Graduate students

Stop Admitting Ph.D. Students

Professors can help the job market if some of them refuse to accept more doctoral candidates, writes Monica J. Harris. That's what she's doing.

Mentoring Teaching Assistants

Samuel Gorovitz describes an approach to teaching graduate students how to grade.

Academe as Meritocracy

Maybe The Economist and other critics of Ph.D. programs that admit more students than can expect to find good academic jobs are missing the benefits of the system, writes Joshua A. Tucker.

The Part-Time Grad Student

Departments need to recognize this cohort, and provide help that will lead to jobs later, writes Cory Owen.

Advice for Grad Students

Stephen C. Stearns offers advice on taking charge of a doctoral program.

Advice for Grad Students -- II

Stephen C. Stearns outlines writing issues facing those in doctoral programs.

The Lecturer's Tale

A couple of years ago, a book appeared which might as well have had the title The Pedagogy of Zaniness. (Let's just call it that, to avoid giving it any more publicity.) The author was an academic; but more, he was also one wacky dude. And by following his instructions, you, too, could be a wacky dude, or dudette, as the case may be.

His argument was simplicity itself. To break through the wall of sullen indifference in a classroom full of students expecting to be entertained, professors ought to learn to tell jokes, make knowing references to contemporary pop culture, adopt the prevailing slang, and in general cultivate an ironic detachment from their own authority - as if much too hip to take "taking things seriously" all that seriously. 

It is possible that the author gave tips on what to wear and how to rap. I did not get that far in the book before dropping it with a shudder of disgust. 

Now, any competent teacher learns that you do what you gotta do to square the demands of presenting the course material with the limitations of students' previous knowledge and existing cognitive skills. Whatever works is, ipso facto, good. But The Pedagogy of Zaniness went way beyond pragmatism. Its outlook was one of abject surrender to "the World of Total Entertainment," as Philip Roth once called contemporary American culture. 

Perhaps the most important lasting effect that education can have is to instill a lasting sense of how much you will never know - but could, if you worked at it. But the instructional philosophy of Professor Yuckmeister boiled down to flattering kids for having watched a lot of TV. Maybe each class should end as the game shows once did, with the professor/host saying, "Don Pardo, tell them what they've won!" (Or "learned," if that is the word we really want.) 

O brave new world, that has such edutainment coordinators in it! 

Not everyone is celebrating the changes, of course. Last fall, The Midwest Quarterly published "Can We Discuss This? The Passing of the Lecture," by Stanley J. Solomon, who teaches film and literature at Iona College in New York. The journal itself isn't available online, though you can find out about subscribing to it via this quaint Web site

Solomon's essay is, in part a lament for the days when he devoted "about seventy percent of the class period" to lecturing - with the firm sense that his "methodology provided students with materials the could not get from books accessible to them." But he now recognizes the error of his ways, thanks to "the determined efforts of various theorists, many of them administrators who had not actually taught much in a classroom, or at all, but had read a great deal." From them, he learned that lecturing is "another form of child abuse, aimed at nominal adults, of course, but still young people presumably subjugated and entrapped in an environment controlled by an authoritarian leader" -- leaving them no self-defense except "to fall asleep to escape the painful environment they have paid so dearly to join." 

The author cites the recent pedagogical literature contra the lecture, making it clear that the idea of the traditional classroom as Foucauldian torture cell is, in fact, pretty much the received wisdom now, at least in some disciplines. (Probably more so in English and film studies than, say, microbiology or accounting.) For example, there is a recent
British book called Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity by Ronald Barnett, who says that the formal lecture "keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturers and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond." 

That oppressive rigidity has been replaced, writes Solomon, by the professor's more flexible role as "a discussion-leader, a questioner, a presiding organizer whose main task is to keep a discussion on track (not in itself an easy feat, but one that is manageable with experience)." 

The abolition of lecturing is not simply a matter of meeting the expectation of students for whom the talk-show host is the embodiment of discursive authority. The old arrangement was hard on professors too, notes Solomon. It "required concentrated reading and annotation of primary texts, research into secondary sources to assimilate [them] into my materials, and an organizing plan" for each session in the classroom. 

