Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hey Hey! Ho Ho! NYU Sucks.

Academia -- corporate greed in professorial robes.

As the New York Times reports, New York University is refusing to bargain with its five-year-old graduate student union. Last year, you might remember, Brown University graduate students lost a decision from the National Labor Relations Board (packed with Bush Administration appointees) on becoming the nation's second private university to have unionized grad students. NYU was the first. After the Brown decision, NYU started looking at ways to break off with the grad student union. Now they have made their "final offer" on a new contract, which the union rejected, and offered a thousand-dollars-a-year raise to anyone who breaks off from the union.

Well.

During last year's strike at UofM, I didn't cross the picket line and argued for support of the union to skeptics (even skeptical union members). At its most elemental and self-interested, the issue is this: you, as a GSRA or GSI, get what you get because the union has been fighting for you for decades. You owe it to your predecessors and successors to support the union on reasonable compensation demands, even if you don't agree with them, exactly. Put strategically, it is up to the students to work collectively to counter the significant power that the university has in setting compensation. If not for the union, it could and would be a totally unilateral negotiation. University faculties the nation over realized this long ago and organized.

Supporting graduate student unions is in fact a matter of protecting the research mission of universities and, yes, even the quality of undergraduate education, strange as it may seem. Case is point is my alma mater, Western Michigan University. At the outset of my graduate career, MSU grad students were organizing and I began advocating for WMU to do the same. WMU grad students were employees of the university and played significant roles in the research and teaching missions. Anyone who has worked in a science department knows that students run most of the experiments and do most of the bench work, where faculty members get the grants and set up the labs. In the liberal arts, grad students teach many of the classes and do the grading and give the individual attention that undergrads outside of the honors college need. My idea found no purchase and was in fact publicly rebuffed by the head of the graduate student group because the administration was already being generous with grad students.

(This person, at the very same time, was reputed to have been sleeping with the provost. It was extremely plausible [corroborated by 2 mutual friends] and the provost was summarily fired in short order for unexplained reasons. I worked at the student newspaper at the time and investigated, but both sides had signed a non-disclosure agreement and no one was talking.)

Anyway, since the economic difficulties of the state of Michigan and higher education, WMU has slashed graduate programs. In fact, my old department is no longer funding new grad students and the university is undertaking an "accelerated" assessment of graduate programs (to determine where the ax will permanently fall). Why are grad students being cut? Because they have no collective voice to stand up for their interests. Now there are no individual sections for undergraduate history courses and FULL PROFESSORS are forced to do grading and teaching of elementary writing mechanics and research methods. This is not only MORE costly (for example, having professors teach introductory courses once taught by grad students like doctoral candidates), the increase in responsibilities means that professors are LESS able to mentor and advise students, meaning a worse educational value.

Bottom line? For large universities and those emphasizing research, it makes sense for grad students to organize -- for their own interests and those of the educational project overall. More power to the NYU grad student union.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Heidi said...

Dale, do you know how the change at WMU has affected class size? While my first impulse is to cringe at your indignation about "full professors" teaching intro. classes, i do wonder how the quality of teaching has been impacted, if one person is dealing with a much larger group of students. Are they hiring more faculty?

I've been watching the NYU thing very closely, myself. I am still a little confounded by the stark difference that seems to be drawn between public and private colleges & universities. Any ideas?

Full of questions...

2:01 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

The only consequence that might decrease class size would be the hiring of more adjuncts.

Associate and full professors should be teaching 3 and 400-level courses (and grad courses, of course), where they will make better use of the generally smaller size and in-depth material. They might improve the lectures of 100 and 200 level courses somewhat, but only marginally -- there's just not that much more attention a professor can give to the material or the students in a survey course. And the grading will kill them.

Although I think it's interesting that in your department if a prof teaches a survey, that's the only course they have to teach that semester.

Anyway, re: public vs. private, I'd wager at private schools the students are better cared for and do much less teaching work (so sayeth my grad and faculty friends at the private schools [in fact, at Penn History, grad students are never in charge of courses, only assistants]). Thus, they probably do have less of a basis for organizing. However, the NLRB decided in 2004 that NYU grad students DID do enough work, so in that sense they are in the same boat as the state Us. (Maybe Brown's grad students DON'T meet that same test, but I'm skeptical of the changes to that board (based on what I read in the Chronicle of Higher Ed).

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta say, I'm with Heidi. I think senior Profs should teaching lower year classes. In many disciplines, those first and second year classes are the first, and sometimes the only, exposure a student will have to the subject. They need to be helped along and guided much more than an upper year or graduate student, because these last are beginning to develop independent ideas and beginning to understand how to do independent research. For many humanities subjects, these big early lecture classes are the only chance to pass on ideas and information to a large group of non-specialists. Later courses tend to be for a select, academic few. If a liberal arts education is to be worth anything, then these early classes are crucial.

Moreover, a well-considered,
properly explained course on, say,
ancient literature, even if it is a 2nd year survey from Homer to Virgil, seems to me to be particularly difficult to do well. It can probably be much better taught by someone senior in the field, who has a good grasp not only of the material but of the current controversies. Although a graduate student, or very junior professor can probably get through the material, they/we are still, generally, trying to see beyond the very narrow confines of their own thesis research and are probably in some ways much better prepared to teach more specialized classes to upper level students.

