Bwog surveyed students across the four undergraduate colleges to better understand the impacts of the GWC-UAW strike on their academic and emotional wellbeing.
Disclaimer: We edited some of the quotes from student surveys for comprehensibility, but the content of their remarks was not altered. Additionally, the surveys were collected in early April.
In the midst of a global pandemic and online learning, Columbia students have experienced a lot of uncertainty, including the GWC-UAW strike. Columbia University student workers were actively striking for three weeks in March for better working conditions. Specifically, graduate students on strike sought better sexual harassment and discrimination policies, as well as higher compensation for their work. Although the strike was paused while the University and GWC-UAW entered a period of mediation, there were still lasting impacts felt by undergraduate students from the three week-strike. This feature by no means seeks to assess the validity or efficacy of the strike, but rather to investigate the strike’s effects on the undergraduate student experience, both emotionally and academically.
Bwog surveyed individuals from the University, asking about their class experience in the absence of TAs and graduate student professors. Questions also prompted students to share their sentiments regarding the University as graduate students continuously express their discontent. All students opted to remain anonymous but nevertheless described how they have been impacted by the GWC-UAW strike. Each response in this feature is from an undergraduate student who volunteered to take the survey.
Teaching Assistants, or TAs, are an integral part of 4-credit courses that rely on office hours and discussion sections to wholly teach a subject and complement the professor’s weekly lectures. One student (BC ‘24) remarked upon the effects of striking TAs in their anthropology class. Specifically, the student noted that while some TAs continue to strike, others opted not to. Thus, TAs not on strike maintained their discussion sections and provided their students with “more [of an] opportunity to get help on essays in their section and in office hours.” Furthermore, the student explained that TAs are responsible for grading the papers written by students in their section. Therefore, the absence of TAs has made this student “concerned [their] paper will not be graded” and worried “other students whose [TA] is not on strike will have an advantage.”
The lack of clarification surrounding grading signals a larger issue at hand. Surveyed students expressed a feeling of disconnect between the administration, professors, and themselves about grading processes and sources of support. Certain students are more impacted by the strike than others—some have discussion sections, some do not—and, according to the responses, the University has not tried to address this discrepancy.
Students not even being aware of whether their papers will be graded demonstrates a lack of communication between various parties. Simply put, some students feel disadvantaged in comparison to their peers with no hope of resolution.
Numerous students surveyed also expressed confusion regarding the future of their courses. With TAs on strike, many classes have had to fundamentally change their layout. One student (BC ‘21) described how their Nature and Power class, part of the History Department, must now meet on Google Meets instead of Zoom “because [Zoom is] part of the strike.” Changing the virtual setting to Google Meets means the class “can’t do breakout rooms” and “no longer [has] discussion sections.” Students in that class also lose the ability to utilize discussion posts. However, this student also cited that a change in class layout has not hindered their ability to learn, as they “never did the discussion posts anyway and [they] like not having to go to section.” Even so, no longer being able to maintain specific course elements like breakout rooms demonstrates the profound effect the strike can have on a course.
Not everyone is happy about the layout change. Another Barnard senior mentioned that, as a result of the strike, their class completely switched gears. “The grading scheme changed,” they remarked. “The final project changed. The discussion sections were canceled.” The student expressed worries over grading, fearing they “will be only graded on [their] assignments from the beginning of the year when [they were] getting used to the course.” There continued to be a consistent pattern in increased stress over changes in grading and feeling unaware as to how papers and projects might be assessed.
In addition to grades, other students described a deteriorating state in their mental health. A first-year student at Columbia College detailed how their class has been canceled due to the strike, which meant students were not given “specific information on when the class will be back.” As a result, this student has been “waking up at 5 am just to check [the] Zoom and go back to sleep.” This student explained that while it is hard to attend a 5 am class, “it’s even harder to keep up with such an irregular sleep pattern.” They also “feel very stressed about the learning course materials in the absence of a professor/class.” The consistent uncertainty affects students’ sleep schedule and stress levels, and the lack of support exists in their daily lives in and outside of an academic setting.
Other undergraduates are thankful for the strike. As a Barnard sophomore admitted, “Less work to do [means] more time to relax.” Yet, it is uncertain how heavily work was distributed as the strike paused to enter a period of third-party mediation.
Graduate students do not only serve as TAs, but some of them also teach their own classes. As a result of the strike, many of these classes have been canceled. In Bwog’s survey, one class that was consistently brought up was University Writing, as many of the professors of that course are graduate students. Many Columbia College first-years emphasized the lack of guidance given in terms of the future of the course. One cited how “we are all unsure how/if we are to write the remaining UW papers, having not heard anything from the UW program since this all began.” Another also mentioned the need for “some sort of timeline and guidance.” Over and over, students desperately requested some sort of response from departments and programs, mentioning how the “abrupt break,” and possible end, felt “jarring and alienating.” Graduate workers have a right to strike, but if they choose to strike, they cannot communicate with their students about the course at the same time. The University is not obligated to reach out to students. Yet, undergraduates are still frustrated and confused as to why they received no direction from any figures of authority.
Many graduate student-led classes mentioned in the survey are foreign language courses. Despite some students being given asynchronous work, one Barnard first-year was assigned none, feeling “unable to learn the material (it is a language class, so simply reading the textbook doesn’t cut it).” Foreign language classes often build upon one another, so while this student might not be concerned over their current GPA, there is a legitimate fear for future language capabilities due to the lack of learning and intake of materials.
Additionally, for some students who already experience mental health struggles like anxiety and depression, as a Columbia College first-year expressed, uncertainty over the strike created an additional “massive stress.” In emails sent by Columbia and Barnard regarding the GWC-UAW strike, the administration referred to College Deans and academic departments as points of contact for extra support; however, these specific emails did not mention counseling services students can reach out to. As many students in our survey have stated, the strike has created varying effects on their academic stature and mental health—leaving students alone and confused.
Undergraduate Opinions Regarding the Administration
An overwhelming majority of students who filled out the survey cited an increase in negative feelings towards the Columbia administration given their responses to the GWC-UAW strike and lack of communication when it comes to undergraduate students.
Specifically, many students expressed shock at Columbia University’s refusal to meet many of the demands from the graduate strikers before the pause in April. One Barnard junior explained they were “disappointed and confused with the administration not agreeing to third party arbitrators for sexual harassment.” However, not all undergraduates have been consistently keeping up with the strike and the union’s demands. One Columbia College first-year mentioned they “did not know the working conditions graduate students were subjected to and hope the strike will improve the lives of graduate students.” Even though the strike has caused a lot of unintended consequences, many of the undergraduates still showed support for the GWC-UAW strike.
Overall, most students who volunteered to fill out our survey placed the blame for poor undergraduate academic life and poor working conditions on the University. According to the survey, students were deeply impacted, for better or for worse, by the strike. Their conditions and feelings of stress and concern have only been exacerbated by the received silence from authority figures.
Image via Shira Michaeli