Graduate students say fall semester is an ‘illusion of choice’

  • In this photo taken Wednesday April 6, 2016 students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The water system serving the University is among more than two dozen in New Hampshire that have exceeded the federal lead standard at least once in the last three years. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 9/21/2020 4:38:58 PM

It is nearly impossible to socially distance in the small chemistry lab where Taylir Bullick teaches, she said.

Bullick, a graduate student at UNH, is working as a teaching assistant in an organic chemistry course this semester. With closely spaced lab benches, the room is, by design, built to foster collaboration and conversation, a quality less than desirable during a pandemic.

If a student has a question, she can rarely answer it from six feet away. Instead, she has to stand next to the student — often shoulder to shoulder — to see what the student was struggling with.

The close contact concerned Bullick, especially as news of clusters of COVID-19 on campus circulated.

When she brought her concerns to the professor of the course, he reassured her that the air circulation in the room was top-notch, although he was teaching his portion of the course virtually.

For Bullick, the teaching position is her only source of income, as it is for many graduate students. Leaving the job would mean leaving graduate school.

So, she stayed.

While undergraduate students and professors at the university were given the option to stay at home if they felt safer doing so, many graduate students were not afforded that same luxury.

Instead, many felt as though they were forced to teach classes that put them in dangerously close proximity to students.

Erika Mantz, a spokesperson for UNH said the university has made PPE available to teaching assistants and have increased air handling in campus buildings.

In a survey sent out to graduate students from the Graduate Student Senate, most of the 1,000 or so respondents said they felt more comfortable with a remote semester. Yet, nearly three quarters said they would be returning in-person – either full time or occasionally – in the fall.

“Illusion of choice has been the general theme in all of this,” Bullick said. “Nothing about this is consensual.”

Running in-person classes has felt especially hypocritical to Bullick, as she noticed most of the professors in her department taught their classes remotely, while many of her fellow graduate students were doing the face-to-face instruction.

“All of us are doing it for $20,000 a year and (bad) health insurance,” she said.

Mike Moheban, a first-year graduate student in the chemistry department, said he understands that chemistry courses, especially labs, work best in person. But he said he wished administrators had at least seriously considered alternatives, like virtual labs, for the sake of his safety.

According to the GSS survey, more than 60% of the respondents said they were either somewhat or extremely uncomfortable teaching in-person classes.

Most graduate students said they would strictly adhere to the university’s social distancing guidelines, yet they cited concern about the university’s enforcement of its guidelines on others.

While the administration hosted virtual town halls to discuss the reopening plans, Mike Coughlan, a graduate student in the physics department, said he felt like they were there to placate the students rather than have them involved in the decision-making process.

Moheban said it felt as though grad students had little say over whether or not they were in the classroom. Discussing safety concerns with a professor could mean confronting someone on the student’s Ph.D. committee, who has influence over whether or not their dissertation is approved.

Moheban said some graduate students have banded together to create a graduate student society that advocates on their behalf. The organization was created shortly after the reopening plans were solidified.

Ethan Jarvis, just months away from defending his dissertation, has had to go onto campus regularly to finish his research.

“Not being on campus wasn’t an option,” he said. “I knew I didn’t really have a choice.”

Even though he has to do his lab work in person — they still haven’t quite figured out how to pipette chemicals over Zoom — he considers himself lucky. Jarvis gets his funding through his research and doesn’t have to assist in teaching undergraduate classes.

He said the spring semester, during which classes, including labs, were abruptly shifted online, proves virtual labs are at least possible.

“It’s eerie and unsettling seeing 24 students shoulder to shoulder in a lab,” he said.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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