"The more I studied the advantages of discussion as a replacement for lecturing," recalls Solomon, "the more obvious the evidence of professional benefits appeared, simultaneously with a notable increase in my leisure reading and television watching." The age of the lecture is over. "Indeed," he writes, "the podium, the final resting place of lecture notes, and the little platform it used to stand on are relics of the passing hierarchical age." 

Still, there might yet come a day when people want to revive the practice. If so, the best place to start might be with a lecture by the late Erving Goffman called, simply "The Lecture." It was first presented at the University of Michigan almost 30 years ago, and can be found in his last book, Forms of Talk (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981).
Goffman was that rarest of birds, a sociologist who wrote with a minimum of jargon. And the fact that he often concentrated on the most routine sorts of interactions among people will sometimes leave readers with the sense that they aren't learning anything they hadn't already noticed. 

But just as there is deceptive complexity, so there is such a thing as deceptive simplicity. The cumulative effect of reading very much of Goffman's work is that you discover just how many unstated but very exact rules govern even the most "informal" of human interactions. Looking up from Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, you return to your own everyday life like an anthropologist visiting a strange new culture. 

In "The Lecture," Goffman did something a bit different. He analyzed, in effect, the presentation of self in academic life -- in particular, when a scholar is "holding the floor" in an auditorium. Most of his remarks pertain, not to classroom lecture, but to the sort of formal occasion when a university invites a distinguished person to give a presentation. 

But some of Goffman's model applies just as well to the classroom lecture, r.i.p. He notes that a common experience of "joint tasks, theater performances, or conversations" is that people "get caught up and carried away into the special realm of being that can be generated by these engagements." And the audience of a lecture might become similarly engrossed. "However," he writes, "unlike games and staged plays, lectures must not be frankly presented as if engrossment were the controlling intent." 

Take that, hipster doofus professor! 

"Indeed," continues Goffman, "lectures draw on a precarious ideal: certainly the listerners are to be carried away so that time slips by, but because of the speaker's subject matter, not his antics' the subject matter is meant to have its own enduring claims upon the listeners apart from the felicities or infelicities of the presentation. A lecture, then, purports to take the audience right past the auditorium, the occasion, and the speaker into the subject matter upon which the lecture comments. So [the] lecturer is meant to be a performer, but not merely a performer." 

All of which may be moot. Stanley Solomon's essay suggests that the art of the classroom lecture is disappearing -- and won't be missed. "That there was ever a time in history when students loved lectures," he writes, "especially those given in large lecture halls, seems so improbable a proposition that I cannot recall anyone venturing to make it, even in the old days, in recorded history or in literature." 

Well, for what it is worth, let me testify a little, just for posterity. When I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1980s, there was a professor who taught the basic course on European intellectual history from Descartes through (if memory serves) existentialism. It covered two semesters, and consisted almost entirely of lectures. 

As if that were not authoritarian enough, the prof announced, on the first day of class, that every figure we would be studying was important -- and that, in short, we had no right to form an opinion of their work. "Some of what you are going to hear," he'd say, "might sound ridiculous to you, and you might think that means you don't have to take it seriously. That's because you don't know anything. Even if they are wrong, their mistakes are important, and you need to learn to understand why they thought the way they did."

He then went on to give lectures that were utterly (to use Goffman's term) engrossing. The hall was always packed. Besides the hundreds of students who took the class as an elective, there were people who showed up without enrolling. During the final lecture each semester, the audience spilled out into the hallway, and invariably gave him a standing ovation. 

When the professor did not get tenure, a number of us were prepared to take over somebody's office in protest -- a gesture that he quietly discouraged. Since then, he has published at least three major works of scholarship; the last I heard, he had become the chairman of his department at another university. 

