Boston U. strike plagues undergraduate writing students

May 13, 2024
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For her required writing class this semester, Cléo Thor, a computer science major at Boston University, selected a research course on complex linguistic theories.

It isn’t a typical introductory writing course; instead, it is one of the 20 courses in BU’s writing program taught by Graduate Writing Fellows (GWF), graduate students who must apply for the chance to design a course centered around their own research and expertise.

In Thor’s course, students were required to conduct a linguistics experiment and write a research paper. She selected it specifically because she was considering pursuing a minor in linguistics and wanted to learn more about the subject.

But halfway into the semester, Thor’s professor, a graduate student, went on strike along with other members of the Boston University Graduate Workers Union, or BUGWU. The class stopped meeting, and she didn’t hear anything from the university’s administration for two weeks.

“We were supposed to continue trying to keep up with assignments while [the instructors] were gone,” she recalled. “That all fell apart very quickly.”

For undergraduates like Thor, canceled classes and a lack of communication are among the most dramatic ways their education has been disrupted by BU’s graduate student strike, now beginning its eighth week. Union members say administrators have failed to offer adequate counterproposals and have conceded on only a handful of demands—mostly in areas like academic freedom and union rights, which are important to graduate students, but not as essential as pay raises and improved benefits.

The university’s compensation proposal, which includes a 7 percent raise in year one and a 3 percent raise in years two and three of the contract, has been on the table since the strike began, with no movement by either side. Maggie Boyd, a striking GWF, said the proposal represented a meager increase to graduate workers’ pay and was not competitive with other universities. At the most recent bargaining session, on May 8, BU rejected BUGWU’s counterproposals on several key benefits, including childcare, paid time off and commuting reimbursements.

The strike has become one of the longest in the history of graduate student organizing. And with the semester drawing to a close—finals ended May 10—undergraduates say they are feeling the brunt of the stop-out, as administrators struggle to come up with ways to evaluate student performance in classes where teaching assistants and grad students typically handle grading. Rumors that artificial intelligence would be used to assess students’ work swirled during the strike’s first week, after a dean suggested the strategy in an internal email communication.

It wasn’t until about two weeks after the strike began that students received an email from the writing program director (which a student shared with Inside Higher Ed), explaining that they would be assigned replacement instructors—not to teach the remainder of the classes but to evaluate the students’ final essays and portfolios. The substitutes were all university employees with teaching experience, though not necessarily in teaching writing.

Shortly thereafter, according to both Thor and a student in another section of the course, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Levi, their striking graduate instructors took the course materials off Blackboard, making it difficult for them to complete the assignments.

“The only reason I was able to finish the essay is one of my classmates found the assignment they saved on their computer,” Levi recalled.

Students were assigned replacement instructors the following week, but Levi said he didn’t feel confident his new teacher was knowledgeable about the topic—visual storytelling.

“I’ve always been interested in comics … so that’s why I took the course,” he said. “My replacement grader, he taught one or two classes on the course subject, but he didn’t appear to know a lot. He works in a completely different department.”

Thor noted that her replacement instructor told students he would not grade on the formatting of their research papers—one of the key skills they were supposed to glean from the course.

‘Definitely Being Disrupted’

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Rachel Lapal Cavallario, a university spokesperson, said that the department had planned to ensure students could “continue to meet learning outcomes” even after the strike had begun. Students were to be “provided different sets of assignments” and meet with the program director or their new instructors to discuss concerns.

Neither Levi nor Thor said they were given any new assignments after the strike began.

“Additionally, students were provided clear information on how to complete the work of the semester,” Cavallario wrote. “We appreciate that it is never ideal to have significant modifications to a course during a semester; however, these modifications were put in place to align with the course learning outcomes and ensure that the assignment of appropriate grades occurred at the end of the semester.”

Students in the writing courses were not the only ones impacted by the strike; students in other classes had their labs shortened and discussion sections cancelled as well, Boyd said. BUGWU is collecting testimonials from undergraduates about how the strike has impacted them in the hopes of showing the university how important graduate workers are to the undergraduate experience.

In Boyd’s view, BU has tried to downplay how disruptive the strike has been and, as a result, how much work graduates do.

“I think BU is trying to diminish our power; their efforts to replace us do this as well,” she said. “We know, students know, faculty know, staff know things are definitely being disrupted by the strike.”

One replacement instructor for a GWF writing course, who requested anonymity, told Inside Higher Ed that he conducted individual Zoom meetings with the students in his section to go over writing assignments, offering them advice mostly on broad skills—such as the quality of their argument—rather than specific sentence-level feedback.

Although students missed about half a semester’s worth of instruction, he said he thought they had successfully achieved the learning objectives “that are going to come up repeatedly in future courses.”

“I think they’re good. And if they aren’t, we have a ton of really good tutors. I’m really confident they’ll be able to succeed in the future,” the instructor said.

Boyd disagreed.

“[Students] are not being given the infrastructure to learn how to write a research paper; they’re just being told they have to write them,” she said, noting that when she teaches, she strives to give students thoughtful, individualized responses to their assignments—feedback that also stems from watching their development during the semester.

Self-Assessment Struggles

Halfway through April, with finals looming, students in all writing courses led by striking GWFs learned that they would be responsible for their own grading, via a self-assessment; the provost’s office was not receptive to an alternative suggestion that the courses be assessed pass/fail this semester, a source from BU told Inside Higher Ed. Students were asked to write an essay about how they grew during the semester, how they performed on various assignments, and what grade they thought they deserved—and why. The format was loosely modeled on a grading approach used by the university’s Honors College.

Thor believes it will be difficult to grade herself accurately considering she hasn’t received feedback on her work since March.

“Without having a connection to an instructor and that trust you build over the course of the semester, it’s really hard to be sincere and honest about your grading,” she said.

Both Thor and Levi said they don’t feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth this semester, considering they never again set foot in their writing class once the strike began. As a result, Thor is planning to transfer from the private, liberal arts institution, where tuition, room, board and fees are expected to rise to $90,000 next year; her parents have asked BU for a refund for the course.

“It’s a lot of money I spent on this course to not get out of it what I paid for,” she said. “This course was supposed to teach us how to write a research paper … to perform our own experiments, then use the data we collected from the experiment to write the paper that goes along with the study. We kind of halfway did that.”

BU did not answer a question about whether it would consider giving refunds to students enrolled in courses with striking graduate student instructors.

Boyd emphasized that she hopes the strike is over in time for her and other GWFs to complete grading for their students.

“We would love to end the semester strong, get back to our jobs and to our roles at the university and provide those grades the university really depends on, so we’re really eager to end this,” she said.



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