GESO: aka the Graduate Evil Socialist Organization

All year long I’ve suffered from a blissful memory lapse. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall what “GESO” actually stood for. The problem was this: in October, the Yale Precision Marching Band performed a brilliant halftime show parodying the Stalinist tactics of GESO, the “Graduate Evil Socialist Organization.” The name seemed so fitting that it’s stuck ever since.

Unfortunately, a recent visit to GESO’s Web site reminded me that they’ve styled themselves the “Graduate Employees and Students Organization.” Perhaps this explains why I prefer the other, more accurate title: GESO’s members are not employees, and it doesn’t sound like they want to be students either.

Let’s look for a minute at the employee issue. For starters, graduate students come to Yale to be scholars, not workers. Last I heard, they entered by applying to programs of study, not filing resumes and cover letters looking for jobs. If high-paying employment is what current graduate students wanted, they should have gone for the rat race at McKinsey, not the libraries at Yale.

Consider next that what GESO claims to be forced labor is required primarily for students’ own benefit. Are graduate students somehow above researching, writing dissertations and attending class? Is the oppressive “intellectual work” they’re ditching this week so exclusively beneficial to the University that it’s pure enslavement for the students? You’d better not believe it.

Graduate students have to (gasp!) attend class, do research and write dissertations because — guess what — only through these educational experiences will they acquire the skills necessary to enter academia. Instead of spewing venom at the Yale administration for asking them to fulfill their academic obligations, maybe GESO could take a lesson from the undergraduates and the professional students. They do their work with a sense of pride and gratitude for being at one of the best academic institutions in the country. They’re all paying over $100,000 for the opportunities graduate students get for free, and you don’t see them pushing to unionize, do you?

GESO likes to counter with the claim that they must teach these same undergraduates and that the administration thus abuses their labor. But here’s the rub: teaching is also an integral learning experience for graduate students, one that primarily serves their own interests. If you ask the undergrads, they prefer smaller classes in which they are taught directly by the faculty. I think many of us would prefer TAs to play no role in our education. But the University realizes that if graduate students are training to be professors, they can’t very well enter the field without some sort of practical experience. Teaching is a skill best learned by actually doing it; without the opportunity to serve as TAs, graduate students’ educations would be sorely lacking.

Following GESO’s logic, if anyone should be unionizing, it’s the medical students. They put in hundreds of grueling and thankless hours working with patients at Yale-New Haven Hospital — and they, unlike GSAS students, have to pay for it. We don’t see a push to form MESO, however, because the medical students also understand that this work is essential to the education they came to Yale to receive. If medical students have no difficulty grasping this concept, why can’t GESO get it too?

Perhaps it’s because the money has gone to their heads. After all, everyone knows the real difference between graduate students and medical students: $379,400. Yale estimates that tuition, room, board, books, living expenses, etc. for a medical student will total $204,400 during his four years in New Haven. And while the medical student is asked to go $204,400 into debt for his doctoral degree, Yale commits $175,000 in tuition waivers and fellowship money to graduate students while they pursue theirs. GESO claims this is shoddy payment for labor and therefore proof that they are employees.

But let’s look at the real situation. During their time at Yale (typically upwards of five or six years) graduate students only have to TA for a brief two years. The first two years of a Ph.D. program are devoted exclusively to classes. During the next two years the student learns how to teach while working on his dissertation, and the last years are dedicated to the dissertation alone. At any given time, only about 30 percent of graduate students are actually teaching. Truth is, grading papers is hardly the mainstay of graduate student life.

Moreover, it’s absurd for graduate students to argue that their stipends are payment for services rendered. The University gives graduate students the same amount regardless of whether or not they are teaching — all that varies is the money’s source. During the coursework years, students receive $15,000 through the Yale University Fellowship. The Teaching Fellowship gives $15,000 for the TA/dissertation years, and in the fifth and sixth year the money comes from the University Dissertation Fellowship. Graduate stipends, then, are not remuneration for work done; everyone receives them at all phases of study simply by virtue of being a graduate student.

No matter how you slice it, graduate students at Yale are tremendously lucky. While their peers in other fields incur tremendous educational debts, they are paid to pursue their passions. They are given great opportunities to learn the teaching skills needed for professorial positions. They have access to some of the best scholars and library holdings in the world.

And graduate students are aware of this from the minute they apply to Yale. No one deceived them about graduate student life; no one tricked them into thinking they would all someday be making six-figure salaries researching the effects of Attaingnant’s printing press on 16th-century Parisian polyphony. One has to ask those graduate students who think Yale is oppressive: Why did you apply? Why did you enroll? Why are you still here? Surely you are all bright people: if money is your object, as I said before — McKinsey awaits.

Thankfully, a very small portion of graduate students (27 percent) actually think that striking is the right thing to do. GESO claims a majority, but then again, they have signed cards and bullying to thank. (Heck, Saddam Hussein can get 100 percent with signed ballots and pressure tactics, so GESO’s majority is nothing impressive.) But as long as there are students providing voices of reason to their comrades, perhaps absurd histrionics and socialist group-think won’t win the day.

So to Matthew Glassman GRD ’06, Stacey Thompson GRD ’05 and the silent majority of other anti-GESO graduate students too busy actually studying to participate in this inane fray: Keep on trucking.

Oh, and Anita? Go teach a section.

Meghan Clyne is a senior in Branford College. Her column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.