This professor never made jokes. There was no "sharing." And he didn't pretend to respect our capacity for judgment -- only our capacity to develop one. (At least eventually, with serious effort.) He just taught like a man with a mission, totally unwilling to let our ignorance get in his way.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

A Grad Student Struggles With Meaning and Minutiae

I remember the first time I was struck by the desire -- no, need -- to go back to school and study higher education. It had been two years since I graduated college with a degree in psychology, and I was going through the motions in the fourth job I had acquired and soon tired of. At this particular moment, however, I was sitting in a stuffy university gymnasium in Fort Collins, Colo., listening to my brother’s high school valedictorian talk about the promise of a college education, and the challenges and opportunities awaiting the soon-to-be graduates. Despite the speaker’s nervous and self-congratulatory prose, I found myself fighting back tears, and suppressing the uncomfortable lump of emotion rising in my throat: Her words were hitting home.

Not two weeks after attending that graduation ceremony, I was poring over graduate programs and course listings, and checking out university ratings in the latest U.S. News and World Report. I began studying for the GREs with a feverish pace, eagerly slipping out of the office at lunch time to memorize vocabulary words and mathematical equations printed on the back of unused business cards. The enthusiasm and engagement I had experienced in my college education courses came rushing back, and I found myself wondering how I had possibly strayed so far from exciting words and concepts like pedagogy, access, student development and educational opportunity. On the whole, I had found the business world lacking imagination and intellectual stimulation, and counted the months, weeks, days before I would begin my study at the University of California at Los Angeles.

My naïve anticipation of a graduate career characterized by intellectual curiosity and communal investigation into the promise and potential of the American system of higher education was dealt a blow the first day of class, when I learned that I was expected to turn in (the following week!) an outline of the research agenda I planned to pursue during my time at UCLA. A research agenda? Although I had some knowledge of the issues in postsecondary education from my undergraduate studies, I had expected the first year, or at least the first month, of my program to allow for a broad exploration of the ideas that define the study of higher education.

Boy, was I wrong. I soon learned that this field -- at least from what I could glean from my own and my colleagues’ experiences -- was less about a passionate engagement with ideas, and more about carving out a nice little piece of the scholarship pie: adding an independent variable here, a variation on a theory there, and hoping that someone will find your work to be worthy of publication in a refereed journal. 

Although it initially saddened me, this understanding of what it really means to study higher education sunk in quickly, and like all good doctoral students, I closed my office door, defined my research questions, and set about writing articles and attending conferences. It didn’t even faze me when a professor stated that the “limitations section is the most important part of your dissertation.” It makes sense: A scholar must define exactly what she can and cannot explain. Findings, in the study of higher education, rarely go unqualified. Okay. But what, then, does it all mean? Can we ever truly say anything? I entered graduate school hoping for stimulating intellectual debates and passionate investigations into evocative and important topics. Yet more often than not during the past two years, I have lost the meaning in the minutiae.

This realization came to me as suddenly as the decision to go back to school, as I was sitting in my writing seminar on a beautiful spring afternoon. I had just finished reading aloud a few pages of my historical analysis of the student affairs profession when I realized that somewhere in my discussion of the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View, my mind had wandered. As I stared at the last neatly typed sentence, I wasn’t sure what I had said or if it had made sense to the other people in the room. My disorientation was exacerbated by a fellow student’s polite question: “This is well written, but I guess I don’t really understand the problem you are addressing.” I froze. It wasn’t that I couldn’t articulate contemporary issues faced by student affairs administrators, or present why I believed a historical analysis was appropriate; I just, at the moment, couldn’t see why any of it mattered. 

Do all graduate students -- at some point in their studies  -- hit a stage like this, when the work you’re doing feels so disconnected from the reasons you were compelled to join the field in the first place? Perhaps these feelings are natural: A mid-(doctoral) life crisis of sorts, and I should just push on through. But maybe there is something to them. In focusing on the particulars and the probable we, as scholars of higher education, can easily become separated from our passions. I don’t mean to come down too hard on the scholarly community; it can be scary to write honestly about our fundamental beliefs and values in a piece that will be publicly discussed or peer reviewed. Yet it saddens me that an 18-year old valedictorian could so powerfully reconnect me to the transformative possibilities inherent in a college education, and so often in my doctoral studies I find myself grasping for the very reasons I joined the field in the first place. 

