Precept size rule more strictly enforced
But this fall, the University began to strictly enforce its policy of requiring every precept to have at least 12 students. As a result, Walker is teaching only three precepts this semester.
Leading these three sections has allowed him to maintain the minimum number of teaching hours required to receive University health insurance. Other graduate students in the English department, however, have not been as fortunate. Several students said they would not have had any health insurance this year were it not for the English department independently subsidizing it.
The last-minute precept cancellations have been problematic for graduate students, who risk losing income and health insurance because they are teaching fewer sections. But the cancellations have also been problematic for undergraduates: Many have had to drop courses altogether because the remaining precepts no longer fit into their schedules, and all may face larger discussion sections this semester.
Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin sent a letter to department chairs earlier this year, reminding them of the University policy that there should be 12 to 14 students per precept and no more than 16. Moreover, English professor Jeff Dolven said that professors have been asked to teach two of the precepts in their classes. In the past, many departments, including the English department, have been more lax in applying this policy, distributing precepts more evenly among graduate students who need to fulfill teaching requirements or rely on teaching as their only source of income.
Graduate students said they believed these changes have damaged their ability to teach effectively because, in some cases, they have been given only a few days’ notice to teach precepts for particular courses. And graduate students whose precepts have been eliminated face an even more difficult situation when they are not given enough time to look for part-time positions either on or off campus to support themselves.
Deborah Nord, the director of graduate studies for the English department, attributed the increased attention to the policy’s enforcement to the current state of the economy. “It goes without saying that this is part of the belt tightening,” she said. “It’s not a kind of arbitrary decision to enforce the size rule. It’s a decision to reduce expenses.”
Still, some administrators have maintained that budget considerations are not driving this change. Associate Dean of the Faculty Mary Baum said the Assistants in Instruction budget has increased by 8.93 percent over the last five years, including the current academic year. “There have been no precepts eliminated for budgetary considerations, nor is there any plan to do so in the future,” she said in an e-mail.
At a town hall meeting on Wednesday, President Tilghman was asked whether this stricter enforcement was undermining the University’s promise of not hurting its teaching mission. Tilghman responded that the University’s commitment to the precept system had not changed and no core courses or junior seminars had been cut.
Tilghman also said at the meeting that graduate students are the “poorest members of the Princeton family” and had thus received a 3 percent increase in their stipends.
She explained that she is sympathetic to the situation of graduate students in the English department, but she added that the University made a commitment to providing fellowship funding only for the first five years, though most graduate students take longer than that to complete their studies. Only those students beyond their fifth year risk losing health insurance or funding if they cannot complete sufficient teaching hours.
Dean of the Graduate School William Russel added that the University continues to seek ways to refine the programs so that students could realistically finish closer to five years “by paring requirements that are not absolutely essential and assuring that advisers encourage students to not be overambitious.”
David Russell GS, a fifth-year graduate student in the English department and a British citizen, said he was especially worried because there is a minimum amount of teaching to fulfill his visa requirement and because it would be difficult for him to work off campus without authorization.
“I think Princeton should try to help its graduate students,” Russell said. “We’re not dealing with luxuries. We’re dealing with lifelines. Obviously in difficult times you have to make sacrifices, but it does seem like it’s disproportionately affecting graduate students.”
English lecturer Mary Noble said she believed that having no “early warning system” was detrimental to graduate students.
“No one in the University was looking at the situation overall and seeing that too many precepts had been assigned,” she explained. “People in the English department went through the summer thinking they would of course teach the number of precepts they had been asked to, and suddenly, without warning, people had precepts cut or were switched to other courses in the past week ... It’s likely to affect the quality of teaching with a few days’ or a week’s notice.”
Gene Grossman, the acting chair of the economics department, said that his department had a problem opposite that of the English department: There were not enough economics graduate students in Assistants in Instruction positions. This has led to a change in labeling for the class sessions, from “precepts” to “classes.” Precepts are capped at 16 students, while classes are capped at 25.
“All of the graduate students are expected to teach, but we’re just having slightly larger precepts and classes this year,” Grossman explained.
Graduate students in other departments said that department chairs have felt pressure to reduce funding from teaching or Assistants in Instruction programs and shift it to funding through assistant research positions.
David Liao GS, a fifth-year graduate student in the physics department, said he does not believe he will be able to secure an Assistants in Instruction position because of the reductions within his department. The University asked the department to cut more than six of those positions in July, according to an e-mail from the physics department’s graduate studies director to its faculty.
“Students at large state schools can expect to get a lot of their funding from [teaching], so they automatically get CVs [curricula vitae] with a lot of teaching experience when they look for future jobs in academia,” he said.
After the town hall meeting Wednesday, several graduate students expressed disappointment with the situation. “I do think there’s a disconnect between the high-level administrators and how policies are being implemented,” said Sonya Posmentier, a graduate student in the English department. “It makes it difficult to fulfill departmental teaching requirements, and it hurts not to have teaching experience [in the job search].”
Dolven said that he understood the reasons for economizing teaching costs, but he added that he hopes the department will regain flexibility in the near future.
“On the one hand, it’s been an administrative accident that students have ended up in precepts of six or seven, but also one of the greatest experiences that they have and certainly that I have had,” he said. “We understand the pressures, but we see strong reasons why we should return to that as soon as possible.”
Looking ahead, President Tilghman acknowledged the need to prevent problematic precept cancellations from occurring as they have this fall. Geosciences graduate student Jamie Palter suggested at the meeting that freshmen should pick their classes a month before arriving on campus in the fall and that upperclassmen should be limited to selecting five courses. Tilghman said in response that she would discuss viable options with Dobkin.
“We’re going to have a chance in the spring semester to try and do this more effectively,” she said. “Let’s see if we can figure out a way that all of this can get resolved as early as possible, so that there are no surprises again.”