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 firstname.lastname@example.org .