Graduate school can be an alienating place. Ostensibly we all returned to the academy because higher education means something to us -- for me it is a belief in education’s ability to empower students and transform lives; for others it may be a deeply felt conviction that academe can and should assist society in becoming more socially just. But these are not the ideas we focus on in our graduate studies; instead we are trained to dissect discourse, pare down problems, and limit our attention to what is manageable in a 20-page article or 15-minute presentation. 

Perhaps this disengagement from the greater meaning occurs because we -- as a community of scholars -- are constrained by the very environment we hope to change. Academic life has a way of stripping from us what is most basic to our work. Faced with impending deadlines, it becomes convenient to see methodology as procedures for conducting research, rather than as guidelines for interpreting or understanding meaningful information. It becomes increasingly easy to accept that passions and inspirations detract from empirical analysis, because employing the two together -- while it may lead to greater insight -- is exhausting and time-consuming work.

And in our haste to build an attractive resume or achieve tenure, we so often focus on the doable, at the expense of what might be possible. Our whole system is set up to create knowledge in smaller, more manageable, and more incontrovertible pieces. Yet this way of thinking brings with it the possibility that we become disconnected from the very reasons why our findings are meaningful in the first place. 

Is it possible to infuse our scholarly work with more meaning? I believe it is. We can incorporate our beliefs, passions and inspirations into our work. Indeed, I believe we have a responsibility to include these big ideas; without them our contributions to the literature reduce to isolated findings and distant, scholarly implications for future research. When our writing acknowledges and draws upon these notions, however, we breathe life into our results and vitalize their importance. And then, perhaps, our work will lead to even greater change in the academy. 

I have yet to meet a scholar of higher education who lacks passion for his or her chosen field. Yet in our hurry to see the world in terms of research questions and methodological limitations, it is all too easy to become alienated from the very ideas that give meaning to the whole enterprise. We need to remember what inspired us do this work in the first place -- a passionate professor, a poignant passage, or even a valedictory speech given in a stuffy gymnasium -- and allow these muses to spark in our writing our fundamental beliefs about the power and potential of higher education.

This will not be easy, of course. Staying connected to our passions and inspirations is a constant and evolving process, and one that is often overshadowed by the myriad challenges and expectations that accompany academic life. Writing this article has been, for me, a powerful reconnection to my beliefs and reasons for entering this field, but I still struggle on a regular basis to connect these thoughts and ideas to the piles of paper that each day conquer another inch of space on my desk, or the list of deadlines, inked in red pen, that is pasted to the corner of my computer screen.

Yet as I sit in my office, watching rays of sun infiltrate the vertical blinds that are nearly ubiquitous in professorial offices across the country, and listening to the electric hum of a campus alive with students moving between classes, jobs, and extracurricular engagements, I am reminded again of my faith in our system of higher education… and also of the importance of remembering.




Carrie B. Kisker
Author's email:

Carrie B. Kisker is a doctoral student in higher education and organizational change at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Next Hit Reality Show


To: Tom Werner, executive producer, The Scholar
From: Donald E. Heller
Subject: Capitalizing on the success of The Scholar

I know you’ve been really busy with The Scholar, which I hear has had some great ratings.  Never mind all your work with the Red Sox – by the way, great to have a hit after 86 years of failure, huh? – and your on again, off again relationship with Katie Couric. But I hope you have a few minutes to review this work-up for what I am convinced is the next hit reality show: The Chosen One.

Everybody has loved watching the competition to see which of those spunky little 18 year-olds on The Scholar is going to receive the scholarship. But those kids are so bright and overachieving that the audience knows that all of them, not just the winner, will end up going to college somewhere. But think about how much more interesting the competition will be as graduate students battle it out for the holy grail of American higher education: a tenure-track faculty position! With so few graduating Ph.D.’s landing one of these babies, the competition in this reality show will make Survivor look like a walk in the park.

Here’s the outline of the show. I’ve indicated a few places where there are some great product placement opportunities (PPO) to help maximize the revenue from the show.

