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UCLA teaching assistants remain optimistic despite increasing difficulties

Pictured is Royce Hall in Dickson Plaza. Teaching assistants at UCLA teach more than 33,000 undergraduate students, including in buildings around the plaza. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Alina Susu

May 12, 2024 6:43 p.m.

Amid the hustle and bustle of UCLA’s campus, teaching assistant James Johnson wakes up at 5:30 a.m. in preparation for the day ahead of him.

Like many other TAs, Johnson, a graduate student in the philosophy department, spends his mornings navigating the course materials for his sections, thinking about how to supplement the week’s lectures.

“I’ve loved it,” he said. “My favorite part of being a graduate student is the teaching.”

At a university with more than 33,000 undergraduate students, UCLA’s TAs serve as the medium between undergraduates and their professors, said Aiko Dzikowski, a graduate student in anthropology.

Each TA – many of whom are responsible for 20 to 90 students per quarter – prepares classes, leads discussion sections and grades assignments, all while balancing their own personal lives and studies, said Charlotte Abel, a doctoral student in sociology.

Jordan Galczynski, a TA for the Near Eastern languages and cultures department, said she originally chose UCLA’s dissertation program because of the teaching experience. She added that while other prestigious universities may allow more research opportunities, she was drawn to the promise of an immersive teaching experience along with the ability to participate in a writing pedagogy program.

Dzikowski said she enjoys teaching because she likes to see how students engage with their learning.

“I really like the students,” Dzikowski said. “I’m always very energized in class to hear how my students are processing the material and how they’re relating it to their own lives.”

For other TAs, teaching is a way to fund their lives while pursuing graduate degrees.

Katya Khlystova, a TA for the linguistics department, said that while teaching can be enjoyable, the weekly 20 hours of required labor can take away from her research progress. Johnson added that he wished students would remember that TAs are also students with their own lives and families to go back to at the end of the day.

“We’re also – as graduate students – publishing papers, writing conference papers,” said John Marston, a doctoral student in the European languages and transcultural studies department. “I just wrote a book review for an academic journal. … I’m preparing for a conference in London by the end of the quarter.”

Some TAs also feel they are not being fairly compensated for their labor, Galczynski said.

“TAs typically aren’t paid that well,” she said. “A lot of times we’re doing a lot of the work, and the professors are making six figures, and we’re not making anywhere close to that.”

Abel said when unions have tried to bargain through strikes in the past, they were met with significant pushback from the university. She added that she believes collective bargaining is an important part of ensuring TA rights are respected, especially since they teach so many students.

[Related: UC Academic Worker Strikes 2022]

Some TAs expressed concerns about not receiving enough training prior to teaching classes.

Galczynski said since the strike in 2022, many UCLA departments have discontinued their TA training programs. She added that from her experience, she believes the ratio of students to TAs has increased since the strike.

Abel said there was no interview process involved in the TA hiring process, and she only took a light preparatory course.

“After that, you’re pretty much on your own,” she said. “That can really affect someone’s experience at UCLA, not to mention the high price that students are paying to attend the university.”

In spite of the challenges, many TAs continue to find ways to be optimistic about their work.

Marston said he loves engaging with students who treat college as a privilege and an opportunity to grow both professionally and intellectually. He added that he loves seeing them improve over the course of a quarter.

Galczynski, who is also an aspiring professor, added that teaching at UCLA has helped build her confidence and combat her shyness.

“I wish they knew how much we care,” Dzikowski said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re kind of rushed during sections. I’m not always able to express how thankful I am for the students.”

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