“Teaching is not a hobby.” So read a protest sign at a Barnard Contingent Faculty rally for a fair contract.
As an undergraduate student who plans to be a career teacher and is already working full-time at a high school, I know this to be true. Teaching is not my hobby, and it certainly isn't a hobby for Barnard's adjunct professors. Their ability to pay bills depends on their contract with the University.
But teaching is neither a side gig nor something to do once you “retire.” It is a career. It is difficult. It is, quite frankly, labor. So, why does the Columbia administration treat teaching like charity work?
Barnard's contingent faculty members receive only $5,000 base pay per course and zero benefits. Moreover, the wages of graduate students who teach seminars and lead discussion sections are capped, meaning those workers are not compensated for their hours of lesson planning.
For this reason and plenty of others, Columbia teachers are agitating for better working conditions. Right now, Barnard's adjunct professors are considering going on strike after unsuccessful negotiations with the Barnard administration for health insurance, higher pay, and reimbursement for teaching expenses, among other fair proposals. This semester, Columbia's graduate instructors, research assistants, and undergraduate teaching assistants will vote whether to unionize or to allow the Trustees of Columbia to continue making unilateral decisions regarding wages, hours, and benefits.
There are many counter arguments to unionization, most of which can be found on a slick website launched by Columbia's Office of the Provost. It is one of many University websites that strictly cast Columbia administrators as moderators rather than anti-union partisans.
There are also many arguments for unionization—job insecurity makes for a less diverse faculty and continues a long history of devaluing feminized professions—but I'll focus on what I know best, and that is teaching and learning.
Undergraduate students have a direct stake in graduate and adjunct campaigns because teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions.
I'll say that again: teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions. I want my teachers to have financial stability, health insurance and equal footing at the bargaining table not only because they deserve it, but also because it benefits me as a learner.
The less Columbia pays a graduate instructor or adjunct professor to teach, the more part-time work they must take on. That means less time to plan engaging lessons, provide thoughtful feedback, and mentor us undergraduates. Over 60 percent of contingent faculty workers report having one or more other jobs.
This is not a fringe issue. Adjunct professors are two-thirds of Barnard's faculty. Most undergraduates are taught by graduate instructors each semester. For most of these educators, teaching is a passion, but it is also a profession, and it should be treated as such.
Us teachers work hard—intellectually, emotionally, and physically. We craft questions that inspire you to question everything. We listen with patience and provide constructive criticism. We hone stories so you remember and tell your roommate. We organize materials so you can discover the knowledge for yourself. We put in several hours of planning for each hour of instruction. We prepare you to work. We make your mind a more interesting place to live. We keep track of troubled students and reach out before a crisis. We worry about you. We care about you. It is invisible labor, but we do all of it.
Or, at least, we try to. But teachers can only do their job properly under fair working conditions.
Undergraduates are key to this struggle. As the Barnard administration continues to lowball the contingent faculty union throughout the year, demonstrations of student solidarity could push the administration toward a fair contract. Especially at Barnard, where tuition funds an unusually high percentage of the university operating budget, administrators care more about undergraduates than teachers.
Pressure from Student Worker Solidarity and other undergraduate groups in the past has contributed to several wins for labor on campus. The success of campaigns by Barnard's clerical and support staff, as well as the workers in Faculty House and Butler cafe hinged on student solidarity. So will that of Columbia teachers.
There are many ways to join the fight. Follow the Barnard Contingent Faculty on Facebook or Twitter. Read updates on the negotiations and participate in the next action. Ask alumnae to sign the petition. Organize with both adjunct faculty and fast food workers in the “Fight for $15” movement.
If you are a teaching assistant, participate in the upcoming vote to recognize the Graduate Workers of Columbia. Even if you've had a positive experience as a TA, consider that unions not only improve working conditions but also maintain those that already exist.
For undergraduates who are not teaching assistants, ask your section leaders about the unionization vote. You may be a TA soon, and if they neglect to vote now, you will not have collective bargaining power with the administration during contract negotiations in the years to come. Even if you never teach, remember that teachers' working conditions are your learning conditions.
Columbia has to stop underpaying its workers, including academic ones, and respect the teaching profession. Let's build our student-teacher relationships into student-teacher solidarity.
Daniel Bergerson is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and urban teaching. He is a full-time student teacher at The James Baldwin School and an editor at Young Teachers Collective. The Red Pen runs alternate Thursdays. Read more of Daniel's work at The Dandruff Report, and follow him on Twitter @DanielBergerson.
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