Fertik: Leave the graduate school alone

Among top universities in the United States, Yale has maintained a venerable commitment to undergraduate education. When I was applying to colleges, I was told that at Yale, every professor, no matter how distinguished, was required to teach at least one undergraduate course per year. For me, the possibility of attending a university that excelled both in research and in teaching represented the best of all possible worlds, and the education I received exceeded my expectations. Last fall, I returned to Yale to pursue a Ph.D. in American history. Although I knew times were tough in higher education, I was confident that Yale’s commitment to the humanities, and the fundamentals of a liberal arts education within a world-class research institution, were stronger than the vagaries of the business cycle.

Six months later, I am not so sure.

In an article in Friday’s News, David Burt reported on changes to graduate admissions and funding currently being contemplated by Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard and other administrators. In essence, the idea is to cap the total number of graduate employees that a department could have enrolled at any given time, with the expectation that this would encourage departments to move us more quickly through our programs. These proposals fit a disturbing trend that I and other members of the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO), which represents hundreds of graduate employees in the languages, humanities and social sciences, have been observing for quite some time. We believe that these proposals would be detrimental to the University in four clear ways:

First, they would discourage graduate researchers from pursuing bold, ambitious research. To take on the kind of innovative, ground-breaking dissertations that built the reputation of the Yale History Department and are prized by hiring committees, scholars often need to know multiple languages, and to conduct research abroad. The dissertation, which is the core of graduate work, is by its nature original; forcing us to finish on a compressed timeline means encouraging us to take on less intellectually ambitious projects.

Further, these proposals are bad for undergraduate education. To enforce shorter graduate programs, graduate teaching is being cut for upper years, just as they enter the academic job market. As a result, already this semester, undergraduates have seen decreased access to college seminars and writing-intensive sections, and ever-increasing class sizes, especially in modern languages. Undergraduates are also less likely to be taught by a teaching assistant who already has substantial teaching experience under his or her belt.

The proposed measures also discourage diversity and discriminate against all but a few graduate employees. Some have families whom they help to support. Some come with mountains of student debt; others don’t. International scholars may not have undergraduate debt, but they are ineligible for a number of funding opportunities open only to U.S. nationals, and are unable to work outside the University. To maintain their immigration status, however, they require a clear source of income, such as upper-year teaching and registration status. A one-size-fits-all approach will actually leave many out altogether.

Finally, these proposals reflect the fact that decision-making authority is being taken away from the people who do the teaching and the research (that is, faculty and graduate employees) and given to administrators and deans. All across America, the policies that administrators are implementing (including severe budget cuts) are disproportionately affecting the humanistic disciplines. Politicians and pundits are wondering aloud whether these disciplines meet a strict cost-benefit test of their value. I think the humanities are worth defending for their own sake, and for the sake of our democracy. For that reason alone we should fight this trend, and Yale, with its historic commitment to a liberal education, should be a leader in fighting it. The University should excel in all forms of scholarship, and it should be a public good in the interest of a better world. Meaningful democratic participation — achievable through dialogue and negotiation — is critical to realizing that goal.

Today at 12 p.m., in front of Sterling Memorial Library, hundreds of GESO members will gather, along with our allies, for the public release of a report which discusses these trends, and what we think should be done about them — including exploring the role a recognized union can play in upholding the control the teachers and researchers have over our work and our lives. We invite anyone concerned about the future of higher education to join us.

Ted Fertik is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department and a 2007 graduate of Trumbull College.


  • rhedbobbin

    The comment in the Burt article about possible changes was little more than a musing. Burt pulled vigorous faculty responses on both sides for the article, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have coalesced in a “proposed measure.” GESO should try to head off GSAS policies they disagree with, but I am left unmoved. And the ways Fertik asserts this “proposed measure” would impact students seem specious at best.

    The bread and butter of GESO’s platform has been winnowed away over the years, and now they are stuck with a Yale savior complex– we must stave our guilt and foment against the neoliberal academy! It is nice that they’ve found something in Pollard’s comments to scapegoat for the release of their “report.” But turning an odd remark into a “proposed measure” to rally around smacks of desperation, and really, wouldn’t your time-to-degree benefit from spending more time writing?
    (or even updating your website…jeez)

    And one more thing: how is a grad student union NOT a one-size fits all approach?

  • jnewsham

    > I think the humanities are worth defending for their own sake, and for the sake of our democracy.

    Get some econ students to put a dollar value of this, and then this part of your argument will have teeth.

  • WillyLomein

    Look, Pollard is right; the number of graduate students in the U.S. needs to be cut, big-time. Because the author is fresh to graduate school, he does not realize (as recent PhD graduates like me do) that years of over-training PhDs has led to a massive oversupply, which means no jobs (or bad jobs) for the resultant lumpenproletariat. In science, my field, the self-interested use of cheap graduate student labor to do all the work to become famous and get grants has so poisoned the talent pipeline that over the last 20 years the quality of PhD students has dropped precipitously. And this trend will only continue unless steps, like the one proposed, are taken nationally to restrict the training of new PhDs to improve the average career trajectory.

