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Tuesday, May 1, 2018


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.


s. wallerstein said...

I agree that unionization makes perfectly good sense.

When I entered Columbia in 1964, I participated in a campaign to unionize the dining hall workers, which was not successful. The university had no interest in paying decent salaries to mostly black and latino kitchen staff and our calls for other students to boycott the Columbia dining services were generally unheeded. I myself ate a lot of yogurt and Swiss cheese sandwiches that year.

8000 dollars for a semester course does not seem like bad pay to me. New York minimum wage is 15 dollars an hour. Let's see: a semester is about 20 weeks, maybe a bit less, but let's say 20 to keep it simple. Your weekly seminar will take about two hours a week class time and maybe an hour office time, so let's say 3 hours a week for
20 weeks or 60 hours. That's 133 dollars an hour, almost 10 times the minimum wage, which is a lot more than most people earn.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am touched by your assumption that I need no time at all to prepare for a course I have never taught before, need no time to grade papers, and have the boundless energy required to fly up to New York every week [the cost of which will be paid] without any difficulty.

s. wallerstein said...

Grading papers is no fun, so I concede your point there, and if you had to teach a course on introduction to auto mechanics or even on the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (which I doubt is your cup of tea) or on the thought of Jacques Derrida, I'd say that your course preparation should be well paid.

However, from what I can see, you've spent your intellectual life preparing to teach a seminar on Mystifications of Social Reality, few are as prepared to teach such a course as you are and I also believe that you enjoy teaching people about and discussing such matters. I realize that you'll have to read up a bit on the current literature on the subject, but I imagine that that will be a pleasure for you. As a matter of fact, you yourself posted that teaching the course will be "a blast" for you.

Given that most people spend their working lives doing alienated labor, doing stuff that they dislike or even hate, given that most teachers (I've had that experience myself), are supposed to teach what the text book says and if they don't, they get fired, your teaching of the course is a privilege, one which you deserve, but then again, maybe we all deserve such a privilege, don't we?

I think that many of us would love to have the opportunity to teach what matters to us (as the course material here does to you and to Mr. Gitlin) to a bunch of intelligent young people and might even be willing to do it for a lot less than 8000 dollars a semester.

Michael said...

Haha @ Prof. Wolff's response...(Nothing against s. wallerstein, whose comments I always like to read.)

I haven't taught in a few years, but I remember seeing a job listing for the position I took at the time, which indicated a pay rate of some $30 per hour. Judging by what my employer actually paid me (about $1,600 for a course that met three hours a week for 16 weeks), the "per hour" strictly meant in-classroom hours, as in standing in front of my students and delivering lessons.

Sometimes I like to retrospectively imagine various scenarios in which I refuse to grade assignments or answer e-mails or do anything else "off the clock," because it'd have to be considered volunteer work, and volunteer work is just that. (Either that, or I request enlightenment as to how one delivers lessons AND antecedently plans lessons, and handles grading, and answers correspondence - all simultaneously.) Of course the scenarios all end with me getting fired... Or perhaps gently corrected by my superiors, who (I was essentially told!) were desperate enough to hire anyone even remotely qualified for adjunct faculty, given the terribly unattractive working conditions.

To be fair, I did see some postings which were more up-front about the pay - still sub- or barely livable, but listed as per-course. I just thought this one was "funny." And I laugh only because I was able to escape from that life; otherwise I'd be crying. I think a lot of people stick with it because, for one thing, they perhaps enjoy teaching their subject above all other work; and, for another, because lots of employers in other lines of work perceive them as un- or over-qualified.

Unknown said...

When I attended Queens College (a New York City college) in the early 1950s (semester fee $4.50), its only graduate program was a 5th year for a teaching credential. With no graduates to take lower classes, the experienced faculty taught everything. As a freshman, I had a semester on contemporary theater with John Gassner, who (it was rumored) was simultaneously teaching the graduate play-writing seminar at Columbia. I had a math class with Hans Reinich (if I remember the name correctly). I did not appreciate how much better an education I got from such experienced and practicing instructors until I transferred to the University of Michigan and encountered my first Teaching Assistant-taught class. Earnest and eager though graduate students may be, the old concept of learning from masters has validity.

