In the story to which Jerry Fresia links, there is a reference to the week-long strike by unionized graduate student instructors at Columbia that has just wrapped up. Columbia is fighting the unionization tooth and nail – surprise, surprise – and this stance is, I am sure, supported by a number of otherwise impeccably liberal faculty members who profess to believe that unionization will injure, if not destroy, the special relationship of mentor to disciple that makes teaching at a graduate university so delicious. If I may borrow a technical philosophical term that my old friend Harry Frankfort introduced into philosophy in a book of the same name, bullshit.
I have two arguments against this widespread view, one short, the other long. Seeing as how I am a Philosopher, I will give both.
Short first. I realize it is somewhat inappropriate to cite facts in a high-toned argument about matters of principle in the Academy, but I actually have some experience in this matter which is relevant. I taught for fifty years. For the first thirteen years, I taught in the elite private sector of higher education – Harvard, Chicago, Columbia – where the very thought of a graduate student union would have produced fainting and a clutching of pearls. I then taught for thirty-seven years at the University of Massachusetts, a big second tier perpetually underfunded state university where, after I had been there several years, first the faculty and then the graduate students unionized. At all four of those institutions, the graduate students were appropriately and very satisfyingly submissive, adoring, obedient, and eager to become as much like those of us on the faculty as they could. I observed no difference in these respects between UMass and the Ivies. The fears of the Columbia faculty are groundless. The Administration is another matter. They just don’t want to have to pay any more than they must to the poor sots who actually deliver the education for which students cough up about as much, in four years, as a new Rolls Royce costs. As I think I have reported in this place before, Columbia is paying me $8,000 to teach a course there in the Fall, which is, among other things, 80% of what UNC has paid me lately for the same services. Whatever my personal foibles and failings, no one can accuse me of doing it for the money.
Now long. Universities originated as guilds, which is to say private associations of artisans who both practiced and policed the practicing of their craft. Each Master of the craft maintained a workshop in which the skills and knowledge of the craft were passed on to young apprentices and journeymen. A boy might be apprenticed to a Master as a teenager or younger, after which he would live in the shop, work as a servant, learn the craft slowly from older apprentices and from the Master himself, and eventually become an accomplished practitioner – a goldsmith, coppersmith, joiner, pottery maker – or teacher. The Masters of the guild collectively managed the craft, deciding who could practice it, where they could practice it, and even what prices they could charge for their wares.
From time to time, a journeyman artisan would seek the approval of the guild to become a Master, desiring to set up his own shop with his own apprentices and journeymen. As part of the process of getting the approval of the guild for this plan, he would be required to produce an especially fine and technically demanding piece of work demonstrating that he had the required skills to be recognized as a Master – a Masterwork, in short. The Doctoral Dissertation with which we are now familiar was originally just such a work, produced by a journeyman and evaluated by a committee of masters.
The relationship between Master and journeyman was and was understood to be reciprocal, although not of course one of equals. The journeyman owed obedience and loyalty to the Master, and through him to the Guild, but the Master in his turn owed to the journeyman tutelage, guidance, and material support.
The job crisis at the university level in the Humanities and also in some branches of the Social Sciences has made it difficult, indeed on occasion impossible, for newly minted PhDs to find tenure track jobs [if I may descend to the jargon of the moment.] Many departments around the country have responded by reducing the numbers they admit to doctoral programs, seeking conscientiously not to accept more applicants than they can reasonably hope to place. Other schools [and Columbia, I believe, is one] have not been so carefully self-denying. Columbia, in particular, has actually solved two problems at once by creating what it calls Preceptorships, two or three year terminal post-doctoral teaching positions in the College. A word of explanation is called for.
The jewel in the crown of Columbia’s undergraduate program is a ninety-nine year old course called Contemporary Civilization, or CC, which, somewhat paradoxically, is an intense year-long romp through the Great Books of Western Civilization that touches on just about everything except contemporary literature. Over the past century, CC has metastasized into a set of General Education requirements that eats up a sizable portion of every student’s first two years. Now, part of the deep educational commitment of Columbia is the teaching of these materials in small discussion sections of 22 students or so, and since every undergraduate must take them, Columbia mounts 62 sections of CC every semester.
This is an enormous pedagogical commitment, requiring large numbers of instructors. The original idea, of course, was for senior faculty to devote endless hours to teaching the Great Books to freshmen [and, latterly, freshwomen], but it will come as no surprise, I am sure, that it has become more and more difficult to persuade faculty to engage in this great pedagogical enterprise. Advanced graduate students can pick up some of the slack, but even that is insufficient. The solution: offer to the new PhDs who cannot get real teaching jobs a two or three year stint as grunts covering the CC classes the faculty do not want to teach. You can pay them a pittance, since they are now unfit for any other sort of work and still long to get on a tenure track somewhere. What is more, when the three year contract runs out, the senior faculty can say, righteously, “You are on your own. We gave you your first post-doctoral teaching job, and besides we have a new crop of PhDs who need out attention.”
Thus, the thousand year old implicit contract between the Masters and Journeymen of the Academy has been broken. The university has ceased to be a guild and has become a modern corporation. The undergraduates are now the customers, the graduate students are the labor force, the senior faculty are middle management, and the Administration is the senior management and board of directors.
Under these circumstances, unionization makes perfectly good sense.