(Opinion) On Monday morning, I marched in the streets of New Haven with thousands of members of my union and our allies, calling for Yale to begin contract negotiations. Then I put my cap and gown on over my orange union t-shirt, and went to receive my PhD.
I’m a member and an elected leader of Local 33 – UNITE HERE, the union for graduate teachers at Yale. And I’m a historian of medieval Spain. In my six years at Yale, I’ve worked for my union and I’ve worked for my PhD. I think I’ve earned both.
In February, we voted to form a union in my department and seven others. Local 33 was certified by the federal government as our representative. But Yale has ignored its legal obligation to begin negotiations with us. Instead, the university has sought to create legal delays so it can get its appeal heard by Donald Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, likely to be seated this summer. So we’ve spent the last month resisting—with an occupation of a central plaza on campus, petitions, picket lines, marches, acts of civil disobedience, and, at the center of it all, a group of teachers fasting.
Commencement, when we graduate, is the most important symbolic day for the university. We’re part of Yale, and it’s important for us to be visible.
For fifteen years, I’ve worked to be a medieval historian. I decided where to go to college based on where I could best pursue this path. I started studying the six languages I’d need for this work as soon as I got to college at age eighteen.
I knew that Yale would be the best place to go for my PhD. While here for the last six years, I’ve gotten to do exciting, difficult research. In the sources I use—notarial records from 700 years ago—reading every word is a puzzle. The reward, though, is admission to the everyday lives of people, particularly women, in the distant past. Through my research, I’ve learned about how medieval Christians and Jews thought about women’s work. It’s vital to understand this if we want to understand gender today. For example, in one study, a historian proved that the wage gap between women and men was the same in medieval England as today. This finding shatters any idea we have of inevitable advancement for women over time—it shows gender inequality in completely new light.
Now, though, there’s no next step. After I graduate tomorrow, I’ll have nowhere to go. I applied for forty full-time positions for next year, and I didn’t land any—despite what my advisors say is as strong a record as one can hope.
The only thing that’s unusual about my position is that I even got close. Every year, thousands of people across the country finish PhDs and have no stable employment waiting for them. Nearly three-quarters of the college teaching workforce is now working on a short-term or contingent basis.
Yale would cut my wages if I stayed. It’s a strategy that makes me vulnerable to other low-wage employers, and it’s working. Come fall, I’ll join the ranks of short-term, part-time faculty. I’ve lined up two classes to teach at nearby colleges, which will bring in about $9,000 altogether. With luck, I’ll get a third gig.
I’ve loved my time at Yale. I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a researcher, and I think I’ve had a real impact on students I’ve taught. Medieval history is a great subject for students to learn critical thinking in general, because the material always seems both relatable and alien at once. Students come in thinking the Middle Ages were like Game of Thrones, and they have to learn to set aside preconceptions and genuinely struggle to understand the people they’re studying—a tremendously rewarding enterprise for them and for me.
I’ve been preparing for this for years. I’m good at what I do. And I’m being cast aside. For me, Commencement may well spell the end of a career, not the beginning.
Yale, the second-wealthiest university in the world, is hastening academia’s race to the bottom. It’s pushing desperate PhDs into an already-flooded labor market with wage cuts. And although Yale College is set to grow by 15 percent, Yale won’t hire any new permanent faculty. Instead, it’s going to increase everyone’s current workloads and plug the gap with more short-term (“non-ladder”) hires. “The majority of additional teaching needs created by the Yale College Expansion will be met by hiring additional faculty into non-ladder ranks,” explains a Yale Faculty Senate report. “The Senate is concerned about the additional burden that increased class sizes, student mentoring, and advising duties will place on members of the non-ladder faculty who are already doing work that is not part of their job description and for which they receive no additional compensation, a situation compounded by job insecurity, low recognition, and relatively low salaries.”
With its wealth and status, Yale has more freedom of action than anyone else in this system. Its leaders could decide to stem the tide of insecurity in today’s academia and economy. What if Yale negotiated contracts with its graduate teachers? What if it expanded the ranks of its full-time faculty? What a new beginning that would be, a Commencement worthy of the name. In my blue and my orange, I dud my best to bring that Yale into being. I hope the university will see fit to join me.
posted by: Resident on May 22, 2017 10:28am
Is this from the Onion? “Student of the History of Medieval Spain finds job market challenging”
No? She’s serious? Really?!?
