March 10, 2017

Letter to the Editor: On the essential labor of graduate employees

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To the Editor:

In the March 3, 2017 Graduate School Announcements email’s “Ask a Dean” feature, there was a featured question asking what would happen if graduate employees decided to strike. In her response to this question, Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth, wrote, “Very few undergraduate courses have a graduate assistant as an instructor of record, so it is unlikely that many, if any, classes would stop due to the absence (on strike) of graduate assistants, but such a situation has not occurred before at Cornell so it is hard to predict what the full set of consequences would be.” I write today as a graduate employee teaching a first-year writing seminar, an active participant in shared governance at Cornell and proud supporter and member of Cornell Graduate Students United to affirm the essential labor of graduate employees belittled and erased by Knuth’s response.

Even if we follow the scope of Knuth’s response and only focus on teaching assistants, it must be recognized that the labor provided to Cornell University by graduate employees is absolutely essential to its daily functioning and ability to fulfill its educational mission. Full stop. No qualifiers.

To use my own department as an initial example: The English department is offering 52 sections of first-year writing seminars this semester. Of these, 31 are taught by graduate employees still pursuing their degrees, 12 are taught by non-tenure track lecturers who have recently completed their degrees as Cornell graduate students and are temporarily employed by the university and nine are taught by faculty.

So not counting those lecturers who only have temporary employment post-degree, 60 percent of the first-year writing seminar courses in the English department are taught by graduate students, which is actually lower than the university average according to the Knight Institute, which coordinates the first-year writing seminar program, and claims on its website that two-thirds (67 percent) of all first-year writing seminar courses on campus are taught by graduate employees.

Imagine what would happen if graduate students decided to strike. That would mean that fully two-thirds of first-year writing seminar courses across campus would not meet. And I must emphasize that first-year writing seminars are not electives; if undergraduates can’t complete their required first-year writing seminar then they cannot earn their degrees and cannot graduate. Therefore, without the labor of graduate employees, it would be literally impossible for Cornell to fulfill its educational mission without drastically restructuring its labor model or degree requirements. To say that “it is unlikely that many, if any, classes would stop due to the absence of graduate assistants” is a blatant disregard for this essential labor graduate employees provide. It is a giant middle finger to graduate students that disrespects the labor we contribute to this community. And it is untrue.

And this is only the impact on first-year writing seminars, since those are what I know best. But similar things about who does the teaching and grading could be said about the language courses at Cornell. There is also the essential labor of graduate TAs of lecture courses who supplement lessons, tutor students and spend hours and hours grading. For one example, as my colleagues in math tell me, First-Year Calculus could not be taught without graduate students. Tenure-track faculty at an RI institution like Cornell do not have the time to do all of the labor required to successfully teach many of the large lecture courses at Cornell without TAs.

Simply, Cornell would cease to function as we know it if graduate employees withheld our labor. Whether or not one agrees strategically or politically with striking, it is simply false to say that a graduate employee strike would have a minimal, if any, effect on course delivery. Our labor is too essential to Cornell for such a claim to hold any weight. And quite frankly, we deserve more respect than that.


—Jesse A. Goldberg, grad