Tuesday, February 18, 2014

About class size as a working condition

The UC Student-Worker Union UAW 2865 has brought a proposal to UC management that would give Teaching Assistants, who are the front line educators in the university, the right to have a say in setting class size policy. The issue of class size, and specifically our desire for smaller classes, is both about the work that we are doing and the service our students are receiving. As the Chicago Teachers Union has said, “Our working conditions are our students learning conditions.” Yet UC management has refused to negotiate this issue, despite labor law that says that working conditions are a mandatory subject of bargaining. Our response has been to file an Unfair Labor Practice Charge against them. The Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) has yet to rule on the charge and management has so far continued to refuse to bargain.

Management’s response so far has been to say that any issues having to do with class size do not need a new article in the contract specifically addressing it, instead it is merely a workload issue. This is my response to that argument:

Lets imagine for a moment that instead of being a university engaging in education and research that we were an organization that builds bridges. Now imagine that I used to build small simple bridges in the 220 hours that I work in a quarter but due to changes in how the organization is run I now have to build a much bigger and more complicated bridge in the same amount of time. Sure I could get the bridge built for you if just having it erected was the main goal, but I would have to do it quickly and cut corners to work within the time constraints. Would you drive over that bridge? Would you drive your children over that bridge? Knowing what you know about the way in which I had to have it built in order to meet time constraints, I bet you wouldn’t. The job I did was lower quality and the bridge is not a quality bridge. It is unsafe.

There is a reason that we have safety standards for bridges, buildings, cars, food, and other goods and services, because some things are too important to do quickly. Quality is important. What we are asking for is essentially quality standards for education. We are the front line educators in this world class university, yet our lack of a say in class size means that we are forced to deal with certain working conditions despite the fact that we care about our work and want to build something that we can be proud of.

And that’s the other aspect of what has been taken away from us. We are professional teachers, many of us come in with teaching expereince and or a Master’s degree, and after 2 years we all have both. But the one thing we have less and less of due to increasing class size is the one thing all professions are defined by: authority over our work and the ability to make decisions about our work.The authority we have lost is a pedagogical authority - the ability to choose HOW to teach.

Research shows that a student-centered and active learning approach to teaching is more effective, yet this style of teaching is made difficult to impossible with larger classes. So as class size balloons what happens is that a certain pedagogical approach is institutionalized, and thus our decision to decide which pedagogical approach to use has been taken away from us. What we are left with is what Brazillian educational theorist Paulo Freire called the “banking model” of education, one in which students are passive objects of a one way transmission of knowledge model of education that is alienating and not as effective.

That is why the issue of class size is not just about workload violations and why we demand to have the right to negotiate over class size in our contract, because we are talking about standards of education and pedagogical authority. Class size is undoubtedly a working condition.

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