Because pro-union voices at Yale are so loud, a newcomer to Yale might wrongly assume that the entire faculty supports the efforts of GESO, which calls itself “Local 33,” to organize. In fact, many faculty members are opposed because we enjoy a productive and rewarding relationship with graduate students and don’t want things to change. In my view, a Ph.D. candidate is a future colleague, someone that I enjoy mentoring and teaching about the profession.

The number one challenge that our Ph.D. students face is getting desirable positions in an ever-tightening market. Faculty now help their students in all kinds of ways: holding mock interviews, listening to mock job talks, correcting draft job letters and dissertation chapters, modifying the design of experiments and consulting one-on-one. Yale’s current model, even if not always realized in practice, presumes both collegiality and good will: Faculty members mentor multiple graduate students, including their own advisees as well as others.

The best practices in teaching do not presume a fixed number of hours per week, any more than research can be confined to a fixed workweek. Good teaching, like good research, does not fit a single model, and students who have a broad array of teaching experiences will be much better prepared for the job market than those who have taught only in lecture classes. Getting a job as a university instructor is difficult. Work rules could stand in the way of the flexibility and creativity that can help get someone a position.

One of the hallmarks of a Yale education is excellence in teaching. When Yale instructors design their classes they do not stop to consider how many hours they are spending. A new class can be demanding, and even an existing class requires many hours to make it succeed.

Our students like and expect faculty to use new teaching tools. These can take a long time to master, even for experienced faculty members who put that time in because they want their classes to be as good as they can be.

And make no mistake. Yale faculty members teach their own classes. Under our current system, regulations specify that professors design the classes, write the syllabi, assign and upload course readings, give the lectures and are responsible for how the course is run. Graduate students provide crucial assistance by leading discussion sections and grading papers. They meet weekly with the course instructor, who visits the sections of the teaching fellows to offer teaching tips and write letters of recommendation that cite specifics.

Unions often presuppose an adversarial relationship between “employees” and “management.” Unionization could bring rigid work rules, which typically specify levels of compensation for a certain number of hours for all those classed as employees — a mistaken assumption.

One of the main tools available to unions is to strike. When employees strike at a company, their consumers lose services until management negotiates a new contract with the union. For example, a strike at Metro-North brings the suspension of train service and a decline in revenue until management and employees reach agreement and employees return to work.

At a university, what would the equivalent be? In previous strikes at Yale, some striking teaching fellows have not held sections and refused to grade papers and exams.

Who suffers? The undergraduates.

And also the graduate students themselves, because graduate students are devoted to their undergraduate students and take their teaching seriously.

Ph.D. students in the History Department spend most of their time taking class in the early years or doing dissertation research in their later years. They usually lead sections during two “teaching” years, when they prepare between 10 and 20 hours each week. An important component of graduate training, teaching occupies less than 20 percent of a typical six-year program. It is erroneous to classify graduate students as full-time employees. They are not full-time, and they are not employees. They are candidates for degrees.

Being a graduate student is not a lifetime job. It’s a short-term opportunity to receive a fully subsidized education. Yale provides six years of support including tuition waivers, health care and living stipends to all Ph.D. candidates. At the end of their training, students receive a Ph.D. The management/employee dichotomy does not capture the faculty/student relationship, and it runs the real risk of injecting acrimony into what should be a partnership. Professors and graduate students should work together — not on opposite sides — so that Ph.D. candidates can complete their degrees in a timely manner and obtain the best positions possible.

Valerie Hansen is a professor in the History Department. Contact her at .

  • Emily Drascus

    Valerie Hansen, a tenured Yale professor earning over six figures, does not believe that graduate students, who can earn so little that they qualify for Medicaid, and who often take on debt during the time of their studies (which isn’t even to mention the opportunity cost of spending your 20s earning an income near the poverty line in a very expensive city), does not believe that graduate students should have the right to unionize. So be it. But why?

    The number one challenge that our Ph.D. students face is getting desirable positions in an ever-tightening market. Faculty now help their students in all kinds of ways: holding mock interviews, listening to mock job talks, correcting draft job letters and dissertation chapters, modifying the design of experiments and consulting one-on-one.

