We’re back from the holiday season, students have shopped until they dropped and my class has sufficient enrollment to continue, so I’m a happy camper. Yet when I find memos in my inbox from Deans Butler and Salovey enumerating the endless pleasures of being a teaching fellow and the countless opportunities for learning that position offers, call it miserly, but I start counting. I’m in my fifth year now and the job market is coming soon, so I’ve been updating my CV. I now have what from a distance appears to be a healthy section entitled “teaching experience.” Unfortunately, upon closer examination, endless pleasure evaporates into serious concern.
I’m now teaching my ninth language course. Eight of those were taught here at Yale either in regular term or with the Summer Language Institute. For this past year I’ve taught students how to read German for research in their own fields. It’s been an extraordinarily enriching experience. But there’s one problem: I’m in German Literature, and I’ve never taught a literature course. In fact, it’s almost certain that I never will, unless some college overlooks my lack of experience and hires me into an assistant professorship. I’d then presumably have to summon the buried memories of my own experiences as an undergraduate in literature seminars. It was the late 1990s, and the Spice Girls were big, but that’s clearly not the only reason this doesn’t seem like a good plan, either for my own career, for current and future undergraduates, or for Yale’s Teaching Fellows program, which claims to provide top-notch training for future professors.
This isn’t a problem specific to my department or to my field. Most graduate students in foreign literature programs will come away from Yale with considerable language teaching experience and absolutely none whatsoever in literature. As many of our departments now claim teaching as an academic requirement, it is doubly curious that these requirements seem to be more in line with departmental staffing needs than with our own needs as candidates for academic jobs. Why equip me for success on the job market when I’m so sorely needed to teach language courses over and over again?
It’s no secret that section is highly unpopular, but we should be clear: It doesn’t exist because the Graduate School desperately needs to train its students to become teachers. It exists because it can be done on the cheap. Grading papers for a class entirely outside our fields hardly gives us an advantage over competitors on the job market, and if that’s pedagogical training, it’s irresponsible. There is simply a vast amount of grading and close-contact teaching that has to be done, and we’re the most readily available warm bodies in need of a paycheck.
This past Friday, Deans Butler and Salovey attended a question and answer session organized by the Graduate Teaching Center. Both deans concurred that it is a problem that I’ll never get to teach literature, but were at a loss for solutions, arguing that it would be unwise to let graduate students teach literature and have even more of Yale’s teaching off the tenure track, wondering aloud whether a language class is an appropriate use of a professor. Then Dean Salovey chuckled that the value of a Ph.D. these days is about $100, the difference between a grad student PTAI and an adjunct. That’s supposed to be generous as adjunct pay scales go, but it speaks directly to the heart of the problem: too much teaching has already moved off the tenure track, either to people like me, or to adjuncts with Ph.D.s in hand who earn just a few crumbs more.
The undergraduate population in the United States exploded over the last 30 years, but the size of the professoriate stood still. And while it may seem relieving to hear top Yale administrators finally speak about the dangers of casualization, the analysis they offer comes up short. It has been the willingness of universities like Yale to pay adjuncts little, and graduate students even less, that has devastated the academic job market, which should have grown in step with the undergraduate body. In place of that academy, we have the one we’re in now, in which graduate students, desperate for advantages to wield in interviews, seek out teacher training and teaching experience in the hope that these will make a decisive difference. If it’s supposed to be training, it should be relevant and thorough. Otherwise we should call it what it is: cost-cutting.
Evan Matthew Cobb ’07 is a fifth-year graduate student in Germanic languages and literatures. He is an organizer for GESO.