History is not in ‘transience’ crisis

Yet another GESO report, “Blackboard Blues,” claims that Yale suffers a “transient teacher” crisis. Major departments like History are said to evidence the crisis vividly, since GESO argues that History “transients” teach 69% of the department’s classroom hours.

A parallel Oct. 10 Yale Daily News column by Paige Austin asserts that 25 of 88 History Department faculty have left Yale since fall 2000, creating a matching History turnover crisis.

If the GESO claims were correct, Yale would have closed years ago.

Of course, they’re not correct, Yale is thriving, and the transient problem in “Blackboard Blues” is its own fleeting regard for accuracy.

The tired GESO assertion that graduate students teach more than Yale faculty derives from a cleverly distorted numerical procedure. Count each small one-hour discussion section as equivalent to every hour-long large lecture (after all, each consumes 60 minutes), then add. The more popular the faculty lecturer, the more numerically insignificant the professor’s teaching.

In this way of counting, a large history lecture of, say, 480 students, with 28 one-hour discussion sections taught by 14 teaching fellows — 28 hours in all — dwarfs two hours of lecturing by the professor teaching all 480 students in lecture.

Never mind that no student takes 28 hours of discussion section. What’s important is GESO’s “classroom hours” count — a number that literally misses the point.

The GESO claim about disappearing History faculty is equally deceptive.

Among the 23 (not 25) history faculty who have left Yale since fall 2000, two have died and three have retired, all five being eminent professors who taught Yale students for 25 to 45 years each, totaling almost 200 years. One professor, four assistant or associate professors, and two long-term lecturers took up positions elsewhere after teaching at Yale for a total of almost collective 70 years.

In addition, three distinguished visitors holding tenure in other institutions came to Yale in 2000-2001 so Yale students could access their unique scholarly talents — historians such as Daniel Walker Howe of UCLA and Oxford University or, more recently, the distinguished historian of science, John Heilbron of UC Berkeley. Three postdoctoral appointees won exceptional opportunities to research, write, and do limited history teaching at Yale for one to two years. And five part-time and full-time lecturers teaching one to four courses each replaced ladder faculty on regular leaves.

The actual record thus suggests thoroughly normal change as men, women and, yes, institutions make decisions about their own and others’ employment and as faculty, departed, retired, and also, sadly, died.

“Blackboard Blues” to the contrary, regular faculty and long-term lecturers who have entered and left Yale at a normal pace are responsible for the huge bulk of courses and teaching in Yale’s Department of History.

In addition, graduate teaching fellows provide critical supplementary instruction in lecture courses where faculty lecture two to three hours each week and students participate in one weekly discussion section. In history, for example, discussion sections led by supervised graduate students typically probe assigned readings in detail.

The professor in each of these courses is fully responsible for his or her lectures, reading assignments, course or syllabus design, and the weekly meeting with teaching fellows — in short, for the course itself. Yale students recognize this responsibility in their verbal shorthand, calling courses “Spence,” “Gaddis,” “Engelstein,” and so forth.

Finally, in History, unlike many other Yale departments, advanced graduate students apply each spring for six seminar slots that give successful applicants a unique opportunity to teach a seminar of their own design.

The seminars fit into a vast array of 150 undergraduate courses taught by regular ladder faculty and long-term lecturers and scarcely reflect any dependence on graduate instructors to sustain the core History curriculum; last spring, 18 advanced history graduate students applied to teach these six seminars.

Yale would need to triple or quadruple its ladder faculty to bring GESO’s distorted “statistics” to reasonable size. Or with draconian no-exit faculty contracts (who would sign them?), Yale could become a perfectly motionless university where no one ever moved, retired, or even departed this life.

Then again, following the peculiar logic of “Blackboard Blues,” the alleged transient problem could be eliminated by abandoning discussion sections and graduate-taught seminars altogether. Graduate students would enter the Ph.D. job market lacking even a hint of teaching experience, but free from the transient faults GESO laments now.

Yale undergraduates have been well served by teaching fellows leading small discussion sections in History and other departments.

So too have Yale’s stunningly superb graduate students. For over four decades their energetic teaching has profited undergraduates, themselves, Yale, and many professions alike, a record not even the distortions of “Blackboard Blues” can change.

Jon Butler is the Chairman of the Department of History.