    And yet students still graduate with no real hope for a job. Many end up doing adjunct work for peanuts. This adjunct work is then treated like a scarlet letter, preventing them from ever getting a real job. Why? Because of Ms. Hansen’s colleagues. They have created and continue to support and endorse a system in which, every year, thousands of young people are sold the lie that a Ph.D. degree leads to a future in academia, lose out on tens of thousands of dollars in potential earnings, defer their undergraduate student loans that then accrue thousands of dollars in interest, and then spend the next few decades of their lives in a precarious, financially-insecure position. Because they can barely afford to support themselves, some forgo getting married or starting a family. This is the system in which Ms. Hansen and her colleagues thrive, and which she believes “many faculty members” don’t want to change.

    Yale’s current model, even if not always realized in practice, presumes both collegiality and good will: Faculty members mentor multiple graduate students, including their own advisees as well as others.

    Yale’s current model does not work. In the past few years alone, there have been a number of scandals that have exposed this “presumed collegiality and good will” as just that: a convenient presumption that lets people like Ms. Hansen sleep at night. Faculty use and abuse students — sexually and psychologically — and they usually get away with it. When they get caught, the university administration swoops in to save them and sweep the dirt under the rug. Reputation is much, much more important to the Yale faculty than student safety and well-being is. This has been proven time and time again.

    When Yale instructors design their classes they do not stop to consider how many hours they are spending.

    An easy statement when, as a tenured professor, you rake in over $100,000 per year. For poorer folks, though, time matters a lot more. Time is money.

    There are so many half-baked assumptions in this piece, so much privilege oozing from the lines, that I leave the rest for others to pick apart.

    • disqus_f3Gqo4uR2r

      Why on earth would anyone choose to join a system that resembles the one described here, a hellish dystopia? Are all grad students somehow coerced, or seduced by lies, into signing on? Or are they (most of them at least) rational actors?

      • Emily Drascus

        Because they truly do have a deep passion for and interest in their work, whether it’s teaching, research, or both?

  • dmoerner

    Professor Hansen has put together an exceedingly poor case against unionization.

    Her piece opens with a long discussion of the value of teaching and the flexibility of courses. I have no idea what this has to do with unionization. Hansen repeatedly refers to ‘work rules’, but seems to use this as a weasel word meant to capture the purported evils of unionization. If she wants to put forward such an argument, it is her responsibility to put forward examples of such ‘work rules’ that have been put in place at other institutions with unionized graduate students or that have been advocated by Local 33. She will find none.

    She also repeatedly attacks the idea of working a fixed number of hours per week. Professor Hansen does not seem to be aware that Yale already has requirements that set us at TF10 or TF20 compensation, depending on the number of hours we work per week. They also mandate that “No graduate student doing stipend teaching may teach for more than 20 hours per week.” I hope that when she is preparing a new course with teaching instructors, she does not violate these requirements.

    Professor Hansen then comes the closest to making an actual argument, that if we have a union graduate students will strike. This argument is just awful. She does not seem be aware that Yale graduate students have struck five times in the past thirty years, and one of the purposes of unionization is to produce a formalized bargaining unit that can avoid the need for strikes.

    Professor Hansen seems to connect full-time work, and lifetime work, to unionization. There is no requirement that only full-time workers or lifetime workers can unionize. She provides no argument why that should be the case.

    When we vote to unionize, I will bear no ill-will towards my supervisors. It would be disappointing if Professor Hansen bears ill-will towards her students.

    (Incidentally, I am surprised by the emphasis that Professor Hansen puts on the work her department puts toward helping students go on the job market, when the history department seems to have been unable to update its placement page since December 2013. This does a serious disservice to prospective students.)

    • Emily Drascus

      I hope that when she is preparing a new course with teaching instructors, she does not violate these requirements.

      And yet if Ms. Hansen gets her way, empty hope and little more is once again all you will have. She can violate such requirements (or at least be totally ignorant of them, whichever is worse) with impunity, because she has no accountability whatsoever.

      Ms. Hansen is a high-income-earner who only ever had to look for one job in her whole life, the one she currently occupies and the one she presently can’t be fired from. It’s from this position of extreme privilege that she presumes to lecture us (no pun intended).