The Search Committee: Every good reality show needs a panel of judges that will grab the audience. After all, people don’t watch American Idol to hear talentless people sing; they tune in to see Paula bicker with Simon. This is what’s keeping The Scholar from knocking Idol off the top of the charts. The judges on The Scholar are knowledgeable, but they’ve got the collective personality of a medieval history conference.  

Here are a few ideas to kick around.  For the lead, there’s only one obvious choice: Lawrence "Larry the Barbarian" Summers. He's received more press lately than anybody in higher education other than Ward Churchill (my guys talked to Ward, but he’s laying low these days and wasn’t interested). And who’s better at playing the Simon role, insulting people and putting them in their place? Larry’s got to be the top dog in this show. It shouldn’t matter how much money it takes to land him -- you have to get him on board.  (PPO: Rather than the ubiquitous can of Coke on Idol, I see Larry with a bottle of Chardonnay in front of him -- lots of opportunities to get a vineyard on board.)

To create fireworks, you need somebody who will clash with Larry. Again, there’s a clear choice: Cornel West, Larry’s old nemesis from Harvard who flew the coop to Princeton after one too many insults. The idea of Larry and Cornel (can we get him to use the nickname “Corny” -- “Cornel” sounds a bit stuffy for a mass audience?) going at each other from opposite sides of the table has me salivating about the ratings potential.

The third judge isn’t nearly as important (who can ever remember Randy Jackson anyway), but I do have a few ideas. Stanley Fish looked like he would be tanned, rested, and available after he retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who knows more about higher education than him? But then he took that position in Florida so he may be out. Skip Gates is another good choice, but that may make it look like he and Corny are ganging up on Larry. Might want to go after Elaine Showalter; she’s not nearly the household name the others are, but boy, can she dress! (Great PPO opportunities with her -- Prada or Versace?)

The Candidates: This is a little bit tricky. Ten students should work -- this is about the right ratio of Ph.D. graduates for every tenure track position available, and will ensure enough candidates to appeal to a broad audience. You need that combination of attractive looks and engaging personalities to keep the viewers coming back week after week. Need to avoid that library pallor so many graduate students share, so we’ll have to do a national search to find the cute ones with the bubbly personalities. (PPO: We’ll want to make sure they’re dressed well, so let’s talk to The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, maybe even Polo for the interview clothes.)

Diversity is important – every viewer wants to be able to connect with at least one of the candidates. So let’s make sure we get a good selection of people from different races and different parts of the country. And let’s make sure they’re not all from Ivy League colleges – it’s important for the world to see that there are smart people at other places too -- I’m having some people confirm this for me.  (PPO: Maybe there’s an opportunity here for a second-rung institution to “sponsor” one of their grad students into the competition. I can see somebody wearing a “Northwestern East Podunk University” sweatshirt -- institutions like that normally can’t buy that kind of publicity!)

We need to be careful about what disciplines the candidates come from, or we’ll lose our audience. While everybody likes the idea of a rocket scientist, nobody wants to watch them writing physics equations on a whiteboard (yes, I know it worked in Good Will Hunting, but they had Matt Damon and Ben Afleck). If we have an English student, at the first mention of Foucault people would be flipping the channel to Bill Frist on C-SPAN or Rachel Ray making green bean casserole on the Food Channel.

Everybody watching The Scholar has liked that the contestants share dorm rooms, so let’s have all 10 of the grad students share a house, sort of like on The Real World. (PPO: this is a no-brainer – Ikea!)

The Episodes: The episodes should be reflective of the typical career of a grad student, and give the judges the opportunity to assess their potential to be a faculty member. Nobody would want to sit through the life of a Ph.D. student in real time however, so we’ll collapse the normal seven year period into seven weeks of television. Here is a first cut at the episode list.

1. Meet the grad students. The audience gets to meet each student and choose favorites.  Students get a chance to introduce themselves, explain why they’re unique, and why they should be The Chosen One.

