I’ve arrived at the end of the sixth year, and I know the Dean’s Office hopes it is my last. In the Graduate School of the future, “2-4” always equals six. Part of making that happen is the Dissertation Progress Report, requests for which were e-mailed to Ph.D. candidates a few days ago. Like Nietzsche’s dragon with scales that read “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not,” it is replete with commandments of what I will submit, describe, report and confess. Let me try to take stock of what I’ve done and learned, here at what is supposed to be the end of my graduate career. At least it has this going for it: It’s a love story.
When I arrived at Yale in 2001, I was in love with one thing: medieval German epic. Unfortunately, the medievalist in the department was on the verge of retirement and urged me to find a different subfield. There’s no work to be had in medieval, she said. But something marvelous happened next. The department was understaffed, because of retirements and the snail’s pace of Yale’s faculty hiring, so we had a string of visiting professors offering the bulk of the coursework. I took a class on sexual textualities, and the idea for my dissertation was born in one of the most inspiring academic experiences I’ve ever had. And then the teacher went back to his other job. Yale did not hire or tenure any more faculty in the department for a few more years, so I felt isolated, but at least I had my dream and a project I loved.
Then I began to teach, and I immediately fell in love with that. The first two weeks of the term I taught at the Schubert with a dry-erase board I hauled around town because of the strike, but the students stuck with it, and stuck with me. I wrote recommendations for them, since they were mostly freshmen and I was the closest thing to faculty that they knew. I cringed while I did it, knowing recommendations from a nobody, even on Yale stationery, couldn’t help them along as much as I wished it could. At the end of term I told them how proud I would be in 2007 to graduate along with them. So there I was, three years in with two new loves in my life: teaching, and my research. My time at Yale has cultivated two true romances. But those familiar with German romanticism know what comes next: a plunge into the abyss.
The Department of Education reports that more than half the teachers in American higher education are part-timers, a share that rises year after year. Even here at Yale, three-quarters of the instructional staff are off the tenure track, according the AAUP. It’s clear that my life as an academic will look nothing like the lives of the teachers who have inspired me to choose this path. My life will look much more like that of my aunt Mary, who teaches piano at the State University of New York. Her title is “visiting professor,” which, like “lecturer” or “instructor,” is just a nice way of saying she has no shot at advancement or job security. She makes little more than I do, and her contract, renewed on a semester-by-semester basis, tends to arrive during the last week of class, rather than prior to start of term.
Mary works her heart out for her students, partly because she loves them, and loves to teach them piano. Increasingly, she works harder and harder because she has to. In the casualized academy where full-time security is a thing of the past, every second has to be packed with excellence. The casualization of academic labor benefits the bottom line of universities by counting on academics to be willing to work for less, and with less security, because their work is what they love. Education, which is about building hope, realizing dreams and sharing the love of learning, is now an enterprise whose efficiency feeds off teachers’ love for their students and love for their fields. Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told the New Haven Register that “the mix of faculty — tenured, term and non-ladder — provides an outstanding education.” I’m sure it does — because casual faculty’s lives depend on always being outstanding teachers. When your job can be terminated in the blink of an eye, you keep your performance as immaculate as possible. It also means you steer clear of controversy, and you certainly don’t speak up about your working conditions and the growing divide between the lives of a shrinking faculty with security and the burgeoning legions of casual workers with none.
Yale could match its profound commitment to quality teaching and research with an equally profound commitment to making jobs in higher education good ones, universally. In so doing, Yale could pronounce that we as a university value teachers, each and every one, and that we in fact love teachers, and love how they inspire students and prepare them for the future. At least, I hope that’s what Yale does. After six years of graduate school here, I’ve learned to love too much to settle for heartbreak.
Evan Matthew Cobb is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. He is an organizer for GESO.