      • Harry

        i wish i can like this more than once. that last paragraph was straight fire.

  • Moonfriend

    This is really embarrassing for Valerie Hansen:

  • Jacob Danu Brown

    Your argument is essentially that good teaching requires improper labor conditions and exploitation: of faculty members by their Universities, and of graduate students from their faculty. You also fail to mention how often graduate students’ labor and/or the content of their actual work is stolen by faculty members, which happens regularly. Graduate students often have no recourse other than to smile and “pay their dues.” Citing unhealthy and problematic practices as just “the way things are” is a pretty piss-poor argument against unionizing. In fact, the contents of this article are exactly WHY students need to unionize.

  • Harry
  • roseasharon

    At Princeton (#1), the coddled, reactionary faculty have the wit to know which line properly accompanies rebukes to the pathetic whinging of an unemployable mob: “Let them eat cake.”

  • Cincinnatus80011

    Other commenters haven’t mentioned this yet — it’s worth pointing out that the definition of faculty as “management” is largely a legal fiction that has been manufactured to prevent faculty themselves from organizing in pursuit of their own interests. In fact, many of the most salient concerns that graduate students have at Yale and elsewhere have nothing to do with their interactions with faculty. In particular, funding beyond the 6th year is a particular concern — one cannot magically and automatically presume that the production of new, thoroughly-researched, and worthwhile research in the form of a dissertation will only take the prescribed 5-6 year time frame. What if one discovers that the completion of the task requires the acquisition of an unexpected language (or two)? Or that the expected project simply requires more, deeper, and perhaps also broader consideration? It is not necessarily the case that one can prepare for these things in advance – after all, the pursuit of novel research excludes the easy possibility of predicting the course of the research and writing process entirely and with complete certainty.

    Given that this is the case, international students in particular are left in a precarious situation where they might or might not have teaching opportunities in their later years — with dramatic and definitively problematic implications for their visas. And what of living in/around New Haven? If one doesn’t know until after the shopping period whether one’s teaching assignment (and thus livelihood and health insurance) will be secure, how to plan for residing here? How to sign a lease when one cannot even be certain that they’ll have a position? What about students who have families and rely upon Yale Health? The easy and typical response is “well, just finish quickly,” but in a tight job market (and not just in academia, mind you!) with few opportunities, Ph.D. students need more than ever to produce top-notch work that may defy simply cranking out a dissertation as though it were sausage being stuffed into its casing.

    Professor Hansen’s argument here ignores the evidence from public universities (cited in the NLRB decision and mentioned in the recent New York Times editorial that suggests Professor Hansen is quite out of step with the mainstream on this one) that have long had graduate student unions where both students and faculty are very satisfied with their mutual working relationships and where there is little confusion about who “management” actually is — the administration, which would prefer to see students and faculty as numbers on spreadsheets rather than human beings with human needs. For a professor in the Humanities to adopt this attitude is surprising and disappointing and I hope that Professor Hansen will reconsider.

  • djw

    “Unions often presuppose an adversarial relationship between “employees” and “management.”

    Your use of the weasel-word “often” gives away the show here. I completed my PhD at a University where the graduate student employees unionized mid-way through the process. My relationship with faculty didn’t change at all, because we negotiated a contract that didn’t change the basic model of the faculty-grad student relationship, but rather provided remedies for departures from the reasonable and collegial model. Those who worked for faculty who abused the kind of latitude the faculty-graduate student relationship had the tools to transform that relationship for the better, and for the rest of us, nothing changed. Indeed, my own faculty advisors, some of whom were on the fence about graduate student unionization, were all happy with it after the fact–in no small part because the better pay and benefits we were able to negotiate helped them when recruiting top students.

    This is a poorly reasoned article, lacking a basis in both the history and law of unionization. For example, that particular jobs are neither permanent nor full time is not a reason they shouldn’t be permitted to unionize, as the relevant supreme court decisions and legislation regarding this right make clear (and plenty of part-time employees have unions!). It’s surprising that an author as distinguished as Prof. Hansen would make such fundamental errors. I can’t imagine she’d tolerate work of this quality from her students.