2. The students deflect a sexual advance from a tenured faculty member. This is an important milestone in graduate student life. To keep it interesting, we can throw in at least one same-sex harassment situation (we need to remember this as we cast the show). It is unlikely we will be able to hire real professors for this, but with all the out-of-work professors out there, some of them must have had some experience in this arena. (PPO: a law firm?)

3. Organize a TA union. What a great opportunity for conflict between the grad students and the judges! The grad students will be required to build the case for why they should be allowed to unionize, and the judges will test them by explaining why grad students do not do real work and should be considered students, not workers. (PPO: United Auto Workers or The Teamsters?)

4. Cobble together funds to attend a conference and network with academic stars. The grad students will run around the campus to various offices to beg, borrow, and steal the money necessary to attend an academic conference in order to schmooze with the big shots. They will then have to demonstrate how they can spend three days in a major city on a paltry sum, and still look presentable and impress the stars. Great opportunity here for cameos from some real academic stars.  I’m sure most would jump at the opportunity and work for union scale.  (PPO: airlines and hotels)

5. Form a dissertation committee. The grad students go in front of the judges and explain why they are worthy of having a faculty member serve on their dissertation committee. Each judge will require the students to jump through the requisite academic "hoops," such as babysitting the judge’s children, walking the judge’s dog, or picking up their dry cleaning.  Every good reality show has a weeding-out process. This episode is where we can reduce the 10 candidates down to a smaller number, as those who are unable to form a dissertation committee are cast aside.

6. The job talk. The candidates explain their research and why they’re worth of being The Chosen One. As I mentioned earlier, it is critical that we find grad students with interests that reach a wide audience. Let’s look for somebody in sociology who researches the interlocking sexual and economic relationships among suburban, upper middle class housewives. Or a criminology student who specializes in homicides among young, beautiful women who live in major urban areas with attractive friends and interesting jobs.

7. The selection. At long last, the judges choose the single graduate student who will be The Chosen One. The winner will be awarded a tenure-track job in their field at the institution of their choice. We may have some problems getting every college and university out there to agree to participate, but given the revenue constraints they’re all facing, throwing some of the PPO money their way should be enough of an inducement.

I think this one is a winner, Tom, so let’s do lunch and work it out!

Donald E. Heller
Author's email:

Donald E. Heller is an associate professor and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. The only reality show he is watching this summer is the Boston Red Sox.

Worth Fighting For

On August 4, three weeks before its historic first contract with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee was set to expire, New York University announced that it would no longer recognize its teaching assistants’ union. The decision was not a surprise -- NYU has been campaigning against the union since last fall. So why wait so long to make this official announcement? NYU’s plans are not popular on our campus, and it preferred to reveal its intentions over summer break, when the university is nearly empty.

In 2001, NYU became the first private university in the nation to recognize a union of its grad student employees, who perform essential teaching, administrative, and research jobs on campus.  (Graduate unions have existed for decades at many public institutions nationwide.) NYU’s graduate students elected to affiliate with UAW local 2110, a union that represents office and professional workers (our local includes workers at the Museum of Modern Art and The Village Voice).

Students negotiated a contract with the university that increased wages by an average of 40 percent and, for the first time ever, guaranteed full health coverage and office space for some of the primary teachers of NYU undergraduates. The contract also set maximum weekly work hours, which helped keep classes small and prevented the university from overburdening individual TA's to cut costs. My older brother, now a doctoral candidate in cinema studies and one of the first members of GSOC, earned $10,000 per year and had no health insurance as a TA. He had to take on as many as two extra jobs while he taught in order to pay rent in New York City, which can easily exceed $10,000 per year. The improvements in graduate student life only came about because students organized a union to demand them. I have no reason to expect that NYU will, as some in the administration have put it, "take care of us" without one.

In April, a majority of graduate students signed a petition to NYU President John Sexton asking for new contract negotiations, and more than 200 full-time faculty have since done the same. Despite this broad support, NYU insists on opposing GSOC for only one major reason: it argues that a union will interfere with "academic decision-making" -- decisions, for example, about who will teach which class and what they will put on the syllabus. The fact that NYU can cite no convincing examples that any such union meddling has ever happened over the course of the contract has not stopped its lawyers from repeatedly raising these issues in the anti-union emails with which they regularly bombard the entire campus. Often authored by university lawyers Terry Nolan and Cheryl Mills, these long-winded odes to the life of the mind argue quaintly that union representation is incompatible with the "academic values" of a university.