  • DavidH

    The Dean of Yale Graduate School does not hold meetings with multiple Directors of Graduate Studies to share “little more than a musing” about how departments should be run. When he “mentions” a plan for a new policy and outlines mechanisms for how that policy would work, he means for that policy to be implemented. The history of various departmental changes over the past decade bears out this point in spades.

    GESO has been a majority union for over a decade, and its members provide at least one-third of the undergraduate classroom instruction at this university. It is long past time for Yale’s administration to recognize GESO and negotiate a contract. Doctoral candidates at this university work hard to make undergraduate education at Yale the best in the country. They deserve to have a democratic voice in how that work gets done.

  • rhedbobbin

    Does a “democratic voice” mean elected leadership? Um, GSA. Who elects GESO organizers?
    And you are right to admit that the time to negotiate a contract has long passed. Maybe the idea of a contract rings nostalgic for all the former grad students who decided to drop out of academia to become full-time workers for UNITE-HERE? It certainly doesn’t for me. GESO “majority” is a laughable thing, born of aggressive organizing and brow-beating colleagues.

    For anyone who missed it, the Burt article is here:

  • Quals

    I would like to point out that GESO does not speak for all graduate students, just humanities students. My colleagues at the medical school and science hill overwhelming reject this joke of an organization.

  • rhedbobbin

    Oh, don’t worry, a lot of the rest of us do too!

  • Quals

    Glad to hear it!

  • GabeW

    The suggestion that Dean Pollard’s “musings” need not be taken seriously is belied by the fact that changes of these kinds are being administered to universities all across the country. If you believe in the study and teaching of history, English, philosophy, literature, culture for their own sake—and if you don’t, I don’t know what you’re doing arguing about the fate of the university—then you have a responsibility to be worried. (See this article for a good illustration—it’s not just about British universities, despite the title: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/grim-threat-british-universities/?pagination=false)

    It’s not as if we can’t afford the humanities, as if they’re just indulgent luxuries for good times. Ted Fertik comes from the Yale History Department; that would be the department of the late C. Vann Woodward, who wrote The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the book that Martin Luther King called “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement,” showing how segregation was not a natural condition of a multiracial society, but had been consciously done by politicians, and so could be undone by them. I shudder to think what kind of society (and university) we’re ready to accept if we’re prepared to abandon the humanities to their fate in the market. Yale’s tour-guides certainly still tell visiting undergraduates that this institution treasures knowledge and learning for their own value. It’d be nice not to make liars of them. Moreover, Yale’s endowment has recovered to above where it was pre-recession. We’re not being forced; we’re choosing to abandon the humanities.

    Or rather, administrators are choosing for us. A democratic voice means a union contract. (What we’ve currently got is graduate students who just have to hang on and hope that they won’t get told, “OK, time’s up!”) GESO leadership is elected, as a matter of fact. A union contract is—just opposite what someone above said—not a “one size fits all” mandate, but a way of representing the democratically decided interests and concerns of teachers and researchers in the humanities to the university in a way that it is obligated to take seriously. It’s how graduate students at most major public universities (Berkeley, Madison, etc.) have long worked with their institutions There’s no other option for us.

  • DavidH

    The GSA plays an important role at Yale, particularly in the sciences, and its representatives have often been both members and leaders of GESO. In fact, Yale created the GSA in the wake of GESO’s 1996 grade strike — the organizations’ histories are intertwined. Trying to foment discord between the GSA and GESO does a disservice to all graduate students and employees who want to make Yale a better place for all types of scholarship. We should be fighting together for a better university, not squabbling while administrators dismantle our fields.

  • Skeptic

    “the idea is to cap the total number of graduate employees that a department could have enrolled at any given time.” Hmmm… are “EMPLOYEES” “ENROLLED” at Yale? for education?, to “pursue a PhD in American history” ? Are Yale graduate students “employed” to get a graduate education?

  • rhedbobbin

    I think it is a self-serving stretch for GESO to link a potential of a cap in students-per-department to a wider threat to the humanities.

    A union contract is “one-size fits all” to the degree that it would 1) mandate all grad students to be a part of it, 2) intervene between faculty, grad students, and the university, and 3) dis-incentivize competitive grants and other perks that are enjoyed by some grad students but not others.

