Teaching for Peanuts

UH creative writing graduate students stage a sit-in to protest 20 years without a pay raise

By Michael Hardy April 3, 2013

The University of Houston’s creative writing program is arguably the most prestigious academic program at any Houston university. Founded in the late 1970s, and guided for much of its early years by the late Donald Barthelme, the program has long been considered one of the city’s crown jewels; the Ph.D. program has been named one of the top five in the country by both The Atlantic and Poets & Writers magazine. Students from around the country come to Houston to study with the program’s all-star faculty, which currently includes Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Antonya Nelson, and ZZ Packer.

Even with a faculty this impressive, however, UH is having an increasingly difficult time recruiting graduate students because of its miserly stipends, which haven’t been increased since 1993. In addition to being full-time students, graduate students normally teach two undergraduate courses a semester, twice what students at peer creative writing programs normally teach. Although they’re called teaching assistants, there’s no “assisting” involved: the students design and teach the classes—usually freshman composition, a required course at UH—themselves. For that course load, they earn the princely sum of $9,600 a year for MFA students or $11,200 for Ph.D. students, plus a tuition waiver (in real dollars, this represents about a 30 percent pay cut since 1993).

According to Ph.D. student Austin Tremblay, around 16 percent of that salary is withheld to cover various university fees. Worse, graduate students are prohibited from obtaining outside employment, although many of them are forced to take multiple jobs anyway to merely survive. Tremblay conducted a survey of his program and found that approximately 70 percent of the graduate students are holding down an average of 2 jobs each.

Last semester, when a clerical error led to the graduate students being forced to pay even more than usual, they decided to fight back. “It was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Tremblay said this afternoon. “It had felt like an unjust environment for a long time.”

After receiving a cold shoulder from the administration for much of this academic year, the activists—including graduate students in the Literature and Composition & Rhetoric programs, who receive the same stipends as creative writing students—staged a sit-in this morning at Chancellor and President Renu Khator's office. About 20 students sat quietly in the hall outside the office, grading papers or reading, while six representatives met with the provost, the dean, and the university’s chief financial officer (Khator was unavailable). Tremblay, who was in the meeting, said the students were told that nothing could be done until the university’s annual budget meetings in July.

“They heard us out, then explained to us in very vague terms that raising the graduate student stipends is a ‘priority,’ in their words,” Tremblay said. “We offered our research and showed them the data we had gathered. They seemed very interested, and asked us to send them the figures. We pointed out that we had already given them the information when we delivered a petition eight days ago.”

A 2010 report by the Goldwater Institute entitled "Administrative Bloat at American Universities" noted that since 1993, the last year that grad students received a pay raise, undergraduate tuition at UH increased 226 percent, while the number of administrators has nearly doubled. During the same period, administrative spending per pupil increased 90 percent, while spending on undergraduate instruction actually decreased by .06 percent. These numbers suggest that UH has plenty of money to spend, but chooses to spend it on more deans and vice presidents rather than on the graduate students who do much of the core undergraduate teaching.

Edward Porter, who will receive his Ph.D. this spring after five years in the creative writing program, said that a prospective student who recently visited Houston ultimately decided to attend a different program with a less distinguished faculty because it required less teaching and paid a higher stipend. Porter said that, prestigious or not, graduate students in the UH creative writing program are tired of being at the bottom of the university food chain.

“People feel they have nothing to lose,” Porter said. “We need a concrete offer. We need a larger stipend.” 

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