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Dear Mr. Coatsworth,

As a graduate teacher in the Undergraduate Writing Program, I found this email to be offensive, tone-deaf, and derogatory toward the work of graduate students. You repeatedly call graduate workers “student assistants,” a term that perilously underestimates the integral contributions of graduate workers on this campus, which are often made without the direct guidance of a professor. We are not simply students and “future” scholars. We are scholars now. We are researchers now. Our work is showcased in academic journals; our teaching methods are presented at conferences. We instruct Columbia undergraduates both independently and in tandem with full-time professors.

Yet you insist that “the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.” Teaching one’s own class is surely ordinary terms of employment, but even for those graduate workers who assist full professors: Are there not fully compensated assistant positions in the real world? Are there not apprenticeships in which the apprentice is fully “employed,” but simply learning the parameters of the job before he or she dives in? In fact, I would bet that most jobs have this system. Surely you had a period of training time during your own career, and I would imagine you hoped for nothing less than full compensation for your efforts. Graduate students make syllabi; we grade papers; we have second jobs; we work internships; we are full-time students in addition to all of this and in return we ask simply for some dental insurance. Please bargain with us.

Provost Coatsworth, you work hard to paint the National Labor Relations Board as an inconsistent government body, while the Columbia administration, you say, has been consistently adamant in its protestations against unionized labor. Consistency, I would aver, is not equivalent to morality; consistency is not truth, it is not right, it is merely steadfast. Under the criterion of consistency, one might say that the consistent oppression of women throughout time and geography should attest to its moral rightness. However, the purpose of any society, and especially any academic institution, is to progress, to improve, to move humanity forward in some way.

Bargaining with our graduate union would indeed be inconsistent with Columbia’s policies; however, it would be morally right. We voted overwhelmingly to form ourselves into a union and the NLRB approved our actions. What further evidence do you need? It would advance the Columbia community toward a more unified, peaceful state. I would never encourage my Columbia students to simply be consistent. That would be bad teaching. Instead, I encourage my students to move the scholarly conversation forward, to be bold, to be thoughtful, and to demand that the world become better for all those who live and work in it. I would ask the same of you, Provost Coatsworth, and from all of the Columbia administration. Do you enjoy your dental insurance? If you do, please bargain with us, so that we may enjoy the same rights to hygiene as you do.

Most respectfully,

Shelby Wardlaw

The author is a graduate student teacher in the Undergraduate Writing Program, as well as an MFA candidate in creative writing.

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Graduate Student Workers Unionization Worker's Rights
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