    Why is there no other option? Yale is a significantly different institution than the public state universities you mention. Our funding is NOT tied to our teaching. My friends at public U’s have taught from the first semester they arrived (so much for experienced teachers). The flip side is that these places are giant. Yale is much smaller and by and large the TAing experience here is vastly different than at a UC. These were the issues I weighed in deciding to do my PhD here. More money, less teaching, more time to work on my research = Yale. I am on the market now, and sure, I might benefit from having more teaching experience. But that was the choice I made early on, and search committees recognize the kind of institution we are coming from.

  • rhedbobbin

    Skeptic—they are confusing their status with those whose ‘cred’ they’d love to claim.

    Public uni grad students ARE often employees working for the state.
    We, on the other hand, are well-fed apprentices suckling at the ivory teat. Sometimes, we tantrum.

  • FreddyHoneychurch

    How innocent they all are!

    While sipping drinks in the August haze of Levin’s backyard, we all loved the apprenticeship, community of scholars, ivory tower/teat, aristocratic learning bit.

    A few years on and you’ll see that what you’d *really* love is a steady job that pays the princely sum of $50k for your eighty-hour weeks and world-class expertise. There are no jobs. This country’s undergrads are now being taught by adjuncts, part-timers, and … wait for it … grad students.

    So, why don’t we look up from the books every now and then to contemplate the state of our profession?

  • rhedbobbin

    Unfortunately, GESO defines us as “employees” on the basis of the little teaching we do. I think if GESO were actually successful it would all but guarantee increasing teaching “opportunities.” I mean, if we are all “employees” shouldn’t we be teaching a couple courses in addition to the ones we take?

    The job market for academics sucks. But I don’t want my sucky job to start at year one of my PhD…. Perhaps the most responsible choice for those who want a mind-ful life away from unremunerated toil would be not to go grad school!

  • christinem

    As a former Yale undergraduate and current graduate student, I am disturbed by recent proposals from the university administration that threaten the integrity of scholarship and teaching in the humanities. Those of us who believe in the value of the humanities, especially students and graduate employees, need come together and demand a voice.

  • graduate_student

    It is not hard to be sympathetic to GESO’s concerns; however, it is difficult to feel any sympathy towards GESO itself.

    In my many years as a graduate student at Yale, I have met with members of GESO (I am myself a “card-carrying” member), and I have participated in a few meetings. GESO wants desperately to be taken seriously as a labor union. But it does nothing that a labor union does, other than hold meetings and harass potential members. It sits and plaintively awaits recognition from the University; and the University refuses to recognize it, since for all intents and purposes, GESO does not exist.

    Why does GESO not exist?

    1. It does not engage in collective bargaining. The University does not recognize it, because
    2. It poses no threat as a “labor union.” The last time GESO succeeded in calling for a strike was in 2005, a strike which the University claims had “minimal impact.”

    GESO is a fiction in the collective imaginations of a few graduate students who want to pose as agitators.

    A labor union needs leaders. A labor union needs relevance. GESO has neither. Who is leading the charge? Who is calling for strikes? Where is the direct action? When was the last time GESO held a sit-in in the president or the dean’s office?

    Such actions are risky; they have disciplinary consequences. Academia is the last guild; we apprentices are trained to bow to our masters on our path towards becoming journeymen. This includes our union representatives. They would much rather print flyers with Marxist imagery and complain about the state of academe than risk anything for progress. So be it. But to do so while whining about a lack of recognition, either from the University or from graduate students themselves — now that’s audacious!

    Poseurs, all of them.

  • RobinS


    My name’s Robin, I’m a third year in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine. I’m a GESO member and in the past I’ve been a representative on the GSA.

    I didn’t start out as an active GESO member initially, but the changes for the worse in my department that I’ve seen in the last few years (slashed admissions, friends stressed out because of pressure to meet arbitrary benchmarks) made me more active precisely because I became worried that the Administration was making it difficult for my colleagues and myself to do the best possible research and teaching. In the end, these concerns made me more active.

    I’d like to underscore that most of us, pro or con on GESO itself, agree that the idea that a one-size fits all approach to graduate students and their work doesn’t make sense and additionally that we ourselves want to see a positive future for the work that we and our friends are doing here.

    After that agreement, we’re really just having a discussion about the best means of making sure that we can do the best research and teaching possible here with the greatest hope that we will be able to find a good job afterwords. Personally, I think a negotiated contract, which would provide clarity, security and flexibility, is the best means towards this end.

    However, agree with GESO’s solution or not, the one thing I hope none of us do is fall in to cynicism and abandon the belief that we have the capability our life and work here and beyond Yale accord more closely with our ideals for the academy. In the end, the only sure way to fail is not to try.

    I’d encourage anyone who is skeptical about GESO but also worried about the future of the humanities to read the report GESO just released today on education, teaching, and governance at Yale (http://www.yaleunions.org/geso/) and consider if, in fact, GESO’s values and aims are in fact pretty close to your own.

