GESO protests trend in hiring primarily part-time faculty

College Street became a classroom Tuesday afternoon as Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization organized to protest the University’s increasing reliance on part-time instructors.

250 graduate students, staff and faculty members staged a teach-out on College Street yesterday to protest a trend toward casualization — the increased employment of teachers on a part-time rather than a full-time basis — which they claim is damaging education at Yale and at campuses nationwide. The teach-out outlined why shifting from a primarily tenure-track faculty to a primarily part-time system would change the face of academia and limit academic freedom.

GESO members and sympathizers participate in a “teach-out” on College Street on Tuesday.
Rachel Engler
GESO members and sympathizers participate in a “teach-out” on College Street on Tuesday.

To make way for the teach-out, Chapel Street was closed from Grove Street to Elm Street for some time in the middle of the day Tuesday. Chairs were arranged in the streets for those participating in the event.

According to GESO chair Melissa Mason, part-time faculty and graduate students make up 72 percent of the teaching force in Yale College, meaning only 28 percent of the instruction is done by professors. She said this statistic, representative of a nationwide trend, troubles GESO members because it forecasts a difficult academic job market for new doctoral degree recipients searching for coveted tenure track positions.

“We’re concerned about finding secure jobs,” Mason said. “My success depends on someone else’s failure [to gain reappointment].”

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said he did not think Mason’s calculations about teaching at Yale are correct.

“I don’t believe that the numbers are at all accurate,” he said. “They simply don’t reflect teaching at Yale and they don’t reflect student experience.”

In a March letter to Mason, University President Richard Levin sought to address graduate students’ concern about future employment in the academic job market.

“Yale’s most important responsibility is to maintain and enhance the strength and excellence of the Graduate School and its programs so that students earning doctorates from Yale will continue to be among the candidates most sought after by other colleges and universities,” he wrote.

Under the current system, part-time faculty must reapply for their jobs at the beginning of each academic year, leaving their future in the hands of University officials guided by any number of motives, said an adjunct professor at Yale who asked not to not be named for fear of professional repercussions. The professor, who submitted a statement that was read at the teach-out, described the ordeal of reapplying each year as a “Sisyphus routine.”

Scott Bruton of the Rutgers University chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said that when universities like Yale overwhelmingly employ part-time faculty, it forces young faculty to teach several courses at multiple institutions just to make ends meet.

“We have turned the honored profession of working at a college or university into the equivalent of full-time piece work,” Bruton said.

While the small proportion of tenure-track jobs in today’s academic job market has hurt would-be professors, Bruton said, undergraduates also feel the squeeze. When faculty rush between courses in order to scrape together a living, Bruton said, “students are left without professional contacts and letters of recommendation.”

Some of the undergraduates in Tuesday’s crowd voiced the same concerns brought to light by Bruton and Mason. Margaret Sharp ’08 emphasized the impact that teaching assistants had on her Yale education.

“The people who actually grade my papers, answer my questions and help me on the problem set are graduate students,” she said. “I know it’s really difficult for them not to have a sense of security.”

Hugh Baran ’09 said he is concerned with the implications casualization has for Yale’s community of scholars, adding that some of the best professors he has studied under are no longer at Yale.

“That’s a problem for all of us,” he said. “It’s a problem when you’re trying to foster a community where real scholarship happens and where people feel free enough to actually do that scholarship.”

For GESO spokesman Evan Cobb GRD ’08, the path to a solution lies in University recognition of academic unions like the one GESO proposes, something University administrators have explicitly opposed.

In his March letter, Levin wrote, “We continue to believe that as a matter of principle it is not appropriate to impose collective bargaining on the educational relationship between faculty and graduate students at Yale.”

Following the rally, students and faculty turned in blue exam booklets to Woodbridge Hall in which they had listed the reasons that Yale should move away from an increasingly casualized workforce.

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