Teaching Assistants, Zoom-Capitalism, and the Necessity of Study

By Frances H. O'Shaughnessy 

As teaching assistants, as workers who study, we are faced with the feverous demand for our academic labor. Facing the latest apocalyptic crisis of liberal modernity, the COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself returning to an insight from Fred Moten in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013). Arguing that “the conditions of academic labor have become unconducive to study,” Moten struggles against the notion that workers don’t study. (113) Citing his experiences as a labor organizer at Berkeley, Moten emphasizes that we must recognize that the most “insidious, vicious, brutal aspect of the conditions of our labor was that it regulated and suppressed study.” (114) Nothing has reiterated Moten’s argument more than this pandemic. Refusing to suspend the quarter as the virus spreads and kills the most vulnerable within our communities, the University of Washington instead places an untold burden onto educators to convert their classes into online formats. The veneer of “study” as an institutional goal has been ripped off amidst COVID-19, with the white supremacist, heteropatriarchical foundations of Zoom-Capitalism laid bare for the entire student body to experience.

It is not in the interest of the University of Washington to provide education for its students. Lecturers and teaching assistants provide education in spite of the University of Washington’s fundamental goals, which is to exploit our labor to maintain revenue streams from the state, undergraduate students, and private donors. Zoom-capitalism argues that online education can replace any in-person class experience, with little regard for the pedagogical necessity of in-person human interaction, the increased academic labor to convert classes to online, and the inaccessibility of the internet for many poor, undocumented, international, and students of color.

In the first two weeks alone, I worked far beyond the contractual 20 hours per week. With the libraries closed and book shipments backlogged, I searched the internet to find and locate online versions of readings for the students.

I reworked the syllabus with the professor and my fellow TAs. We communicated and strategized together on how to deal with the group chat function, accessibility requests to record online lectures, and the menace of Zoom-bombing that especially threatens American Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies classes. Above all, I spent an inordinate amount of time responding to emails from students, many of whom were trying desperately to join the online lecture or discussion section. Nights were spent awake thinking about the thirty students in our lectures and the twelve students in my discussion section who were unable to connect. So many of these tasks are difficult to track and all of this is by design. The University does not want to make it easy to prove our  220-hour contracts will not cover the hours needed to provide online formats.  

As was the case before the pandemic, teaching assistants struggle with the balance between fulfilling our contractual obligations as educators and maintaining “good academic standing” as graduate students.

If we fully devote our energies to providing the optimal conditions for student learning, time will not be placed on completing the PhD. If we fully devote our energies to completing the PhD, time will not be placed on undergraduate education. As was the case before, we continue to face surveillance from our departments, with academic standing and teaching evaluations determining whether we receive departmental fellowships, teaching assistantships beyond the five-year package, and summer teaching jobs. The pandemic simply compounds the already precarious, vulnerable position of teaching assistants. 

Simply put, we are struggling to survive a pandemic whose scale has not been seen in over a century. We are grappling with the reality that this economic recession in a few months' time will become a depression, with many of our family members already losing their jobs and their health as a result. Some of us have assumed unpaid caring labor for our sick loved ones, and for international graduate students, plans to return to home for the summer have been abruptly canceled. With graduate students losing their second or third jobs, some of us are already facing food and home insecurity. There are even graduate students who were forced to return to the United States after their research fellowships were abruptly cut short. Now they are desperately hoping for a teaching assistantship just so they will receive health insurance for themselves and their families. With libraries and archives likely closed until the end of fall quarter, research is simply an afterthought in our lives.

