Students shortchanged by revolving-door professors

Today may be the first morning in months when GESO garners headlines that don’t smack of satire most commonly seen in the Rumpus or the Yale Record. That’s because the union has at last reasserted its significance at Yale by publishing a half-dozen reports on issues affecting graduate students — and by translation, everyone at the University.

That is not to say, of course, that comedy writing about the Graduate Employees and Students Organization does not still find a ready audience. For many Yalies, the graduate student vote against unionization last spring was confirmation of a long-held suspicion about GESO — that it was led by organizers who had few legitimate complaints and even fewer supporters to listen to them.

That would all be well and good if GESO and its recent reports were indeed lacking in substance or relevance. The truth is less humorous: the information that these reports contain is vitally important to all undergraduates, regardless of their majors, union sympathies, or future plans for graduate study.

The statistics in one report, in particular, should alarm Yale College students. It is called “Blackboard Blues: Yale Teachers on Yale Teaching,” and it deals with a popular topic in education today: the increasing casualization of teaching at the college level.

According to the report, almost half of the faculty who taught Yale College courses last year were “transient teachers.” Transient teachers are instructors with temporary appointments, which usually do not last more than a few semesters. They can be graduate students, adjunct faculty or full-time faculty consigned to the category of “lecturer.” The number of such teachers working at Yale has grown dramatically in the last decade.

The significance of this for undergraduates should be obvious: even assuming that graduate students and transient faculty offer the same quality of instruction as longer-term Yale College faculty, the mere fact of their transience is problematic for students. We should all have teachers on campus who know us well enough to give academic advice, write letters of recommendation and act as a thesis advisor. Forging the student-faculty bonds that yield these benefits is no easy task. If half of the instructors whom we are in a classroom with each term aren’t going to be here in another year or two, students might well start to wonder whether getting to know them is worth the effort.

The transient teachers, for their part, might wonder the same thing about their students — especially since, according to the GESO report, transient faculty and graduate student teachers are more likely to hold another job as well; to teach large classes outside their area of expertise; and all while knowing that their employer, Yale College, is unlikely to reward their efforts with a permanent appointment.

Seen in this light, Yale’s claim to put a special premium on personalized, undergraduate-oriented education starts to lose credence.

Yet GESO’s definition of “transient teachers” may seem suspect, especially since some lecturers remain at Yale for the better part of their careers. But consider another, non-union related test of the faculty’s endurance: a look through old copies of the Blue Book. A comparison of the current faculty lists for the history and physics departments with those from the 2000-2001 school year, when this year’s seniors were freshmen, confirms GESO’s contention. Twenty-five of the 88 history faculty who were here in 2000-2001 are no longer at Yale. Taken the other way, a third of current History Department faculty were not here when the Class of 2004 arrived.

The source of this turnover is even more obvious in the Physics Department. Although only four of the full professors in Physics from 2000-2001 have left Yale, not a single one of the associate or assistant professors or lecturers in Physics from that year are still here. It’s clear, in other words, that if given a full professorship, faculty members will stay. Otherwise, they are out of here — and with them whatever relationships they have formed with students.

Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to Yale. According to the Association of American University Professors, the percentage of full-time and tenured faculty has fallen off sharply in the last 30 years at universities nationwide. The increase comes not so much from a decline in the number of tenured positions as from an expansion in other areas, effected in response to a ballooning student population. Some of this growing reliance on untenured faculty is attributable to budget constraints.

But then, a university of Yale’s wealth and prestige certainly shouldn’t be content to be a price-taker. And besides, to hear many faculty members tell it, only Harvard can match Yale’s stinginess when it comes to giving associate professors tenure or hiring for tenured positions.

The possibility remains, though, that even stalwart opponents of casualization will wonder what right GESO has to join the movement against its spread.

The answer is better put another way — if not GESO, then who? If “transient teachers” could do it, they wouldn’t be transient. And although Yale’s tenured faculty ought to push for institutional change, their energies are likely to go elsewhere now that their posts are secure.

If anyone can be counted upon to make the case, then, it is the people who will soon have to enter the “transient teacher” vortex themselves — the very graduate students whom GESO is trying to organize. GESO’s commitment to increasing the number of full-time and tenured faculty thus stands to reason: they are not trying to take jobs away from the graduate students of today as much as they are trying to secure them for the young professors of tomorrow. Hence the report’s “Solution One: Hire more faculty.” GESO wants to see that happen at the same time that it wants to raise the level of pay, benefits and training for graduate and transient teachers, creating a better learning environment for teachers and students and cutting down on the unfair fiscal advantages that Yale reaps from its use of short-term faculty.

So before you discount GESO, give this issue some thought — and remember, taking advantage of Yale’s world-famous faculty means getting to know a few of its members, and having them here to learn from in years to come.

Paige Austin is a sophomore in Davenport College.