‘Transience’ not as cut-and-dry as GESO says

Last week, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization published its report, “Blackboard Blues: Yale Teachers on Yale Teaching,” which addresses Yale’s reliance on temporary instructors. We commend GESO for taking on this fight, but are disappointed with its misguided approach, which is inevitably tainted by GESO’s own agenda.

“Blackboard Blues” reports that 47 percent of the faculty listed as primary instructors at Yale College are actually transient teachers — a group that includes graduate student teachers, lecturers and adjunct instructors. The report also says that Yale’s reported student-faculty ratio of 7:1 is actually nearly twice that, and it includes the smoking gun statistic that 70 percent of undergraduate teaching hours are performed by transient teachers. Such reliance on transient teachers, who lack the institutional support to provide quality instruction, impedes education, argues the report, which proposes two solutions. The first is the creation of more tenure track positions — positions that GESO members would undoubtedly be happy to fill. The second, unsurprisingly, is the creation of a graduate students’ union to improve working conditions, and thus teaching quality.

The report is so single-minded in its approach and solutions — and so poorly reflects our true experience — that we wonder how much it is really about improving undergraduate teaching and how much is simply a political move by GESO.

GESO’s use of the word “transient” is problematic. By labeling all non-tenured faculty “transient,” GESO ignores important distinctions among them and demeans their contributions to undergraduate teaching. In this way, the report illuminates a larger problem: a University culture that insists only tenured professors are valuable. GESO’s argument rests on this blatantly false assumption. As students, we laud those of our instructors who have no interest in research or publication, and whose love for teaching alone keeps them here year after year. Often, these instructors are senior lecturers whose contract renewals are essentially a formality. And as for the graduate teachers themselves — whose work the report also demeans — many of us have had classes we passed only because of an explanatory-whiz of a teaching assistant.

But TAs don’t replace good professors, and an overreliance on visiting faculty can create a revolving-door of professors that leaves students in the lurch. Visiting professors should supplement full-time professors, not replace them. These concerns warrant a critical examination of the role of non-tenured faculty, and we are disappointed the academic review did not include one. We urge the administration to expand tenure opportunities or consider ways to increase institutional support for deserving faculty. At the same time, however, the contributions of our non-tenured faculty should be recognized.

Whether or not the University decides to overhaul the tenure system, we encourage more discussion of the role of these so-called “transient” faculty in our education. But we hope the administration seeks input on how to improve teaching from us, the students, and not the teaching assistants who primarily have their own job security in mind.