UC strike reaches pivotal time during finals week

When 48,000 UC academic staff went on strike in mid-November, Stacy Fahrenthold joined them on the picket line. The UC Davis history associate professor has canceled classes and will not read dissertations or record grades until the strike is resolved.

“We don’t have the grading staff to do that,” said Fahrenthold, who would normally rely on a student assistant to grade assignments.

One such disruption has spread to the 10 campuses of the UC system. As the massive strike by teaching assistants, tutors, graduate students and postdocs enters its fourth week, the strike has reached a pivotal moment, taking its heaviest toll yet on students, faculty and picketers during the all-important senior week in California’s world-class higher education system.

The conspicuous absence of workers from classrooms and offices this week narrowed the scope of the final assessments and made it the biggest show yet crucial contributions they contribute to UC’s excellent reputation. These are the staff who conduct study sessions, provide crunch-time tutoring, read term papers, and supervise and mark exams.

A review by the Council of UC Faculty Assns. It is estimated that faculty will withhold at least 34,000 grades throughout the system. Faculty have reduced final exams, cut essay length requirements or omitted materials from exams not covered due to the strike.

Michael Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, said he couldn’t self-assess the 240 students in his game theory class — even if he wanted to.

Each student in their class is expected to submit a 15-minute video explaining how they would solve various problems for their final exam. Chwe typically relies on his four TAs, who work more closely with students than he does, to help with grading and seeks their input on student performance to determine final grades.

“I couldn’t do it physically,” Chwe said. “If TAs [aren’t] Grading because they are on strike I cannot proceed with the final grade assessment.”

Meia Schram, a sophomore studying applied mathematics, said Tuesday at UCLA that two of her final exams were changed to only include material from the weeks before the strike. It was a good compromise, she thought, but still a more stressful time than usual. It was less clear what assignments were due and how the final exams would go since there were no TAs around.

“For the first week or two I was like, what am I going to do?” said Schram. “It was really confusing, especially when you’re not getting emails from people you normally get emails from on a regular basis.”

The UC system reached a tentative agreement with postdocs and academic researchers last week. Those workers said they would not cross the picket line for the 36,000 academic workers who have yet to reach an agreement.

The remaining academic staff, represented by the United Auto Workers, remain far apart on wages with UC administrators. The union has proposed a $43,000 minimum salary for graduating students, which UC has come nowhere near matching.

Rafael Jaime, President of UAW 2865, a union representing 19,000 teaching assistants, readers and evaluators, underscored the importance of this week.

“We are at a critical moment right now. UC can either make a serious offer to reach fair agreements or they can seek to mitigate the impact of a strike during the grading period,” Jaime said. “We want our students to be able to finish the semester with our support, but we will not go back to work until we can do so with decent pay and working conditions.”

The winter break for students begins after the final exams, which end this week or next depending on the campus.

In a statement, Ryan King, a spokesman for the UC System, said that “the vast majority of classes continued without incident.”

He added that the system recognizes that the strike has created challenges for the classroom and said faculty have some leeway in managing final assessments. This includes modifying exams by changing the content or format, administering take-home tests, or issuing flawless exams where completion cannot adversely affect student grades. Administrators at several campuses have extended deadlines for faculty to submit final grades.

“You have significant flexibility regarding final exams, so long as changes are applied consistently and communicated clearly to students,” King said in a statement.

King added that faculty is “well aware” that students could be “negatively impacted” by not receiving final grades, including disrupting the progress of undergraduate students toward key requirements or state financial aid status.

Administrators from at least one campus, UC Davis, reassured students Their status as a financial aid, GPA, or other achievement would not be affected if they did not receive grades at the end of the semester. In a message published online, Provost Mary Croughan said academic advisers would work closely with students who have fallen behind because of the strike.

At UC Santa Cruz, Elyssa Venerable, a third-year anthropology student, said she’s worried about a paper she turned in more than three weeks ago — and still hasn’t gotten her grade back.

Since the strike, her professors have canceled her classes entirely in solidarity with the workers she respects. But she said it was still a challenge to turn.

“We knew all of these assignments were due and we weren’t sure who was going to grade them,” said the 20-year-old. She said a midterm assignment could now make or break her final grade in a class without an opportunity to turn in the thesis.

One of her professors has a Zoom-monitored final exam scheduled for Thursday, Venerable said, but she’s pretty sure it won’t actually happen. She said a striking teaching assistant wrote the exam and was supposed to grade it.

“We’re still not sure how this actually works and if that’s going to happen even though it’s literally tomorrow,” she said.

She called the reactions of many students a “toss of a coin”. Some are upset when they needed a strong finale to raise a grade. Others celebrated the break.

Ramneet Sandhu, a UCLA psychobiology student, said her professors have a mixed approach to handling the final exams.

Some have made the finals optional to allow students who feel it might improve their grades to take it. One professor moved classes online after the strike began and another has not changed his class.

Sandhu said studying was challenging.

“To be honest, it was a bit difficult because the TAs aren’t there to answer questions,” she said.

Some professors offer more office hours, Sandhu said, but are unable to answer questions to the extent that TAs would or don’t have the ability to help hundreds of students seeking help.

Mark Roche, a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student at UC Irvine, said his classes depend on teaching assistants. The finals have been switched from tests to group projects this quarter, resulting in less stress for Roche.

“Honestly, I thought it was a win,” he said.

But Iliana Rosas, 21, was disappointed this week when the professor for her sociology, race and ethnicity class canceled her final exam. She was looking forward to testing her knowledge. But without a teaching assistant to grade the test, the professor decided to scrap it.

“I did well in the midterm and was hoping to make the finals because it’s my last sociology class before graduating,” said the sociology and Chicano graduate student.

UC Irvine professors have also been given additional time – up to the third week of January – to submit student grades for the quarter. That means if a student fails a class, they won’t know until the next term has already started, and they’ll be behind if they have to repeat it immediately, Rosas said.

Despite the uncertainty students have faced over the past month, Rosas said she “fully supports” the striking academic staff.

“I cheer for TAs because they make way more than they get,” she said. “I hope to be in that position one day and I’m glad they are drawing attention to the difficulties they are facing.”

Academics had a visible and vocal presence on campus during the strike. On Tuesday at UC Irvine, academic staff gathered near Aldrich Hall and chanted, “Workers united will never be splitte,” to a drumbeat played by people banging on overturned buckets of wooden kitchen utensils.

Jackie Ku, 25, a graduate student in political science and teaching assistant, said surviving on a $23,000 salary means commuting from Chino because he can’t afford to live closer.

While Ku pays $600 a month in rent, many of his coworkers spend more than $1,000 a month — about half their income — to live near the school. Many regularly use the on-campus chalkboard for meals, he said.

He said the UC system was to blame for the commotion during the final.

“UC is putting us in a position where we have to have this conversation in this way, and what’s happened is the students are suffering,” Ku said. “Professors are facing a finals season that is completely outweighed by the sheer size of the system.”

Times contributor Grace Toohey contributed to this story.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-12-08/uc-strike-reaches-pivotal-moment-exacting-harsh-toll-on-students-during-finals UC strike reaches pivotal time during finals week

Alley Einstein

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