UC strike stirs chaos over grades, finals, class attendance

UCLA junior Sania Tuli is concerned she’s missing material she’ll need when she sits her medical school entrance exam next year. Nathalie Boutros, a senior at UC Riverside, fears she’s falling behind in a class required for graduation because she couldn’t find help during the massive strike by 48,000 academic staff at the University of California.

And Professor Dylan Rodriguez has stopped teaching his UC Riverside class to support strikers. But his UC Berkeley colleague Kristie Boering has made the opposite decision to serve her students.

The nation’s largest-ever strike by higher education workers — teaching assistants, tutors, graduate students and postdocs — entered its third week on Monday, sparking growing concern and uncertainty over how to deal with the most critical work at the end of the fall semester: theses, projects and Exams. UC employees, represented by four United Auto Workers bargaining units, chair discussion boards, direct labs, grade assignments, administer exams, conduct research, and perform other important duties that give UC its national reputation for excellence.

“People are losing their minds,” said Kip Fulbeck, a UC Santa Barbara art professor, who said the strike sparked the biggest commotion he’s seen in his three decades on campus other than the pandemic. “The faculty is caught between trying to serve their students but also respecting the strikers. Students are caught between trying to complete their work and supporting the graduate students. Nobody seems to know what’s going on.”

The union is demanding significant wage increases to help workers afford housing in the high-price areas where most UC campuses are located, as well as more support for childcare, health care, transportation and international students. UC’s bids don’t come close to meeting union demands, but officials say they were “fair, reasonable and responsive to union priorities.”

Students Across the System Say They Support the Strike – UC Student Assn. Presidents on all nine university campuses have approved it. But they also admit to worrying about the impact on learning if classes are canceled, labs suspended and assignments left ungraded. Many say they are caught between professors who are too busy to answer all students’ questions and teaching assistants who don’t answer.

UCLA freshman Alex Antenen said she supports the union but feels she is “missing a lot.” She was studying hard for a computer programming test and presentation that was scheduled for Monday and would count for 15% of her final grade. But it was canceled because no teaching assistant was available to supervise. She also has trouble understanding challenging material.

“The lectures are quite complex,” said Antenen. “It’s at a pretty high level. So if we go into discussion, we can work more on those issues and ask questions to the vet. Not having that is really difficult.”

The strike, which has spanned all 10 UC campuses and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has also sparked system-wide tensions among faculty over whether to hold back work in solidarity with the strikers or seek to fill the gap to support their students.

More than 300 faculty members announced Monday they would not cross the picket lines and showed their support for the strikers by not teaching classes or giving grades until the end of the strike. The growing list includes such distinguished faculty as social activist Angela Davis at UC Santa Cruz, philosopher Judith Butler at UC Berkeley, and historian Robin Kelley at UCLA.

“As long as this strike lasts, faculty across the system will exercise their right to honor the picket line by refusing to perform university work up to and including the delivery of grades – work that would not be possible without the work of all other academic staff and university staff.” , the faculty said in a statement. “We do this to improve the working and learning conditions of all students in the present and in the future.”

University of California academic staff go on strike during the picket line at the University of California campus.

University of California academic workers are on strike Monday, November 28, 2022 in Los Angeles, California at the University of California, Los Angeles campus. As the nation’s largest strike by academic staff enters its third week on Monday, and the crucial final exam season is just days away, fears of long-lasting and unintended consequences for the University of California’s core teaching and research are mounting.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Rodriguez, the UC Riverside professor, has stopped teaching his media and culture studies courses in solidarity with strikers — and said students in his graduate seminar and major league course also honor the picket line. He spoke to his students about the strike, saying it related to workers’ struggles for housing, food and childcare. Most of his students in his course on race and police violence turned the strike into research projects by videotaping interviews with picket lines, he said.

Rodriguez said many faculties are being pressured by their department heads and deans to start work that the strikers are not doing. But he said it would set a “terrible precedent” for devaluing teaching assistants and graduate students, who are UC’s future professors and research stars.

However, at UC Berkeley, chemistry professor Boering continues to teach, including an introductory chemistry class to nearly 1,500 students. She said many of them are aspiring engineers and medical professionals who need to master the content of the introductory class to advance. Boering spends several extra hours each day juggling the class with a team teacher to offer extended office hours, discussion sections, replies to student emails, and other assignments.

“I’m very committed to my students,” Boering said. “I just won’t sacrifice their knowledge if I can give it to them.”

She and her husband, chemistry professor Ronald Cohen, said many professors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have a different view of the strike. Graduate student researchers typically earn significantly more than the $24,000 the union says is the average wage for striking workers. At UC Berkeley, STEM workers make between $38,000 and $43,000 annually for a part-time job, which benefits their own doctoral programs, Cohen said.

The couple did not sign the faculty’s statement pledged to go on strike, and Cohen said many of their peers, particularly in STEM subjects, were “angry and opposed.” Many are disillusioned with both union and system-wide UC leaders, Cohen said.

At UCLA, signs of the strike were seen across campus Monday as a noisy, roving demonstration of several hundred pickets carried signs and chanted as they moved from one intersection to another.

Henry, a first-year student who declined to give his last name, said it was a tough grind through multivariable analysis and chemistry without teaching assistants to help explain the difficult concepts. In Analysis, a pre-midterm review session was canceled; Several students believed that trading with lower test scores had harmed them, he said.

Concepts in his chemistry class — molecular orbitals — are hard to understand just by reading a textbook without a teaching assistant, he added.

“Next week is finals week,” he said. “I think a lot of my colleagues are feeling pretty shaky.”

Tuli, a medical student, is torn apart by the strike. She supports her teaching assistants but worries about her medical exams next summer. Her physics professor canceled a week of classes, but then resumed them on Zoom as the strike continued — not enough to learn the material, she said. Her genetics class requires a book presentation with a group every two weeks, but that no longer happens. Their group projects are not going well because some members have stopped participating since the strike began.

“It kind of put me in a moral dilemma because I’m in solidarity with the TAs,” Tuli said. But she added, “It’s taking a little too long … and it seems like the interests of the students have kind of taken a back seat.”

Alex Niles, UC Student Assn. President said such experiences are frustrating for students. “But it’s UC’s fault,” he said. “UC can end the strike whenever they want by paying a living wage… they’ve had months and months to do so.”

At UC Riverside, Boutros said one of her professors canceled classes to protest and allow students to join the demonstrations. Another moved classes to Zoom but made participation optional.

The fourth-year student’s biggest concern, however, is her law and society course, which she must pass in order to graduate on time. Attendance at this class is still required, but Boutros fears falling behind without the help of a teaching assistant. The work she submitted at the beginning of the quarter hasn’t been graded yet, so she’s not sure where she stands as the quarter draws to a close. She plans to watch YouTube videos and research legal cases herself to gain a better understanding as she prepares for the course finals.

“It’s scary, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “As much as I want to support them in getting the representation they need, I also want to be able to graduate.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-29/chaos-over-grades-finals-ongoing-classes-erupts-as-uc-strike-enters-third-week UC strike stirs chaos over grades, finals, class attendance

Alley Einstein

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