I don’t expect Jessamyn Blau (“Seminar, Sections Can’t Replace Lectures”, 2/13) to understand how graduate students are also employees. There’s probably nothing I could say to convince anyone with such entrenched anti-GESO hostility of that, so this is really addressed to those open-minded observers who are willing to consider how a graduate student union can improve undergraduate education.
To be sure, some of GESO’s major issues include winning adequate health-care, child-care and summer funding for all graduate students who need it. These issues may not directly relate to undergraduate education, and it may not be my battle as an undergraduate to campaign vociferously for them. But what is most certainly my battle is how my education suffers when the graduate students who lead my sections and give me feedback have little or no institutional voice in how educational decisions are made.
Some graduate students spend as many as 20 hours a week as teaching assistants — the equivalent of a part-time job, and enough to bring dissertation research and oral exam preparations to a standstill. But what is of even greater concern to me as an undergraduate is although TAs account for a large bulk of the teaching in Yale College, most are equipped with shamefully poor institutional resources and support to do their jobs well. Blau writes that “GESO members make suggestions for improving TAing that are beyond preposterous.” Is it “beyond preposterous” for graduate students to ask for paid teacher training to make them better instructors? If that is what it takes for better sections and labs, let’s put aside the politics and consider the idea. Is equal pay for equal work also “beyond preposterous”? Should a seventh year American Studies TA with considerably more teaching experience get paid $2,000 less than a third year TA for doing the same amount of work? Finally, is it “beyond preposterous” for TAs to demand basic things like office space to hold office hours, so undergraduates can discuss papers and exams without the distractions of a crowded coffee shop?
TA placement also has a major impact on undergraduate education, or perhaps misplacement is a better term. Blau is apparently supremely confident that the Graduate School is “trying as hard as possible to match TAs with courses in their general area of expertise.” Is that what they were doing when they assigned Kristie Starr GRD ’04, who is specializing in Native American history, to teach a sociology class instead of the American West course, for which she is uniquely qualified? This didn’t just affect Starr — it also meant undergraduates in the course were deprived of a seasoned graduate instructor with a high degree of knowledge and expertise in the field. I’m not arguing that the Graduate School deliberately and maliciously misplaces TAs. But I am suggesting that if graduate teachers themselves had greater input in the placement process — if it wasn’t merely a unilateral departmental decision — then maybe, just maybe, we might have outcomes that better suit the needs of everyone involved, especially undergraduates.
Perhaps you have doubts that a union is the best way of affecting these changes. Fair enough — then call on President Levin to at least meet with GESO and merely discuss the idea or even other alternatives as a working group or committee. The administration’s steadfast refusal even to discussing the possibility of a union leaves graduate students with few options, and leads one to wonder what the Yale administration is so afraid of. Is Levin afraid sitting down with GESO will grant it de facto union status in the eyes of the National Labor Relations Board? That’s a rather baseless worry, since according to an April 2000 decision, the NLRB already recognized graduate students as employees anyway. No, more likely Levin and company are afraid if graduate students unionize, then the entire academy (including professors) may follow suit and unionize, robbing the administration of its iron-clad hold on power. Worse yet, it may put more power for educational decisions in the hands of professors and TAs (imagine that, people actually doing the teaching) rather than administrators. So the administration’s expensive and unrelenting fight against relatively powerless graduate students is really a message to the entire academy. Who’s guilty of the dirty politics now? The implication for undergraduates is alarming. Just think of the possibilities if all the money the administration is funneling into its anti-GESO campaign was instead spent on, say, paid teacher training or (dare I say it) hiring more tenure-track professors.
Do I expect Yale undergraduates suddenly and automatically to rally behind GESO? No, but at the same time, I hope that students will also not automatically oppose and detest GESO simply because the administration does. If there is at least acknowledgement that the debate goes beyond selfish, ungrateful graduate students who want more money to complex issues involving undergraduate education, then that will be a huge step forward.