It was refreshing to see the Yale Daily News calling for expanding “tenure opportunities” in response to GESO’s report on undergraduate teaching, “Blackboard Blues.” And yet, despite the common cause invoked by this report, responses have been strangely hostile. The News’ View “‘Transience not as cut-and-dry as GESO says” (10/15) claims that GESO’s report “demeans” teaching assistants, lecturers, and other “transient” instructors. Professor Jon Butler argues that its statistics and the idea of a “transience” crisis in the History Department are misleading.
I’m one of those transient instructors. After reading the report I don’t feel demeaned, and as a former undergraduate, I applaud it as the best appraisal of Yale’s undergraduate education that I have yet seen. It greatly improves on last year’s academic review, which consulted not a single graduate student and disappointed even the News. I encourage you to read GESO’s report yourself. For now, I’ll evaluate criticisms of it, since I believe they involve misreadings that threaten meaningful dialogue on undergraduate education.
The report never claims that sections and part-time positions ought to be eliminated. Nor does it demean the work of these instructors. Does the News really think GESO members are insulting themselves? Does Butler really think that graduate students don’t want teaching experience? Instead, the report argues that part-time positions should not substitute for the full-time faculty students need. A similar point was made by the News’ editors; “visiting professors should supplement full-time professors, not replace them.” Also, I agree that we need “a critical examination of the role of non-tenured faculty.” How long do they stay here? Do they receive the support they need? A new study, perhaps sponsored by the Yale College Council, could provide impartial answers.
The point is that those who teach at Yale, including lecturers, should be given the job security and institutional support they deserve. As the American Association of University Professors declared in 1978, “The teachers who must go, hat in hand, every year (or every two years, or every three years) indefinitely into the future, to ask if they may stay, are not teachers who can feel free to speak and write the truth as they see it.” (Incidentally, it was the AAUP, not GESO, that coined the term “transient faculty.”) This is hardly an insult to lecturers; it is a demand for due respect, for both teachers and teaching.
If you’re looking for insults, go to the last line of the News’ editorial, which argues that the administration should not seek input from teaching assistants because they are narrowly concerned for their own job security. “Blackboard Blues” shows the mendacity of this assertion. Its pages are full of graduate students expressing dedication to teaching and the desire to improve it. I don’t see how the News construes this as narrow self-interest.
Butler objects to counting section and lecture hours equally. However, whatever formula we use, we all know that an hour of lecture does not constitute “face time” with a professor. No lecture, however compelling, can substitute for the face-to-face interaction of instructors and students in sections and seminars. As a former undergraduate as well as a graduate student, I find Yale’s obstinate refusal to admit this fact exasperating.
The GESO report does not propose “no-exit faculty contracts,” it argues that we need more tenure-track faculty, something everyone agrees upon. I remember how difficult it was for me and my friends to fill our schedules as history majors. I remember the difficulty many encountered in finding professors to advise senior essays and write recommendations. The students now thronging to take new offerings on the Civil War and modern Russia — and even the students I had to turn away from my own seminar — demonstrate student demand.
We may disagree on details, but we all want the same thing — the highest quality education possible — and we should be working together to secure it. However, as long as graduate student teachers — including GESO members — are excluded from the dialogue over teaching, and their contributions met with misreading and hostility, we will never be able to honestly discuss this issue. As long as faculty, graduate students and undergraduates fail to see our common interests, we will never achieve more than token adjustments to undergraduate education at Yale. Surely we deserve better than that.
Michael Jo is a graduate student in the History Department and a member of GESO. He is also a graduate of the Pierson College Class of 1998.