  • Antoine

    @WillyLomein: Pollard proposed measure will do nothing to diminish the number of grad students; it will only put pressure on them to finish up earlier. I agree that something should be done about the grim job market, but by maintaining enrollment and force PhDs out faster, thus with weaker dissertations and less teaching experience, Pollard’s plan will aggravate the problem, not solve it. It is nothing more than a band-aid solution to a problem that Yale contributes to creating by replacing real academic jobs with casual positions.

    @Skeptic: Employees or students, call us whatever you want (btw, why should these be exclusive?), but grad students do not get their pay out of Pdt Levin’s good heart. Yale wants the best grad students, and that’s why it makes many promises to attract them. Why does it sound unreasonable that these promises should be written down in a contract?

    @Rhedbobbin: I do not organize for GESO because I want a better stipend. I understand that I am privileged to be at Yale, and that we enjoy better conditions here than do grad students at most other universities. But this privilege gives me a responsibility to do all I can to make my university an institution as progressive as possible. I want Yale to contribute to social justice, not to reproduce social inequalities, and this is why I organize for GESO–what you call, I guess, “stave our guilt and foment against the neoliberal academy”, and which I don’t find that as dishonorable as you seem to.

  • treznick

    I’d hardly say that we “sit plaintively and await recognition.” The rally today is, if anything, testament to GESO’s increasing visibility, and the report which was released is testament to the fact that GESO is one of the only institutions providing incisive, critical and nuanced commentary on the situation within the academy. If, “graduate_student” you feel that the union is moving in a direction which you do not endorse, then speak to your organizer, propose actions, and take up the mantle of leadership which you are so quick to critique GESO for lacking. It strikes me as somewhat odd that in an organization with an extraordinarily approachable leadership structure and an organizing strategy centered around dialogue that you feel somehow disenfranchised and disillusioned with the process.

    As for this: “A union contract is “one-size fits all” to the degree that it would 1) mandate all grad students to be a part of it, 2) intervene between faculty, grad students, and the university, and 3) dis-incentivize competitive grants and other perks that are enjoyed by some grad students but not others” Patently false.

    A Union contract can never mandate graduate participation, in the same sense that it can’t mandate employee participation. Furthermore, even if such a contract mandated representation, it would never compel participation from grad students. Your misleading language unfairly paints our aims and goals. Secondly, a contract would not intervene between faculty, students and the university, unless it was clear that by no other means could disputes be resolved. Again, GESO does not seek to supplant the existing student institutions, but instead through recognition and contractual relations would create additional opportunities for dialogue and representation.

    Lastly, I know of no instance when grants have been refused based on a union status. To suggest such is utter lunacy. We don’t seek to disproportionately level the playing field such that no exceptional work gets done. Rather, we seek to enshrine fair benefits and opportunities to do the best work possible against the threat of increasing speed-ups, cuts from the administration, and reorganizations of programs. Rather than dress up errant critiques as reasoned analysis, earnestly engage in dialogue with us.

  • graduate_student

    @treznick: stage a sit-in, call for a strike, handcuff yourself to Levin’s desk — by god, do *anything*, and hundreds of graduate students will be by your side. I have had the displeasure of being confronted by many GESO “organizers”: besides numbingly repeating a laundry list of complaints which I already recognize, our “dialogue” (lecture) usually concludes with a flyer and an invitation to a meeting, where I presume more complaints will be issued and more flyers will be distributed. If it is GESO’s plan to overwhelm Yale Facilities and Operations with an inundation of glossy paper until the University meets its demands, then I suppose I could get behind that.

    I’ll think about it.

  • rhedbobbin

    Can you clarify a few “errant critiques” by answering the following for us?:

    1) You are saying that GESO, if recognized, would not enjoy the de facto/automatic membership of all graduate students, and would not extract dues from everyone to that end? Would money come from UNITE-HERE? (and hence, from the dues of ‘real’ workers) Who will pay for all of our organizers if not ourselves? That is the way it works at other institutions.

    2) What, then, is a grievance procedure? One of the key moves the union wants to make is represent us as a unitary body and, as an extension, intervene in the event of any disputes. This was always one of the supposedly attractive features of the union bandied about by organizers in my department. Incidentally, people who often had poor relationships with their advisors (makes having someone to intervene seem good, doesn’t it?) All it really does is guarantee power for union leadership.

    3) I am not saying that grants have been “refused based on union status” but I am saying that the goal of parity in funding/work is a real one for the union, is it not? The flip side of that is the regularization of time/money/relationships that, for me anyway, mean a more bureaucratic, more antagonistic, and more deterministic place to be.

    And please, try to answer without relying on the same tired talking points.
    I think the worker/employee model doesn’t fit what we do here. And all of GESO’s fitful engagements just reflect that same base-level incompatibility.