I don't mean that senior professors should teach all the lower year classes, but I do think that it is to the advantage, not only of the undergrads, but also of the department and the field, to have senior people teaching many of the early year undergrad courses.

Course, maybe if I started sleeping with a senior professor, I'd change my mind about that :)

Kate

10:22 AM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

The 100-level surveys I recall (American History, Global Politics, American Politics, European Culture, Philosophy) were pretty much boiler plate stuff.

American History was establishing a timeline in people's heads, along with introducing some themes and historical debates. Anyone who passed their PhD exams should be able to teach that. American Politics was retreading the nature of the three branches and bicameral legislature, then getting some into issues of contemporary politics. Global Politics was introducing schools of thought in global political analysis (balance of power vs power transition; geopolitics and realpolitik, etc). European Culture, the section was taught by the professor because it was honors, so I think that made it more in-depth and challenging. But outside of an honors college setting (which I abhor, btw), a professor should not be responsible for lecture AND discussion AND grading. Grad students have an important role.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Heidi said...

Maybe the problem is that those lower-level classes are, in the universities we are discussing, exactly as you describe them, UrbanOasis. My intro classes, which are in many ways - admittedly - a ridiculous comparison, as they had maybe 40 or 50 people at their absolute apex, were nevertheless nothing short of amazing, and were classes that upperclassmen actually took with relish, despite the fact that they were technically 'lower level'. I cannot help but think that the teaching staff - "full professors" all of them, were the main players/reason for this. And, contrary to your assertion above, they had no problem 'grading' or in my case, evaluating, based upon commensurate experience. But, enough of my progressive education schtick.

Put on the larger scale, and back in UMich context, in the History department, it seems like *some* of the Sr. faculty (Paolo Squatriti, Michael MacDonald, are the ones - medievalists - that I know of) at least are teaching the intro/intermediate classes at the lecture level (and I have heard nothing but good about their performance) and then handing over the more mundane, and (admittedly) impossible-for-one-person grunt work to the grad students. I can't help but wish that the professor participated in some discussion sections themselves... but, my dream is not to be realized. As for reality, sure, GSIs will discuss what went on in the lecture, and clarify material, etc., but I believe the role is more like advanced student, instructor and evaluator rather than expert. At least, I feel that this is the *healthy* way to look at it, as it is more closely aligned with reality. Often GSIs are learning the finer points of the material alongside their students. I'm looking forward to my own GSI experience in the fall to see exactly how this all falls out.

I agree heartily, with Kate's assessment of *why* that experience and knowledge is important. I believe, also, that some of the boilerplate stuff UrbanOasis experienced was a result of the (partially correct) perception that American high schools haven't prepared students for critical thinking in higher education. Turning college intro classes into fact-gathering missions, and 11th grade civics classes, however, is not the way to push our students, or get them interested enough in material to actually commit to a field, esp. in the humanities. It would help to have a little 'wow' factor - and a little challenge - right up front in History/polysci/philosophy 101.

12:35 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I'd say my original post and comments don't really apply to private liberal arts colleges because the institution, the student body, and the mission are different, quantitatively and qualitatively. There, it makes much sense to devote professors to lower courses, because the workload is such that they can handle it.

NYU, apparently, in the minds of the grad students and the 2000-era NLRB, fell into the "big research university" category rather than the "small private school" one (there are other categories, but these will suffice for now).

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Heidi said...

I would imagine that how NYU sees itself on this scale of "large public" to "small private", and even more importantly, how it *wants* to be seen, could have a lot to do with its treatment of its graduate students, no?

2:24 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

Since NYU bargained with the grad student union (because the NLRB said the students could organize) when it felt it had to and since NYU is now trying to bust the union (because the changed NLRB isn't as supportive of students organizing), I think they are just being greedy -- taking advantage of the shift in government support.

While they may seem to be more generous in giving another 1000 dollars a year to student instructors, that is less of a cost than we can anticipate the union to gain in benefits like health care and child care (which probably dwarf stipend costs [at least in growth]). While the public/private image difference may be influenced by collective bargaining arrangements, I still think this is about economics -- follow the money.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I heard a rumor that UrbanOasis was being watered by the union of water nymphs. This has been confirmed not only by the palm tree gardener and another banjo player, but all water nymphs have summarily, without any public explanation, been dismissed from our collective memory in short order and are now marginalized fairytale characters. If anyone doubts this rumour, just ask yourself this: Do YOU believe in water nymphs? Ha. Nothing Urban Oasis says or does can be trusted because he's clearly in the watering hole of a union. Heidi and I are right by default.

Kate

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having gone to a small regional state university, I can say that I had no GSIs for any course I took. There were some adjuncts, but mostly associate or full professors. I don't know how well the students here are prepared to write effectively, but I can tell you that, where I went to school, the profs did no spell checking, at least not in my case - you were expected to know how to write before you got there. I had a lot of individual attention and
excellent feedback - on the subject matter, not the prose. Could it be that smaller regional schools actually deliver a better educational bang? How dare I think such a thing anywhere in the vincinity of this "classy" institution! Ha!

I do, however, totally support unionization of grad assistants and think most, if not all, are very dilligent and capable and worthy of fair compensation - and actually give a damn about their students. Something I can't say about many full profs.

8:23 AM  

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