Why don’t PhD students teach courses at Trent? Part 1


Published in Arthur, issue 7

It may be news to some undergraduates that very few Trent PhD students teach. Under CUPE 3908 Unit 2, incoming PhDs are offered Teaching Assistant positions for four years, but none are offered their own course. This is not the case at other universities; PhD teaching (course development, lectures, grading) is often part of the admission offer.

This lack of teaching is more than a minor inconvenience for Trent’s PhDs. It is not uncommon knowledge that before graduation, PhDs should teach at least one course in order to be a suitable candidate for tenure-track jobs. Recent research conducted by Vitae concluded that most tenure-track jobs are secured by PhDs within four years of their last year of study (in the U.S.).

Although their data does not track the hires’ teaching experience, many U.S institutions do offer PhDs teaching opportunities. If most jobs are going to upper year or recently graduated PhD students, surely having taught a course increases one’s chances on the market.

By creating a program without an offer to teach, Trent may well have crafted programs without comprehensive exams. By the end of their degree, students who did not secure a teaching position during their four+ years are therefore far behind their peers graduating from other universities.

Securing some PhD student teaching is on the shoulders of Trent faculty and CUPE 3908. Dr. Liam Mitchell (Assistant Professor, Cultural Studies) has broached the topic within his department. He bluntly stated that without his teaching opportunities at the University of Victoria, he would not have been hired as a professor here. Professors in other departments are now obligated to take similar steps and bring this up for debate at department meetings.

CUPE 3908 needs to widely announce article 5.10 in the Unit 1 collective agreement. Adjunct faculty comprise Unit 1, which may include successful PhD student applicants. The article states: “At its discretion, the Employer may offer Course Instructor positions to Trent postdoctoral Fellows, and Trent doctoral students in their last university-funded year of study, without competition.” I have yet to hear of this article being implemented.

This is perhaps due to confusion about the Units and their implications. Some graduate students have remained a Unit 2 employee when hired as an instructor. As a Unit 2 Instructor, the student does not get “right of first refusal” (job security) for future courses, but this is common at universities that offer PhD student teaching because teaching is part of the program, inseparable from students’ studies. Work and study, for graduate students, are linked components of PhD student life.

Article 5.10 states that the university may not exceed six doctoral or postdoctoral hires in any academic year. Alongside questions such as “Who are these six? What is the departmental breakdown? What courses can be taught?”, I find the inclusion of postdoctoral fellows alongside PhD students controversial. Postdoctoral fellows will have likely taught before. Postdocs are thus in direct competition for adjunct positions with Trent PhD students who have not taught. It doesn’t take a PhD to see who has the upper hand in the applications.

The Unit 2 agreement also contains an article stating how many hours a graduate student may work. Students can work ten hours a week, thus a position as a course instructor likely violates the Unit 2 agreement since teaching a course for the first time will require more than ten.

The Unit 2 agreement applies to scholarships as well. If a graduate student wins a scholarship from OGS, they sign a contract stating that they will not work more than ten hours a week. Students are essentially penalized for getting a scholarship at Trent. This is not true for all Canadian universities, such as York.

Corey Ponder (PhD candidate, Cultural Studies, Trent) was invited to apply to teach an English course. The process was transparent and he was hired. While grateful for the opportunity, he calls the experience like being thrown into the “pedagogical fire.” Designing a course, preparing lectures, and grading papers may take up to forty hours a week for the first-time instructor without a TA. This inhibits PhD students from completing their own dissertation work, but the rare chance at professionalization could not have been turned away.

As noted, Trent offers PhD candidates funding for four years, although, according to some studies, a PhD may take upwards of nine years. In light of this fact, universities in the U.S. have begun funding PhD students for five years.

The four-year funding structure and lack of teaching opportunities at Trent leaves PhD students in a bit of a conundrum: try to compete with Unit 1 members and outside applicants for courses and, if hired, likely spend an extra year (or two) working on PhD program requirements; or, try to complete the degree in four years but remain behind your peers in terms of professionalization. My interviewed PhD students were all in agreement about the importance of teaching for their success in the academic job market.

Any bargaining that takes place amongst students, union, administrators, and faculty must include not only teaching, but considerations of the academic job market, the high price of tuition, and union agreements.