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Harvard grad students say remote teaching can bring ‘workplace abuses’

But a tentative agreement in contract negotiations could limit teaching fellows’ workloads

Chance Bonar, a PhD candidate at Harvard, was teaching an online class from his dorm room in Cambridge on Thursday.
Chance Bonar, a PhD candidate at Harvard, was teaching an online class from his dorm room in Cambridge on Thursday.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

A month ago, Chance Bonar had never heard of Zoom, let alone taught a Harvard class using it. He’d never had to answer questions from students on an online chatboard during class, or edit a professor’s recorded lecture to post online.

But now the Harvard PhD candidate is doing all those things and more as he navigates the world of remote teaching during the pandemic. And that includes helping professors who are relying heavily on him and other graduate student teachers — known as teaching fellows — to help them figure it out, too.

“There’s this expectation that the younger future professors . . . have a better grasp on this technology than they do,” said Bonar, 27, who helps teach three courses at the Harvard Divinity School. “Especially in a time of a pandemic, it’s very obvious how much of the burden of teaching and scholarship falls on the teaching fellows.”

Along with his students, Harvard PhD candidate Chance Bonar went through a recent reading during a virtual class held on Zoom.
Along with his students, Harvard PhD candidate Chance Bonar went through a recent reading during a virtual class held on Zoom. Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Graduate student teachers have been grappling with this added workload as they continue their fight for their first union contract, a contract that would be likely to provide protections for such increased duties. In fact, the university and the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers recently reached a tentative agreement following a virtual bargaining session in March; it states that grad students would not be required to teach more than two courses or work more than 20 hours a week.

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Without a contract in place, however, there’s no mechanism to enforce this, or to provide additional compensation if they exceed the threshold.

Several schools are paying graduate student teachers extra during the pandemic. The history department at Pennsylvania State University gave its graduate students $1,200 apiece. At the University of California Berkeley, teaching assistants at the Goldman School of Public Policy, who are unionized, are being compensated for the four extra hours a week, on average, that they’re now working.

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At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the graduate student union is calling for the school to pay student workers through the summer and guarantee job security for next year.

A Harvard spokesman did not respond directly to students’ concerns about additional workloads, but noted the university had sent a letter to faculty instructing them not to ask teaching fellows to take on “substantial additional time commitments.”

The union recently surveyed members to get a sense of what they were facing since classes went online March 23 and found a number of what one member describes as “workplace abuses.” Along with being expected to deal with technical issues, teaching fellows said they are often asked to teach multiple sessions to accommodate students in different time zones, hold longer office hours, and adapt experiments and projects.

One graduate teacher said he was asked to cover a lecture for a professor who didn’t feel comfortable using Zoom, said Max Ehrenfreund, a third-year graduate student in the History of Science department. If the contract were in place, he noted, the union would be filing grievances.

“I’m happy to do the work to help my students get through this,” he said. “I do wish Harvard would show that it values that work.”

Heavy workloads are a sensitive subject for grad students to tackle on their own, said Cory McCartan, a first-year PhD student in statistics who is part of the union’s bargaining committee. The professors the teaching fellows work for are often their advisers, who one day will be writing them letters of recommendation and evaluating their dissertations. That makes it difficult for students to push back.

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“If you don’t have the full-throated support of [your adviser], your academic career is going to be curtailed,” McCartan said.

Much of the graduate students’ research has been put on hold due to the inability to do field work or access labs, creating the possibility they will have to stay in school longer than expected. Some also worry about losing their funding.

Harvard, along with many other universities, has granted professors on the tenure track an additional year to complete their tenure requirements, but no such extension has been offered to grad students. More than 1,000 Harvard grad students have signed a letter asking for their funding to be extended for a year. In most cases, Harvard PhD students’ tuition, health insurance, and living expenses are fully funded for five years — and more in some programs — by grants, stipends, teaching fellowships, and research assistantships.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow to think that I’d have to pay them more of my own money to stay here," said Thomas Plumb-Reyes, 29, a seventh-year PhD candidate in applied physics who was set to graduate in May but hasn’t been able to get to the lab to complete his dissertation.

Plumb-Reyes and his co-teachers are “rewriting everything on the fly” for their introductory physics class, including redesigning the final project, which typically would include building a spectrometer to measure light. With no access to materials in the lab, however, students are now trying to make optical measurements with what they can "scrounge around at home,” said Plumb-Reyes, noting that his workload has gone up at least 50 percent.

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Harvard, whose roughly $41 billion endowment is the largest in the academic world, took steps to ensure that student workers didn’t lose access to health care or compensation during the spring semester, even if they couldn’t complete their work, the spokesman said. A letter sent to faculty asking them to “look out for” their student teachers also noted that professors might need to take over a section themselves to avoid working grad students too hard.

And yet, grad students say, the extra work is piling up.

Avriel Epps-Darling, a 30-year-old PhD student in education, spent her entire spring break getting her adolescent development course up and running online. She has had to figure out how to set up and manually assign students to breakout rooms each week on Zoom. And when students have technical difficulties, she is the one they contact.

Epps-Darling also had to help redesign students’ final projects, in addition to taking two classes in the computer science department and working on her own research.

The professor Epps-Darling works for, Nancy Hill, a developmental psychologist who is also her adviser, said the abrupt transition to remote teaching created more work for everyone at first. But assignments have been reduced, which means the amount of grading has also gone down. “By semester’s end, it will have balanced out," she said.

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Regardless, Harvard has not properly supported its graduate student teachers or responded to concerns about funding and job security, said Epps-Darling, who lives in a 500-square-foot apartment in Central Square with her husband, an attorney who works across the dining room table from her, and their 16-month-old son.

“It seems odd to me,” she said, “that the most wealthy university in the history of the world is having a hard time saying, ‘Hey guys, you’re going to be OK. We won’t let you go hungry or be forced to drop out.’ ”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.