  • FreddyHoneychurch

    The first-years’ laundry list of reactionary concerns are the same in 2011 as they were in 1999. In the meanwhile, even fewer Yale Ph.D.s can find tenable jobs in academia and even more teaching is being performed by part-time help, part-time help with Yale Ph.D.s (= you in a few years).

  • ldffly

    Willy Lomein is right. The number of grad students needs to be cut. The oversupply of Ph.D.s is decades old. Just google the name Clark Kerr sometime and check on his once famous article, “The Coming Ph.D. Glut.” Check the year of publication while you’re at it.

    The universities, Yale included, bear huge responsibilities for the decades long scarcity of academic positions. I believe it is also a partial cause of the overall decline in college education in this country. An oversupply of Ph.D.s leads to universities refusing to hire full time, long term faculty. The adjuncts, part time acting instructors and lecturers can’t possibly work at the high levels of a full time professor with more than 10 years experience under his belt. This situation could be reversed in ten years. If Yale takes this step, and proselytizes other universities to do the same, they will deserve great credit.

  • Antoine

    Hi Rhedbobbin,

    1) The dues you would have to pay would be largely compensated by the better wages and benefits that you would enjoy under a union contract. Therefore, the money would not be “extracted” from the members so much as redistributed more equitably among workers in this university. Of all spendings in university budgets, none have risen so fast in recent years as the salaries of central administrators. A union contract would reverse (or at least limit) this trend in the favor of workers.

    2) Grievance procedures serve exactly the purpose you say: if your supervisor(s) treat(s) you unfairly, you would have a way to hold them accountable. Just like if you get swindled or robbed, you file a complaint and go to court; similarly, if you are treated unfairly in your workplace, you’d be able to file a grievance and have the matter settled fairly in a grievance meeting. Why does that seem so bad to you?

    3) As Yale PhD students, we all enjoy similar wages and health care benefits now, and we still would under a union contract. The best students get the most outside funding now, and they still will if we win this contract (look at how things work at public universities).

    I do not understand your point about a union contract making things more rigid and bureaucratic. They are as rigid and bureaucratic as it gets already. A union contract would restore decision-making powers to the people who do the work, and thus fight back the increasingly centralized management style at this institution.

  • GabeW

    Well said, Antoine. I’d also add a couple replies to other points raised here.

    @lddfly, you’ve identified one of GESO’s core issues — opposition to the casualization of the academic workforce. If we believe in excellence and rigor in humanistic education, then this has to be a top priority, and frankly, the only plausibly viable source of opposition to it is graduate student unionism. Yale will not simply decide one day to stop exploiting casual academic labor. It will have to be compelled to do so. That’s what a union contract is for.

    @graduate_student, I appreciate that you’re supportive in theory of the union effort, and that your differences with GESO appear to be tactical. Direct action can be important, but it hasn’t worked lately at other universities (e.g. NYU). There are a few avenues open through which GESO might be able to gain recognition: the NLRB may reverse its Bush-era ruling, or the existing unions of Yale workers may be able to help us get there. Either way, what GESO has to do at the moment is show that it does represent a majority that won’t settle for less than a contract. Nobody wants a strike or an occupation that isn’t necessary, and might be alienating to the undergraduates — whose side, fundamentally, we are on, so long as they care about the meaning of their degrees and the quality of their education. A struggle isn’t won overnight; it takes a dedicated, long-term movement, moving forward inch by inch. I can see how it looks like inactivity from the point of view of a somewhat sympathetic outsider, but GESO is getting stronger.

  • RRothschild

    Hi – I’m a second year graduate student and organizer in GESO, and I’d like to respond to some of the comments by graduate_student and rhedbobbin.

    To clarify some of the statements made above:

    A “Democratic Voice” and GESO:
    rhedbobbin implies that GESO organizing is not democratic because we do not elect organizers. However, GESO organizing committees are open to any member who wants to increase their involvement and participation. Anyone is welcome to become an organizer, and all our members are encouraged to come to meetings and have their voices heard. The goal of GESO organizing is not to push a certain agenda onto members, but to make sure we reach out to all graduate students in order to have a dialogue about their concerns and issues. We then bring any problems to the attention of each department’s organizing committee.
    And finally, GESO does hold elections every year for officers.

    GESO as a Labor Union:

    GESO has not yet succeeded in winning recognition from the university, but this issue of recognition is part of a larger national story of graduate student workers seeking the right to organize. I think it is important to point out, though some commentators already have, that being a student and being a worker at Yale are not mutually exclusive.
    However, the fact that GESO does not have a contract with Yale does not mean its activism and outreach have had no impact on life here. Striking and holding sit-ins are not the only ways to create change. GESO organizers research Yale’s finances and policies, conduct surveys of graduate students, publish reports on issues facing graduate employees, as well as hold rallies to draw the university’s attention to important problems. There are numerous examples of this over the last decade on issues from better access to childcare to extending graduate student funding during the summer.