Ok here goes-
Studying medieval Spain is not a career it’s a hobby. Something you do on your own time. For enjoyment. For free. The fact that you devoted your time to this hobby rather developing actual job skills that will enable you to support yourself is nobody’s fault but your own. Perhaps Yale is partially to blame for offering such frivolous pursuits of study in the first place.
Who are not to blame are all the people trying to get to work in the traffic mess these spoiled brats have created with their collective tantrum.
These career students have made poor life choices and now wish to take it out on the rest of us.
The Everybody Gets a Trophy generation gets uglier by the week.
posted by: Noteworthy on May 22, 2017 11:07am
Let Them Eat Cake Notes:
1. You chose a major with extremely limited and specialized job opportunities. That’s on you, not Yale.
2. If all these PhD(s) are graduating with no jobs and limited prospects, one has to wonder if we have too many of them, or if what they’re studying is useless as a practical matter.
3. You are incorrect that Yale has a legal obligation to negotiate. That’s just a union talking point, the basis of which is false. Yale has a right to appeal. It is doing that and until the appeal is perfected, there is zero legal or moral obligation to negotiate.
4. As to your reasoning that the appeal is designed to rest in front of a Trump laced National Labor Relations Board - who will vote against the union is a stretch on both fronts. Do you have any documentation from Yale that this is their thinking?
5. As a final observation - why is your choice of major and an inability to get a decent paying job in your major somehow a responsibility of Yale to then hire you or expand its full time workforce?
posted by: theNEWnewhaven on May 22, 2017 11:17am
You chose to come to this town to get a degree, which is free, from one of the strongest institutions in the world.
That alone, the fact that they’ve provided you with this opportunity, waved the tuition, and are PAYING you on top of it….should be MORE than enough.
Yale, please don’t fold. You have thousands and thousands of people who would LOVE to have these graduate student’s positions.
They knew what their degree entailed when they signed on. Don’t become a joke anymore than you already are, Yale.
There are centralists, conservatives, and realists everywhere- start hiring and taking them on to even the playing field. Diversity includes THOUGHT and THEORY.
You need some right in your toxic left world.
ALSO, WHY are these students representing the city? Alders should have to be living in the city for more than five years before they can get the position. They push their agenda and then move on for real locals to clean up what they’ve made of this town. NO MORE!
posted by: OhHum on May 22, 2017 4:19pm
And you wanted to go to another institution of higher learning to teach and mentor on the the History of Medieval Spain so that other students could graduate without the possibility of employment? You then have the gall to blame Yale and other institutions for offering these studies? You’re an adult now. This will not be the biggest mistake you make in life. Look at the bright side. You now have experience in research, you can use it not to make the same mistake again.
posted by: RedBear on May 22, 2017 5:41pm
Thank you for writing this. I support the protest and the meaningful work you do.
How many have considered how much peoples citations from history are just cheap and wrong. We need people to decipher the past to help us understand our world. Why would Yale accept a student if their wasn’t information to be uncovered?
Any people who say there’s no need for history PHD’s need to look at a history book. How many students literally know shit about history because the book companies don’t consult people who are experts in it?
I can’t believe people are arguing that history shouldn’t exist because it’s hard to pay workers enough. Do you all realize how reactionary you are?
Meanwhile people like Milo Yiannopolous get 6 figure book deals to write dribble that can be debunked in a 3 minute google search.
Thank you for all you have uncovered historically!
posted by: moegardner64 on May 22, 2017 5:50pm
Why do anti-union folks seem to confuse the right to negotiate with getting something for nothing? Follow the trends of wages and workers’ rights as unions have lost footing in our corporations-are-people economy. Yale, though not a corporation often follows the “do more [work] with less [people we have to pay] mentality of a corporation. Yale should be leading the way with lux et veritas in offering career opportunities for PhD’s and others.
posted by: win win on May 25, 2017 8:30pm
If you care about Yale, I feel you care about the future of the academy, if you care about higher ed in general, then you ought to support adjunct and TA unionization drives, like Local 33’s. Research, scholarship teaching and learning - the core missions of Univerities- are in jeopardy. Schools like Yale, governed by Wall Street boards of directors, are rushing to become businesses- diploma factories cutting tenure tracked positions and bringing in armies of low wage adjuncts. Who benefits from this corporate model of higher ed? Not students. Not faculty. Not society as a whole. It’s a Walmart approach to University and it MUST BE STOPPED