For the first time, University of Maryland graduate assistants and their supervisors are required to meet at the start of each term to discuss the responsibilities both are expected to uphold throughout the term.
In the past, such a meeting was not mandatory. Graduate Assistant Advisory Committee member Will Howell said the group — which represents graduate assistants on the campus — frequently received complaints from students who had not received clear instructions from their supervisors, who are responsible for directing graduate assistants' work.
Before Katie Brown, a communication doctoral student, taught an upper-level communications course two years ago, she said she did not lay out expectations with a supervisor about what she would be teaching.
"I wrote the curriculum, I did all the teaching. Nobody ever checked on me," she said. "On one hand, from sort of a shallow perspective, it's kind of cool because you can do whatever you want, but in real life, I'm teaching a 300-level course basically on my own."
In May, the Graduate Council voted to make the meetings mandatory and approved templates to help guide expectation-setting talks. The Graduate Student Government worked closely with the council over a period of three years to develop this policy change, said graduate school spokesperson Mary Carroll-Mason.
Graduate assistants and their supervisors are not required to fill out one of these documents — called Statements of Mutual Expectations — during their meeting. The graduate school also will not collect and file them, Carroll-Mason said.
"We want to create a culture where everyone is communicating freely, not just another situation where people are given a list of paperwork to sign," she said.
But Howell said not having an SME might create problems down the road for a graduate assistant if a supervisor's expectations shift midway through the semester.
For example, a supervisor might tell a teaching assistant in their meeting that they are required to attend class only once a week, then later expect them to come to class twice a week.
"There's nothing to go on, because there's nothing in writing from the initial conversation," Howell said.
Carroll-Mason also said that SMEs are not legally enforceable contracts.
In April, a bill that would have given graduate student workers at public four-year universities collective bargaining rights — and the ability to negotiate contracts with employers — failed to make it to the State House or Senate floor in time for a vote.
Brown, who is a member of the labor activism group Fearless Student Employee Coalition, said the organization will continue to push for collective bargaining rights for graduate student workers. In the meantime, Brown said FSE wants SMEs to become mandatory documents negotiated with the help of third-party arbitration — someone who is not a faculty member.
Third-party arbitration would not make SMEs legal contracts, but it would allow graduate assistants to go to someone outside their department to see that the document's terms are upheld, Brown said.
"If a supervisor breaks [an SME], what does a graduate assistant do?" she said. "Are you going to throw a piece of paper at them? There has to be an enforcement mechanism, not only to make sure people are doing the SMEs and having the meetings, but to make sure what was said in those meetings and was written in those meetings is applied throughout the time that person is working as a GA."
Carroll-Mason said graduate assistants can confront issues with their supervisors through the grievance procedure outlined in the Graduate Student Catalog. This procedure requires students to attempt to work out problems through the grievance procedure of their college before appealing to the graduate school.
But there is currently no university-wide standard for what college-specific grievance procedures should look like, said Carroll-Mason. In May, the Graduate Council voted to submit a request to the University Senate to require each college to create its own internal grievance policy.
The graduate school plans to survey graduate assistants and their supervisors to determine whether the meetings are happening and how successful they are, said Carroll-Mason. There is not yet a timeline for when this will take place.
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story stated that the Graduate Council submitted a request to the University Senate in May to require each college to create its own grievance policy. They voted to submit the request in May, but have not done so yet. This story has been updated.