    Why GESO should matter to undergraduates:

    GESO believes that a union contract, which would allow graduate students to negotiate the terms of their work here at Yale, is essential to ensure that Yale continues to foster groundbreaking scholarship as well as provide excellent teaching for undergraduates. In terms of total hours of teaching, graduate TAs and adjuncts currently provide as much as 75% of the instruction in many departments. Any change in Yale’s policies towards its graduate students/teachers will thus have a substantial impact on the quality (and potentially quantity) of instruction. For instance, if Dean Butler’s proposal from last June is adopted, opportunities for discussion of readings or material from lecture will be reduced at the same time as Yale is increasing its undergraduate population. One professor leading a 30 student lecture simply cannot provide the same amount of attention and feedback as he or she can with a team of graduate students to assist with the course.

    And lastly, thank you Ted for an excellent and well-written op-ed!

  • rhedbobbin

    Thanks for the responses.

    1) Helloo double-speak. I asked about mandated dues, you said, well you’ll be paid more overall.
    And how, pray tell, does a graduate student union limit the salaries of central administers?

    2) I think it assumes that disputes are best resolved with the intervention of a union representative. I believe it would escalate to the level of “dispute” issues that are not that serious. The union would occupy the representative/intervening role, and it would be in the union’s best interests to be “necessary” more often. Aside from the structure of it, this seems bad to me, in part, because the grad students I have known to be most enamored with the union are, sadly, the ones I would LEAST like to represent me. And, per #1, it would be mandated.

    3) At publics, everyone has to teach early and often, to a much greater level than we ever do. The best/brightest or at least most sought-after students get the few cushy funding slots and don’t *have* to teach, though they can opt to do so. That seems worse to me. Our funding isn’t-across the board- based on whether we are teaching or not.

    A union contract would grant decision making powers to the union leadership, not the people who do “the work.” That said, I reject at its heart that what we are doing here is “work” in the way you mean it. I came here to study and research the things that interest me, and get training in a profession. “Work” is what I will do afterward. GESO is getting stronger because there has been enough turn-over that the younger years don’t know how nasty things were the last time you all made a big push.

  • rhedbobbin

    Thanks for the responses, Round II:

    I’m not going to join your club so that I can vote. The last open election you held ended in defeat.

    Doesn’t more “access to teaching” for upper year grad students whiling away their lives on a dissertation actually mean pretty much the same thing as more casualization?

    How does negotiating our own contract ensure ground-breaking research? Can you tell us something specific and not use talking points?

  • rhedbobbin

    And, in what departments do “graduate employees” provide 75% of teaching? Secondly, for the purposes of that stat, how are you defining “teaching”?

    Language departments are a pretty special case.

  • rhedbobbin

    Last volley: if you all can get us pensions for the years we are here, maybe we can talk.
    (my apologies for not cramming all these into one comment. oy vey)

  • GabeW

    @rhedbobbin, Thanks for raising these questions. Obviously I disagree, but I figured on this comment thread degenerating into vitriol. Nice to see otherwise.

    1) Not sure what the problem is. This is how unions work: they cost workers money, but more than pay off in wage gains. What’s double-speak about that? As to the second part of the question, the whole point of having a union is to be able to contest the distribution of resources within the university. Our claim is that administration is eating up resources that should go to research and teaching.

    2) I can appreciate why you’d think this, but it’s just not how union grievances work. Historically speaking, in fact, many unions have been too hostile to the grievances of their members, over-willing to discipline members on behalf of the boss. Obviously, I don’t think this will be true of GESO, which is a democratic institution, but my point is just that it’s not the automatic result of a union contract. Why should the union, once contracted, have any interest in “illegitimate” grievances, whatever those might be? It doesn’t need to make itself more “necessary” if we’ve got a contract. As Rachel says, anybody can become an organizer, and any member can vote in elections. Even if you’re uneasy about GESO as your representative, the fact is that you don’t have one at all now. I don’t see why it’s better to leave yourself exposed.

    3) Having a union would not transform our department into another version of a public one; I just pointed out the prevalence of unions at public institutions to make clear that grad student unionism is not the apocalypse, and in fact, has been embraced most places where it is possible. I agree that even funding is vital. The argument for more teaching is this: it’s important to get trained in teaching, to engage with undergrads, and it’s important to have access to teaching beyond the five years we are guaranteed funding. We don’t ask for more teaching instead of current funding, but on top of current funding.

    4) This first line is an argument against any representative institution. Obviously any time leaders are being delegated to stand up for a larger group, this can happen. The important thing to ask is whether it’s likely to happen with GESO. But how do the interests of GESO conflict with yours? What might union leaders do that would not also benefit your research and teaching? Why would they do that, especially given the democratic accountability of the union?