According to this view, the university is a sanctuary from the workaday world -- fair negotiations over wages, benefits, and terms of employment are the kind of vulgarities that belong at a lumberyard, not the sacrosanct university campus. In April, Mills and Nolan wrote that unions are "familiar with industrial work environments; they are not familiar with academic decision-making within universities.”  This is a foolish claim that should surprise any member of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents over 130,000 professors and academic professionals across the country, including those in New York City’s public university system -- not to mention our UAW colleagues at the Universities of California, Massachusetts, and Washington.

NYU’s charges  of UAW interference in "academic decision-making" focus on the grievance procedure that students negotiated in our contract. This is a standard provision of any union pact, including teaching unions, because it allows employees (and employers) to enforce their contracts. Currently, disputes not settled at these earlier stages will be decided by an independent arbitrator. NYU has now proposed a grievance procedure in which all grievances not settled at the not resolved at the departmental or school level would be "fully and finally" decided by the provost, which would effectively give the university the last word on all the terms of our employment.

GSOC has filed grievances when grad students have come to the union with real problems with employment issues. For example, a graduate student I know taught a class for which she was never paid. The dispute was settled only after she filed a grievance for back pay. The grievance procedure exists precisely to resolve cases like this, not to protest unpopular teaching assignments or rearrange course syllabi. Of course, GSOC members do not win every case; nor does the university. Even so, when NYU insisted that our grievances were the main obstacle to negotiating a second union contract, GSOC offered to withdraw any grievance the university found problematic. NYU rejected this offer at compromise, and then announced its decision not to negotiate with the union.

So what makes graduate assistant unions so important for college education today? For one thing, they are one bulwark against the streamlining of undergraduate education -- a business model of cost-cutting that is eroding the quality of a college education precisely when it is growing more expensive — over $31,000 a year at NYU. Most undergraduates at big universities today will only occasionally encounter a tenured faculty member during their studies. According to David Kirp, author of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, at NYU today at least 70 percent of undergraduate classes are taught by overworked and undervalued, yet talented and dedicated, graduate assistants and part-time or adjunct faculty, simply because this is the cheapest way to shuttle students through their degree programs. This is one reason why NYU objects to our union.

The university has hidden behind last year's partisan 3-2 decision by the Republican-majority National Labor Relations Board, which overturned its own precedent that graduate assistants were employees legally entitled to join a union. NYU contends that this decision validates its counterintuitive claim that paid teaching assistants are students, and not employees. We are, quite obviously, both. Yet the votes of three political appointees in Washington should not outweigh those of hundreds of graduate students at NYU.

The university's decision-making process on unionization has in this way been taken completely out of students’ and faculty’s hands. Administrators made their decision over the summer, and only asked for “comments” from the university community afterwards. A campus "town hall meeting" with President Sexton was scheduled for a mid-July Tuesday afternoon, nearly a month after the university had already announced preliminary plans to oppose the TA union.

NYU did solicit professors’ opinions on GSOC -- but again, only after the decision had already been made public. In response, Faculty Democracy, a newly-formed group of over 100 professors from a variety of disciplines, wrote President Sexton an angry letter calling NYU’s deliberations on GSOC "a mockery of process."

When one gets down to the bare facts, NYU has simply behaved like any big company fighting its employees. Yet graduate students are not the only ones that stand to lose if NYU succeeds in eliminating a union that many students and professors agree has benefited both graduate and undergraduate education here. If NYU’s undergraduates really are a priority of this university anymore, it is crucial that their primary teachers have a manageable teaching load, job security, and the respect of their employers. Once again, it has fallen to teaching assistants and their adjunct colleagues to remind NYU administrators of the real "academic values" of the university: to teach students.

J.P. Leary
Author's email:

J.P. Leary is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at New York University and a member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, UAW Local 2110.


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