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Can Graduate Student Teaching Survive?

If graduate students don't want to find themselves replaced by video lectures delivered by “information curators,” collective action will be essential.

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Under such stress, some graduate students try to evade the worsening crisis by defining it away. Graduate student union organizers repeatedly encounter certain rhetorical roadblocks: unions are for workers, not scholars; my relationship with the university isn’t an employment relationship—I’m a student; I love what I’m doing and I get paid for it, it would be crass to complain. These responses are relentlessly non-pragmatic. They insist on the importance of semantics, allowing the utterer to avoid responsibility for a university system lurching into crisis. This is what it looks like when academics begin to internalize the attacks of anti-intellectuals. We are mere students and charity cases—dilettantish, indulged, unserious, irresponsible—not producers of any valuable knowledge or learning. (Yale actually accounts graduate student teaching as a cost to the university, uncompensated on the balance sheet by any value created in the classroom. One wonders what undergraduates are paying for.)

Such an attitude follows a long tradition in American social history. In almost every generation for the last two centuries, some group of artisans, farmers, or professionals whom we would today not hesitate to classify as workers insisted, when their craft came under threat, that they were inherently different from lowly hirelings and factory wage-slaves. This brand of defensiveness has long been common among the newly insecure. Unfortunately, it is a strategy that feels much better than it actually performs. Automation and corporatization felled the craftsman, the farmer, and the journalist; they eroded the skilled work of teachers and nurses into something more mechanical. These forces do not care whether we think we are workers or not. They will get us either way.

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Many graduate students, moreover, see intensive self-organization as a responsibility that they did not sign up for. This is true enough—few geneticists or classicists came to grad school talking union. But this is another classic mistake of downwardly mobile people: to respond to tough times by refusing to acknowledge that anything has changed. The first thing a social movement has to do is dispel this feeling—and demonstrate that something is at stake, and something can be done.

It is hard to build a movement from scratch, but we are not the only actors on campus defending against hostile university administrators. At Yale, the graduate student organizing campaign would not be possible without the support of the other university workers’ unions. UNITE HERE Local 34, the union representing clerical and technical workers, offers a foundation of support—in organizing resources and hard-won experience—and a model to follow. Local 34 represents people who do not much resemble the union worker stereotype: lab managers, research assistants, department registrars, art handlers, librarians. When it first organized, Yale’s president derided the (mainly female) union’s demands as “charming, but unreasonable.” Through years of difficult organizing, however, 34’s members have repeatedly demonstrated that an academic work environment can be improved when its participants commit to collective action. We may find more empowering advice and examples from our librarians and department registrars than from our assistant vice deans.

Every researcher has to learn to ask herself, “Why does this matter?” The question dogs you over the course of graduate school, and eventually an academic career, in every article, presentation, and book project. Every argument that a scholar makes fits in debates occurring in multiple, nested categories. No matter what the field, academics attempt to convince our peers and readers that we have developed a more correct interpretation of the world, whose truth others will benefit from seeing. But the attack on higher education has framed all of these debates in a larger one: whether it will be possible to do the research at all, and whether anyone will be there to register its implications. In this matter, too, we are now obligated to fight for our view of the world. The “who cares” question, as academics are fond of calling it, cannot just be a pose we strike in the third paragraph of every paper. If something is at stake in the world of ideas, then we can no longer afford treat it like a game.