    I won’t try to argue with you over whether or not we do real “work” — you seem to have decided. But your last point seems to me the best possible argument for GESO. You say, “GESO is getting stronger because there has been enough turn-over that the younger years don’t know how nasty things were the last time you all made a big push.” Younger years don’t know how nasty things were the last time we made a push. Why do you think things have gotten less nasty, since that push?

  • GabeW

    Ooph still more! OK.

    1) “I’m not going to join your club so that I can vote. The last open election you held ended in defeat.”

    Well, ok, but it’s hardly an argument against a democratic institution that it demands that you be a member to participate.

    2) “Doesn’t more ‘access to teaching’ for upper year grad students whiling away their lives on a dissertation actually mean pretty much the same thing as more casualization?”

    No, not if it doesn’t affect faculty hiring. We want more teachers all around, which seems like a reasonable demand, since the student:teacher ratio is one of the major ways Yale advertises itself to potential undergraduates.

    3) “How does negotiating our own contract ensure ground-breaking research? Can you tell us something specific and not use talking points?”

    Look, I’m sorry if you think this is just talking points, but people in my department are being told to have a dissertation done after five years. That can’t be done, and done well. No professor writes a great book in 2-2.5 years. That’s the whole story.

    4) “And, in what departments do “graduate employees” provide 75% of teaching? Secondly, for the purposes of that stat, how are you defining “teaching”?

    Language departments are a pretty special case.”

    The specific figure came from Rachel, it’s not one that I know (though I trust that she knows her stuff). I’ll leave her to answer that. Why are languages a special case? It’s no kind of argument to just rule out the evidence that militates against you, just by saying, “That’s different!”

    5) “Last volley: if you all can get us pensions for the years we are here, maybe we can talk. (my apologies for not cramming all these into one comment. oy vey)”

    So… we are workers, then?

  • Antoine

    1) “And how, pray tell, does a graduate student union limit the salaries of central administers?” When workers can secure better wages and benefits under a union contract, more of the revenue produced by the company/institution is transfered onto them, and, logically, less is left for the dividends of share holders and salaries of central administrators.

    2) If you don’t think a certain union representative would be helpful in your grievance procedure, you wouldn’t be “mandated” to get their help. I’m sure some of them might make mistakes, but this is pretty much like saying: I think we shouldn’t have courts of law because some lawyers may do a poor job. You seem concerned that such grievance procedures may deteriorate the relationships between supervisors and students. Indeed, supervisors who treat their students poorly may be bitter if they are called out in one such grievance meeting. But with no meeting at all, the same supervisees can be treated unfairly with no recourse or protection at all, with no accountability for supervisors. How is that better?

    More generally, you seem concerned that you may not like your union representatives. That is absolutely possible. But all officers of GESO are students elected by other students. So like in all democratic systems, a candidate may get elected that you disapprove of. Would you therefore want to abolish elections altogether?

    3) “How does negotiating our own contract ensure ground-breaking research?” By having more agency over the terms and conditions of our work, which involves teaching and research, we’ll logically be in a better place to do a better job. While a union representative is indeed not going to write your dissertation, a 5 year PhD program as Pollard wants to implement it would most certainly prevent anybody in my field to write a ground-breaking dissertation.

  • rhedbobbin

    I’ll get to more in a minute, but you have to recognize that repeatedly pointing out that GESO is a “democratic institution” means nothing for non-members. To participate means to participate on GESO’s terms, so “if you want a voice, join” is also a pretty useless statement to anyone who disagrees with the premise. At this point (and for the foreseeable future, inshallah) GESO doesn’t exist as a recognized representative body vested with any sort of power, except that which its members give to it. That is why it was significant that GESO lost the 2003 election, and why GESO instead tried to go piecemeal with card counts.

  • dm

    I’m an undergrad here, and while I believe that grad students have a right to air their grievances in a democratic way, I think the constant push to unionize is counterproductive and actually hurts graduate students in the long-run. GESO is so very focused on the grad student as worker, that it seems that it neglects the other elements of the grad student life. My father was involved in graduate school politics at a public university, and they did not argue for unionization, but instead turned what had been a student council into a graduate student advocacy organization that worked on things from teaching to clubs. GESO would have much broader support, it seems to me, if they weren’t just an outgrowth of 34 and 35. The false argument being made here is that if you oppose GESO, you oppose their aims. Not necessarily true. You can want grad students to have a stronger voice without supporting unionization or this particular organization.

  • graduate_student


    Thanks for that response. It’s a fair point. I am being a little polemical and curmudgeonly, but it’s only because I care.


    GESO has been around since 1990. If, after 21 years, it has not been able to garner support of a majority of the graduate students, then that’s deeply troubling. I am not suggesting that a majority of graduate students would not support a union if they felt that there was a viable choice to make. I think that they would. I just don’t think that GESO presents that.

