Labor Relations Board,
I am a PhD Candidate in French Studies at Brown University. As is the case in many “language” departments at Brown and throughout the country, grads in my department generally teach language classes. Though called “Teaching Assistants,” we are not assisting. We are the primary instructors for the courses we teach: we plan lessons, we show up in the classroom three to four times a week, we grade, we design activities, we hold office hours — essentially, we perform the same tasks as other teaching faculty at the university. Many of us are not new to teaching by the time we begin our doctorates, and consider it a meaningful part of the program: as language instructors, we often have the unique opportunity to cultivate students’ interest in the French language so that they might eventually pursue literary or cultural studies in the discipline, and enroll in the courses usually taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty.
My department could not function without graduate labor. On occasion, when not enough grads are available to serve as Teaching Assistants, the department is short-staffed. We are not merely receiving teaching “experience”: the university runs on our labor. I do believe that the faculty in my department recognize the important role of graduate work in the department. The NLRB must recognize this as well.
In addition, it goes without saying that a tenure-track or otherwise stable academic job with decent wages and benefits has become increasingly difficult in recent years. Because we are likely to end up in non-academic professions, PhDs can no longer be viewed as training for academic careers. PhD students are not only “in training” but are already junior researchers. It is unfortunate that current labor law does not recognize our research as work (even though we present at conferences and publish, just like professors). We also provide other crucial services to the university, such as planning conferences and serving on committees.
I am also a co-chair of the Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE) Bargaining Committee, and was previously involved as an organizer. Through my involvement in SUGSE, I can assure you that grads at Brown need better working conditions. We have grads who cannot afford healthcare premiums for their children, or pay for their own medications and medical devices. Many grads feel exploited, claiming that their TAship requires them to work above and beyond the hourly “limit.” Other grads who have experienced discrimination and harassment also report dissatisfaction with the grievance procedures currently available. For so many of us, a strong union contract that guarantees better wages and protections, and the solidarity and power that a union provides, are the only things that can truly make a difference in our working conditions. The university’s half-measures — a small bump in conference funding, the offer of a cooking class, a slight increase in dependent premium c overage — are not only insufficient, but insulting, considering the importance of graduate labor to the university.