We are also deeply worried about summer. For those of us fortunate to have summer funding, its cancelation is becoming a reality, as summer teaching remains dependent on enrollment and summer fellowships remain dependent on each respective organization’s contingency plans. Folks without no access to summer funding will be struggling to find a source of income, including minimum wage work. This is especially the case for international students, whose visas stipulate that we can only conduct university-based labor. Under these circumstances, many more of us will grapple with home and food insecurity for the summer; in the history department alone, 50% of graduate students do not have guaranteed health insurance for themselves or their dependents and 63% do not have enough resources to afford rent and food for the summer. We will be forced to undertake financial burdens, including credit card debt and loans, in order to pay for food. Rent will simply be unaffordable. All of this is compounded by perhaps the most urgent concern, which is the prospects of losing our health insurance. While it is stipulated that teaching assistants who have worked the previous three quarters will have summer health insurance, for everyone else, health insurance will be lost. And even with health insurance, the co-payments of a severe case of COVID-19 will cost any student thousands of dollars.  None of this would be a concern, of course, if all departments provided guaranteed summer funding. 

Amidst this crisis, graduate students have begun to organize. As history students, we held emergency meetings and wrote a letter to the faculty chair and graduate director, imploring them to work with us to address these concerns.

We have called on them to enroll all history graduate students into GAIP for the Spring Quarter and provide emergency funding for graduate students. We have also coordinated with UAW Local 4121 and its working groups on COVID-19 to create a petition, which I encourage all graduate students and postdocs to sign. The petition implores the university to extend Academic Student Employment (ASE) appointments to September 2020 and to approve all requests for a one-year ASE appointment extension. If implemented by the university, the petition will ensure all academic student employees and postdocs have health insurance, can better afford rent and food for the summer, and are not penalized by an inability to conduct work as usual during a crisis. The one-year extension is compatible with most projected timelines of a medically sound response to COVID-19. It is also in keeping with the UW College of Arts and Science one-year tenure progress extension. Rather than simply a single-quarter extension, a one-year extension also ensures that graduate students are well-positioned for the annual nature of the academic job market, which is crucial to a job search amidst Covid-related hiring freezes across colleges and universities.

So far, we have been successful in enrolling history graduate students into GAIP for the spring quarter and in securing a $500.00 summer stipend, the funds of which derives from the graduate student emergency fund. The department has also offered support in the form of additional labor, offering graduate students contracts as graders and readers on top of their work as teaching assistants. While the department is showing good faith, these endeavors can only be seen as the beginning of a more systematic, university-wide action. $500.00 does not cover half a month’s rent, international students are not allowed to work more than twenty hours a week, and many domestic students are over-capacitated working already as teaching assistants. The department has been receptive to this feedback and has been working with us to provide more systematic support for all history graduate students. A baseline of material support from the department or from the university so that we can survive the next few months has yet to be guaranteed. 

As we organize, we articulate a radical praxis of care and foster moments of study, or what Moten describes as the social activity of “common intellectual practice.” (110) Frontline workers at UW have been at the forefront of this movement, successfully increasing their reassignment pay, obtaining paid administrative leave in the case of contracting COVID-19, and receiving appropriate PPE to work under these conditions. Campaigns are still underway to receive duty pay from the state. Within the graduate student community, online book clubs have been created, organizing strategies have been shared across departments, and plans for new graduate research clusters are well underway. While some of us may not be with our families, we are creating a family amongst ourselves. Social media platforms also gesture at times to this type of ethos. Whether folks bring groceries for older or disabled neighbors, impromptu concerts play across apartment balconies, or local prison abolitionists organize mutual aid across the city, this radical praxis of care reflects how such an apocalypse of death, suffering, and illness can also instigate an entirely new future. 

This future, to be sure, is not an inevitable outcome of catastrophe. We must recognize that the University, as an instrument of empire, has already used this crisis to render us more exploitable and expendable. But we can use this crisis too and work to reinvigorate an anti-racist and anti-colonial labor movement.

This is not simply a matter of “self-care,” but a call for a collective campaign whose vision recognizes that to take care of the world, we must actively reinvent and transform its existence.

This requires study and work, but if we organize together, we may embolden the ongoing experiment of the undercommons. In the reinvigoration of intellectual life, a life that the University of Washington tries so desperately to vanquish, we may begin to experience a sociality of love, liberation, and care.