Our working conditions are your learning conditions

For the last four years I have worked for Tufts in the English Department as graduate student lecturer. This means that like the other 30-plus PhD. students in my department, and many other graduate students on this campus, I have taught a series of full-credit, required undergraduate courses — specifically English 1 and 2 — while pursuing my own studies at the same time.

My responsibilities as a grad student lecturer have included researching for course ideas and texts as well as pedagogical strategy, developing and adapting course schedules and syllabi, discussing and debating classroom ideas with my fellow English lecturers and professors, constructing thoughtful essay assignments, preparing and running class-room discussions, meeting with students during (and often outside of) office hours, returning email from students at every odd hour of the day and night, as well as commenting in writing on student papers, and yes, of course, grading student work. All and all, the work of preparing, teaching, and evaluating that teaching involves, has run around 20 hours per week over my graduate career (with some weeks more intensive than others).

For this workload — and though I love many aspects of teaching, especially challenging students to think deeply about their own writing and the world around them, I still recognize it as the necessary, intensive, and highly skilled work that it is – I have been paid an annual salary of around $10,000 (for two courses/year). This rate held until last year, when, in response to the graduate student union movement, of which I’ve been a member, the Tufts raised this ‘minimum’ pay level for PhD TAs to $12,600 yr. Master’s candidates who TA, however, continue to make far less than this, while PhD. students in other departments, such as drama have been handed a dramatically increased workload to go along with their $12.6K.

Such salary levels have been difficult-to-impossible to live on, especially in the Boston-area, which has been rated the country’s third most expensive city. Even with full-time summer work, I have rarely cracked $20,000/yr. at any time during the last five. Like many graduate students I have responded to this economic pinch in a variety of ways. I have budgeted; lived with multiple roommates in often cramped quarters; lived on pasta sauce and leftover pizza from departmental functions, going without the recommended servings of fresh vegetables for months at a time.

Unable to afford the insurance package which Tufts offers (with Tufts health fee included this package comes in around $1500/year, or more than 10 percent of my total Tufts income), I have gone without health insurance for as long as a year, before — on a doctor’s advice — I got smart and filed for free healthcare from Boston Medical Center’s “Boston Healthnet.” (That’s right, as a graduate student employee at Tufts — perhaps your hardworking former TA! — I actually qualified for a government subsidized program aimed to help the working poor of Boston!)

In addition to this cost-cutting, like hundreds of other graduate students, I have taken out student loans, around ten thousand dollars worth — on top of $40K in debt from undergrad years — to allow myself such luxuries as fresh veggies, an occasional night out, car repairs, a new pair of shoes — in the hopes that after finishing my dissertation here at Tufts, I will quickly slip into full-time, full-benefit, even — dare I dream — tenure track work as a university professor of literature, and hence be able to pay off my mounting loans. Of course, such full-time, full-benefit positions are growing ever more difficult to find, especially in the humanities, in part because — surprise! — nationwide, universities are getting “low-cost” grad students and part-time adjunct faculty to do a growing share of the work, without healthcare or childcare benefits.

In addition, I have also supported efforts in my own department, and at times in the GSC, to lobby for additional graduate funding, only to find again and again that the good intentions and hard work of faculty graduate directors and GSC reps, though they are met with ‘sympathetic’ eyes from the administration, fail to convince Ballou to increase support for graduate student teaching at Tufts.

In addition to all of this, however, I have also done something else, something that goes beyond individually “coping” to address the collective nature of the difficulties graduate school employees face at Tufts: I have worked alongside many of my fellow grads to form a graduate student employee union at Tufts. As a member of the ASET, The Association of Student Employees at Tufts, (see our website at www.tuftsgrads.org.) I believe that by organizing into a union of student employees, we, the graduate students employees of Tufts, can dramatically improve our working lives at this university.

Thousands of graduate student teachers and researchers, at places like NYU, U-Mass-Amherst, University of California, University of Michigan, and dozens of other schools, have already unionized, gaining a powerful voice in their work-places. Through collective bargaining with their university administrators, these graduate employee unions have won great benefits for their members, including free healthcare coverage, free childcare, higher and more equitable teaching salaries, clarified job descriptions, transparency in department hiring selections, and guaranteed access to the tools that grad students need to do our jobs well — such as access to free-of-charge computer printers and adequate teacher training. With a union, I believe that we can replicate some of these victories at Tufts.

Above all these specific material benefits, however, forming a union is about gaining a collective, democratic voice in the workplace. How we at Tufts as graduate student employees will decide to use our collective voice — what issues we work hardest to win in negotiation at the bargaining table with our administration — will be up to us grad students to decide, through internal processes that are rational, open, and democratic. This is, for me, what makes forming a union such an exciting and energizing idea. Our union will be what we make it.

“I believe it is important,” said Albert Einstein upon joining his faculty union, “indeed urgently necessary for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their economic interests, and to secure their influence in the political field.” In the spirit of Einstein, ASET continues to work at Tufts to organize graduate student intellectual workers. I welcome grad students reading this Viewpoint to contact ASET and get involved. After all, Tufts works in part because you do.

Joseph Ramsey is a PhD. candidate in the English Department, and a member of ASET, the Association of Student Employees at Tufts.