As a second-year Ph.D. student in Iberian and Latin American Studies, Tania Flores is used to working long hours and splitting time between coursework, research and teaching. But when Flores realized she had dedicated 80 hours to working during week 10 of winter quarter, she was appalled.
“I had become increasingly concerned as spring break approached,” Flores said. “But once I was in it, I was like, oh my God, this is horrible.”
Flores is one of many graduate student teaching assistants (TA) feeling battered by Stanford’s decision to eliminate finals week from the academic calendar. Finals week, which traditionally allowed TAs to catch up on their work and rest before grading final papers and exams during spring break, was eliminated as part of the University’s decision to modify the 2020-21 academic calendar in light of remote learning.
To those who assumed the no-finals policy would mean no large exams or assignments, Week 10 was a harsh wake-up call. Students reported that many professors still administered exams or assignments that closely resembled finals, leaving TAs with a traditional grading workload but with one fewer week to complete it.
“We’re already dealing with a number of incredibly disorienting and sometimes scary and anxiety-provoking sets of circumstances that are then exacerbated by the fact that we can’t even catch a break,” Flores said. “Trying to envision getting to June right now is so daunting.”
Students recently launched a petition aimed at reconsidering the structure and workload of week 10. Though the petition is geared more toward undergraduate student struggles, many of the concerns raised apply to TAs as well, and the Graduate Student Council (GSC) co-chairs said they plan to sign onto the petition individually.
Though the University did not have a finals week during fall quarter, the lengthened seven-week winter break allowed TAs more time to grade assignments due at the end of the term. To some TAs, winter quarter felt different. With no finals week and only one week between terms, TAs spent their spring break completing work that they traditionally would have been able to spread between two.
As a winter quarter TA for CS 347: “Human-Computer Interaction: Foundations and Frontiers,” Abdallah AbuHashem ’19 M.S. ’21 found the schedule change to be “very inconsiderate.” Due to the new schedule, AbuHashem and his adviser worked until the first day of the spring quarter to finalize winter quarter grades.
In response to an inquiry about how the University had planned to enforce its “no finals” policy, University spokesperson Dee Mostofi wrote in a statement that while faculty may incorporate activities, homework and assessments during week 10, they have been “encouraged to apply reasonable expectations when determining the workload assigned to students during that week.”
Instances of University enforcement were few and far between, according to Sanna Ali, a fourth-year communication Ph.D. candidate who works as a TA.
“I think there just needs to be education toward the faculty that they need to lessen the amount of exams and assignments toward the end of the quarter,” Ali said.
Flores said that it was obvious to her that the policy of no final exams was going to fail from the beginning. The notion that the University was unable to foresee what would happen is hard to believe, Flores said.
“We are operating in a deeply entrenched academic culture where final exams are a treasure,” Flores said. “I say that partly ironically, but academic culture and faculty are really reluctant to just eliminate this hallmark of their pedagogy.”
It’s a problem that graduate students think could have been avoided if the University were to integrate them more heavily into the decision-making process. “I do think the University can do a lot more in terms of integrating student voices and student perspectives,” AbuHashem said. He saw this as part of “a continued pattern of the University to take a bunch of decisions that affect the graduate students without consulting them.”
The Committee on Graduate Studies, a Faculty Senate group that incorporates graduate student representatives, has been “part of the decision-making process for academic policy changes in response to the pandemic,” Mostofi said.
To some, the increased workload over a reduced period of time marked the breaking point in what has already been a uniquely taxing year for graduate student workers.
This academic year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to either put themselves at risk of contracting the virus by working in labs or to modify their work and curricula to adapt to virtual learning. Opting out is not an option for some — Ph.D. students are required to acquire funding through a research or teaching assistantship. For graduate student workers, especially women and people of color who are coping with increased challenges to their mental wellbeing, the lack of finals weeks was an additional burden, Flores said.
“I just urge professors to really take mental wellbeing into account,” GSC co-chair and fifth-year theater and performance studies Ph.D. student Kari Barclay said, who also works as a TA. “Students are going to learn better if you take the whole human into account.”
The relationship between graduate student TAs and the University is complicated — Stanford is not only their academic institution, but also their employer, which Ali said can put graduate student workers in an uncomfortable position.
“You’re staring at your screen for like hours and hours, and if you don’t do this, it’s not as if you can take a bad grade,” Ali said. “You might really tick off some people who have a lot of influence over your career.”
Mostofi wrote that the University encourages TAs “to discuss their responsibilities with the course instructor, in addition to their faculty advisor and program leadership, if they need help balancing their workload.”
When TAs tried to follow that advice, some encountered nothing but dead ends. AbuHashem said his adviser had been supportive and communicative about the end-of-quarter workload: “He apologized for the amount of work, but I knew it wasn’t really his fault.”
Flores said that she pointed out the arduous conditions she was working under to her advisors, but they were not in a position to lessen her burden, despite their best efforts to improve the situation.
“Ultimately, they can’t just create a finals week for me,” Flores said. “The thing that I really needed, which was more time, was not something that they could accommodate.”
Students recently launched a petition aimed at reconsidering the structure and workload of week 10. Though the petition is geared more toward undergraduate student struggles, many of the concerns raised apply to TAs as well. Due to a provision in its bylaws, the GSC would not be able to vote to sign on it as a Council this week. To show their support, the co-chairs said they instead plan to sign the petition individually.