DDA said...

So Wallerstein thinks one should be paid less if one enjoys the work?

s. wallerstein said...

David Auerbach,

I think that disagreeable jobs should be paid better. No one likes to clean up the dog shit in the street nor to collect the garbage, etc., and those jobs should be well paid.

I also think that if one is fortunate enough to be paid for doing something which one enjoys, which is not the case for most of us, they should count their blessings and not complain too loudly if the pay is less than they might wish to receive.

There are so many people who have to spend 40 hours a week, not to mention horridly long commuting time, with a false smile on their face for the customers and the boss, being ordered around arbitrarily by the supervisors, being sexually harassed in subtle and not so subtle ways, almost literally breaking their backs, unable to speak their minds because if they do they'll be fired, etc., etc., that it seems weird, to say the least, for those who do work which they enjoy, which promotes a social good (such as the awareness of social mystification) and which is reasonably well paid to complain.

Dean C. Rowan said...

"No one likes to clean up the dog shit in the street nor to collect the garbage, etc." Speak for yourself. I could handle those jobs, if not perhaps the colleagues with whom I'd have to work, but then that's always a risk, isn't it? At least it isn't retail sales (and yet I loved working in a record store back in the day). The job I would most despise would be restaurant reviewer, which would utterly suck the spirit of enjoyment from ordinary quotidian pleasures, such as eating. Call me privileged.

I sense a successful divide-and-conquer strategy deployed by our potential employers. The threat of terrible bosses and unbearable working conditions teaches us our place. We shouldn't complain, because things could be worse. I don't quite get that. However, I do get the concept of picking one's battles, and it seems to me that Prof. Wolff does, too.

This post, by the way, reminds me of Bill Readings' now twenty-year-old book, The University in Ruins.

Derek said...

As a person who, like Dr. Wolff, teaches, let me give a somewhat more detailed picture of the math.

I will be teaching a new course in my subject area in the near future. I quite like the topic; my dissertation was on one of the major figures; I have an extensive background in the other major figures; and I'm excited to learn about the minor figures I'll have reason to approach for the first time. It is a privilege, no doubt. But how many hours is that privilege, in my case?

Classroom time: 1.25 hours twice a week, so 2.5 hours per week.
Office hours: 1 hour per week. (I hold two actually, but my situation is different in some ways, and we'll allow the norm of one per week per class.)
Answering emails and sending out communications to students: Variable, but roughly 1-2 hours per week.
Grading: Highly variable depending on the course and the assignments, but stretched across a semester we'll say 2 hours per week for a single course.
Course preparation for a new course, which is in my area of specialization and pieces of which I've taught before: 2-4 hours per hour in the classroom. (I'd say 1 hour per classroom hour for a course I've taught before.) Knowing a subject, even mastering a subject, does not mean you know how to teach it. Teaching itself, as it was in part the point of the blog post itself to point out, is an independent craft that has its own techniques and skill requirements. Every new subject, topic, piece of material, requires an approach that must be developed and cultivated; the sheer that I know things about it doesn't do anything towards that. I could stand in a room and just repeat what I know in the stereotypical German lecture style, and call that teaching. Some people do. Granted, it would be something like teaching, in almost exactly the same way that I, with no carpentry skills, could start nailing boards together and make something like a house. You could stand in it, even live in it. The uninitiated would probably take it for a house. But that's how one builds an actual house. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not know much about college teaching, or about teaching in general.

Total: 11.5-17.5 hours per week for a new course. Which is why my tenure-line colleagues teaching three courses per semester barely have time for research, and my non-tenure-line colleagues teaching 5-6, or more, such courses do not have anything approaching a normal human life. It's a privilege, but not in the sense that being paid a hundred dollars an hour is a privilege.

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