    Graduate students who are sympathetic to GESO’s concerns are nevertheless left nonplussed by the organization itself. GESO comes off as largely ineffectual and somewhat self-aggrandizing. Others who are curious but not died-in-the-wool unionists are turned off by GESO’s aggressive recruitment tactics and lack of people skills. GESO organizers can be annoying, condescending, and pushy. I understand that union organizers must be pro-active, but they shouldn’t be arrogant. The message should be “This is what we are doing to help you,” not “You should support us, because if you don’t, you’re bad.”

    GESO also ignores a lot of realities about graduate school. Many of us are living on nothing other than our stipends, which after taxes can be as little as $20,000 per year. This is on top of the opportunity cost of graduate school; many of us could have gone into the private sector and would have already earned $300,000-$600,000 by the time that it takes to get a Ph.D. at Yale. The decision to go into academia is a tremendous sacrifice for many students.

    But there are also those who are here for more dilettantish reasons; they have substantial familial support, numerous fall-back options, and enjoy considerable financial security. That portion of the graduate student population, which is significant, will *never* care about unionization; in fact, they will be hostile towards it.

    Finally, there is the important divide between the sciences and the humanities. The situation is much more dire for humanists than it is for scientists. Those in the sciences are more likely to find jobs after Yale; they’re also more likely to receive supplemental grants and fellowships while at Yale. They will see less of a need for a union.

    GESO attempts to unite under one umbrella the rich and the poor, the advantaged and the disadvantaged. There are graduate students who wear diamonds and pearls to seminar, and there are graduate students who save up to buy slacks to teach in. Not all graduate students are the same.

  • GabeW

    I’ve clearly given my night over to watching this thread, so here goes:

    @rhedbobbin, your argument seems tautological to me. You don’t want to join “on GESO’s terms,” and you “disagree with the premise,” but what are those terms? What is, as Ayn Rand would say (eesh, can’t believe I just said that), your premise? You never say, except to say that it’s somehow different from GESO’s, and you won’t join GESO because you can’t vote, and you can’t vote because you won’t join… There’s no actual substantive argument here against what the union wants to do, only arguments around the edges of it. How do you actually disagree with GESO about the shape that graduate programs should take? Do you think 5 years is reasonable? Do you think teaching should become unavailable to upper years? Do you think sections should be fewer in number and larger in size? Do you think the university should continue to hire adjunct professors and freeze/shrink departments’ long-term professoriate? I’m guessing you’d actually answer “no” to each of these questions, since you seem like a reasonable person, but Yale won’t concede any of this willingly. That’s why we need a union. Which leads me to…

    @dm, I’m not sure what you mean by “other elements of grad student life.” What would you have a different GESO-like organization do, which would secure the aims you say you support, but not commit the unnamed sins that you suggest GESO is guilty of? The fact is that grad students have gotten little at this university (or any other) without demanding it and fighting for it. And this is one thing that tells us that we’re workers, not overgrown, overpaid versions of undergraduates. Unlike you guys, we get f***ed if we don’t stand up for ourselves.

  • dm

    @GabeW-The first sin of GESO is pursuing unionization when doing so a) alienates any member of the graduate community who is perhaps not big on union, b) puts the organization under Local 34 and 35. They have done a lot of good for Yale workers. Their political objectives in New Haven have not always been so admirable.

    Yale students, grad and undergrad, do need to fight for themselves. I am not opposing that. I would actually be an ally of yours if you didn’t attack people who had reservations about unionizing.

    Other elements of grad student life could range from getting free CT Transit fares to club funding to graduate housing, etc. All of these issues can be worked on without unionizing.

  • rhedbobbin

    The premise is that we are employees, not students. I do not consider this a career, but rather training for a career– my pensions comment edged to snark, but it captures some of the gist.

    That said, I think that the subsidiary issues (the substantive questions as you term it) in GESO’s platform are not directly tied to whether we are unionized or not. In fact, I’d argue that unionization is irrelevant to them. Why?

    Because if I’ve been screwed, it has gotten better every year. What more can we ask of a long-term relationship? My salary and benefits have gone up every year I have been here. GESO can claim that it is their advocacy–“the fear of a union made the administration raise stipends to make the natives docile!” GSA and GPSS can claim that it is the fact that they work the very same issues, and in fact *interact* directly with admin instead of picketing them. I think both have played a serious role. But I think the university is far more concerned with having parity with peer institutions. That gets to rankings, that gets to who decides to matriculate where. The prestige thing is the bigger engine for our raises and benefits.

    Again, I will try to get to more later, but you’ll have to excuse me now: I’m on the night-shift.

  • rhedbobbin

    And really, if GESO is going to keep things up, please use a smattering of these: