perhaps the -1 was a board of trustees member.
    – Eric
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 16:27
  • 9
    Well, this answer certainly confirms OP’s premise that “there is a negative attitude towards volunteering in academia”. If you were trying to discourage someone from volunteering for some evil for-profit corporation (by, for example, I don’t know, giving your labor away writing answers on Stack Exchange or something similarly outlandish none of us would ever consider doing for a second), I could perhaps see the logic in it. But why is OP’s suggested form of volunteering any less ethical than volunteering at SPCA or any other non-profit organization? This answer doesn’t explain.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 16:38
  • 9
    I voted down, because I completely disagree with the ethical framework put forth. If I felt like volunteering at a sandwich shop, I'd see absolutely no ethical problem in doing so. Being allowed to something for money but not for free just seems absurd.
    – Arno
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 17:41
  • 6
    @Arno An argument against volunteering might be that, say, you need research experience to be admitted to graduate school, so people volunteer their time to labs to get that experience, and so labs don't need to hire any students for pay. That means that only people who have extra time to spare as volunteers get research experience, and people who cannot afford spending time as a volunteer cannot gain the necessary experience for graduate school or may need to go into debt to do so.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 18:30
  • 4
    @Arno You're using very strong language, "[not] allowed," "forbid." I am not a chair deciding to ban undergraduate volunteers; OP asked for an evaluation of whether their very specific plan was ethical. You are quite right that it is unethical on the university's part to accept; however I don't see these relations as unidirectional, it doesn't make sense to say the OP's plan is ethical, but for the university to accept makes it unethical. Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 18:55
4

While I disagree with the answer of Azor Ahai -him- I won't vote against it as I realize opinions can differ. However:

Under certain circumstances, yes, you can volunteer your services. One requirement I'd have is that the college/university be a non-profit. The second being that you gain something of value for whatever you do, though it need not be money.

I don't think that every interaction in life needs to be transactional, and especially not a financial transaction. That seems to me to be mentally and morally impoverishing. I'm happy to volunteer to speak to students without pay (retired now). My spouse volunteers weekly at our community library. Like a college the library isn't there to make money for anyone, but to provide a valuable service while balancing costs against revenues.

If you learn something from the experience it would be of value. If you support a long term relationship with a professor or two, it would be of value. If you have fun while waiting for other opportunities, it might be of value.

But a relationship as a TA might be out of the question. There are many reasons, one of which is that if you have contact with students then the university is potentially at risk of malpractice suits if you mess up and so need a formal relationship with those who do it. But aiding a professor on course materials might be open and you might learn something. You might be able to observe their teaching, giving you insight into whether you want to do that as a career.

I doubt that a university would use you as an excuse to deny someone else a paid position. Your contribution is small enough that it has little impact on budget or employment. Professionals in many fields come to speak to students without pay. That enhances the education and doesn't seem to deny employment to others.

One can be generous in life. That isn't an issue. But one should seek opportunities in which they get some value even if it is only satisfaction. No one pays me here for any contributions I try to make and might occasionally succeed at.

2

There is a surprising lack of ethics in these answers to a question about ethics! Is X action ethical is always a quagmire, and it is nearly impossible to separate it from your personal values. We can use different ethical frameworks to examine your actions, but ultimately the impact of those frameworks depends on what you already see as good or bad.

Ethics

First off, from an official university perspective, I cannot fathom any way that you would be violating a student/employee/researcher code of ethics by volunteering your time to develop course materials. If that is what you're asking, then consider yourself vindicated. Go volunteer with a clean conscience! If you're interested in actual ethics then read on.

Aristotle's virtue ethics usually considers virtue to be the mean attribute that lies between two extremes (vices). By practicing virtuous actions and emulating people we know to be virtuous, we cultivate our own virtues. Volunteering is usually considered a generous action, and generosity is often recognized as a virtue that lies between the extremes of selfishness (a nothing-is-free mentality) and being prodigal (a sort of naive mentality of giving everything away to anyone who asks). I think this is what the very good answer by Azor Ahai -him- is getting at: is giving your time and energy to the university a worthwhile endeavor? Are you giving foolishly, or wisely? This is really a question that only you can answer for yourself. Azor Ahai -him- provides some arguments for people who see this as a foolish (and therefore not virtuous) use of your time and energy.

On the other hand, we could examine the problem from Kant's categorical imperative: if you could make a rule that describes your behaviour, would applying that rule to everyone else result in a world you would consider better or worse. (This is a simplification, please do not crucify me in the comments for misrepresenting Kant). How would we formulate a rule for this behaviour? Perhaps "Students who want to improve their teaching portfolios and build an academic interest in the material of a course must volunteer their TA services for free." Almost all grad students want to improve their teaching portfolios (if they continue in academia), and many are interested in the course material that they teach as TAs. So then most TAs should be working for free. Does that result in a better world or a worse world? Or "Students who can afford to not be paid must volunteer their TA services for free." Why would I hire a poor student to do this work when a rich student will do it for free? Better world or worse world? Of course this depends on many other factors: are graduate students relying on TA money for their living expenses at your institution? I cannot answer these questions for you. The crux of Kant's ethical viewpoint is that maybe one person acting this way has a minor impact on the university, the other TAs, and/or society as a whole, but if everyone acts this way then there could be serious consequences. Kant invites us to consider these consequences in a structured way.

The final ethical framework in the trio of frameworks taught to undergraduate students is Utilitarianism. This framework looks at whether the action you take maximizes the good results (or sometimes minimizes the bad, depending on the flavour of Utilitarianism). You volunteering your time seems like it would make you happy and satisfied (good!), it would probably make the instructor that you work for happy and satisfied (good!), it would probably make the university administrators nominally satisfied that they don't have to pay anyone (good!). Maybe your volunteering has a minor contribution to depressing TA wages (see Ben's answer) (bad?). Does the good outweigh the bad? How do we measure that? Again, only you can answer this question for yourself based on your personal morals regarding what is good or bad.

TA Unions and Conflicts of Interest

Something else that I am not seeing much in other answers is the teaching assistant (TA) labour legal situation at your institution. At my institution, TA positions, lecturer positions, and non-faculty course instructor positions are unionized. What is or isn't considered unionized work is very clearly defined. Developing and improving course materials is considered either TA work or course instructor work at my institution, though this will vary from place to place. In some departments at my institution, TA work is a mandatory part of the graduate student funding package (graduate students are required to do TA work if they want to receive the full student salary from their department). By volunteering to perform this work for free you personally are not necessarily doing anything wrong, but the university would be opened to grievances (legal action) against them by the union by accepting your labour for free.

This is the de jure reality at my institution. However, the de facto nature of TA work often sees TAs working longer hours than specified in their contracts, or performing extra unpaid duties. Many TAs are graduate students working for professors in their department. Maintaining good relations with these professors is often crucial for the future academic success of these students, especially if they are working as a TA for their research supervisor. Many professors at my institution expect TAs to put in a little off-the-books work when they demand it. A TA who is by-the-book, with a that's-not-in-my-contract mindset will likely sour these relationships. Note that unlike an independent contractor-client relationship, TAs don't get to pick what professors they work for at my institution. They do get to indicate preference, but ultimately they will be assigned wherever TAs are most needed. As a result, whether intentional or unintentional on the part of the professors, TAs can feel coerced into "volunteering."

0

I'm going to give the (slightly-simplified) perspective of a neoclassical economist on this one:

  • Every labour-supply curve includes natural variation in individual supply: In any labour market, there is going to be variation in the amount of money that different people want to do a job, and the overall "supply curve" for labour in an industry/job is determined by aggregating this over all people who are willing to work in that industry/job. A person who is willing to "volunteer" (i.e., work for zero wages) will shift the supply curve and reduce the price of labour, but this is not fundamentally different from any person coming into the market who is willing to work the same job for less money than any other person.

  • Every person who is willing to work for less depresses wages, but that is perfectly normal: Ceteris paribus, if a person comes into an industry willing (and able) to do the same job for less money, this shifts the supply curve and reduces wages. As a common example, this occurs every time there is substantial immigration of poorer people into a wealthy country; the incoming migrants are usually willing to work for less than the domestic population, and this depresses wages in industries they move into. This phenomenon regularly leads to objections that incoming migrants are "taking our jobs!" and controversy over this has been a regular feature of industrial action for generations. (For a rather uncharitable ---but funny--- take on this, the boys at South Park have helpfully summarised this objection).

  • Adaptation of the labour market to new entrants is economically efficient: From an economic perspective, and with some stipulations and caveats attached (that I will not go into here), this is a natural part of the supply-demand mechanism and it is economically efficient for workers willing to do the same job (at the same quality) for less to drive out those who are unwilling to work for less. One can certainly sympathise with those who find that wages in their industry drop, but the overall social effect of adding willing workers is usually positive, particularly in the long-term.

  • Based on this, there is no ethical problem with volunteering: If you take the above view of the labour market, essentially based on neoclassical economic theory, then you will conclude that the addition of a willing worker (at zero or low wages) is a net positive for society, even if it may cause some temporary dislocation of other workers. This removes the only major ethical objection to volunteering that I am aware of, so I would conclude that there is no ethical problem with volunteering.

  • A slight caveat --- young people are sometimes naïve about the workforce: As a slight caveat to the above, I would say that young people who have not had long periods of experience in the workforce may tend to overestimate the value of volunteer work to their career and this overestimation can allow institutions to "take advantage" of the free labour provided by young volunteers. Older people tend to be pretty averse to working for free for institutions that profit from their labours, unless they hold the social value of those institutions in very high regard. It is possible that a systematic bias towards overestimation of the value of volunteering (by younger people) could lead to some overall inefficiency in the labour market, as the realised value of volunteering falls short of expectations. That probably doesn't rise to the level of an ethical problem on the part of the worker, though it may give rise to an ethical issue on the part of the institutions that seek them out for employment.

2
  • 4
    Nicely written and interesting answer, but your view of ethics as being synonymous with economic efficiency isn’t something that I think most people would agree with.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 6:32
  • 1
    @DanRomik: Thanks Dan. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that ethics is synonymous with economics (though I do believe that a good system of ethics emerges largely from cooperative game theory). I'm just pointing out that economics tells us some causality here that would appear to dispose of the only ethical objection to this issue that I'm aware of. If there's some other ethical objection to volunteering (for which perhaps an economic response does not dispose of it), I'm happy to hear it.
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 6:52

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .