Simone Weil wrote, “We are drawn toward a thing because we believe it is good. We end by being chained to it because it has become necessary.”
As summer slowly opens her doors to the countless English graduate students across the country, those of us lucky enough to be part of the community at the University of Houston feel even more relaxed, happy, and excited for our summer holiday this year, and the reason is simple: we did it!
The graduate students in the English Department at the University of Houston banded together recently and successfully appealed to the university administration about the meager stipends we were receiving as compensation for teaching two university-required English classes—a stipend that had not been raised since at least 1993.
UH Teaching Fellows were earning well below the poverty line ($9,600.00 for MFAs and $11,200.00 for PhDs) for teaching a course load comparable to a full-time faculty member. Bogged down by classroom demands, our own coursework, and the two, three, four and sometimes five other jobs many of us were forced to work to make ends meet (jobs that were technically illegal because our contracts stipulated that we were only allowed to work for the university) kept us too tired to complain.
But something changed this semester. A spark was lit and we were drawn together to speak up, to fight collectively for what we called a fair and just salary.
Not that our professors had kept quiet the last twenty years. In fact, they had been going to battle on our behalf this entire time, and had a paper trail to prove it. Memo after memo to the university administration were passed around at a meeting with the Dean and the Core Committee—the self-appointed volunteer leaders of what came to be known as the UH Teaching Fellow Revolution. From my corner chair in that particular meeting, the memos really were a physical manifestation of the level of commitment the professors at the University of Houston have for their students. It was awe-inspiring and, I thought in that moment, surely the apples don’t fall far from the trees. We were called to work together because of the example our faculty has provided time and time again.
The UH Teaching Fellow Revolution began with a petition to the administration in December 2012, followed by a letter outlining our concerns and demands in March 2013 to the President, Provost, Dean and Chair. When the letter went unacknowledged and unanswered, the graduate students, with many faculty members sitting right alongside us, staged a four-day sit-in at University Chancellor Renu Khator’s office.
The sit-in was no ordinary sit-in: we had rules, such as no talking on the phone, no loud conversations, and only professional clothing permitted. We sat on the floor and we graded our student essays. We read for our literature classes. We sat and we waited, increasingly banded together by this force that really is inexplicable, except to say that what had begun as a good idea had truly become a necessity for survival.
After a few tense meetings with the administration, local and national news coverage, and a campus enveloped in posters about our plight, our hard work paid off. The sit-in ended after President Khator allocated $1,000,000.00 to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to address the problem of our funding. The Dean then allocated $250,000.00 more to the $1 million-dollar budget, and divided this money between all of the student teachers in the College of Arts and Sciences. For the English Department, this extra money means between a 55%-61% raise for Teaching Fellows beginning this Fall 2013.
It was a moment I’ll never forget. With the click of her red nails on the oak table, President Khator changed the course of our daily lives and the future of our program. Our stipends are no longer untenable but competitive, and they reflect the quality of our writing program. I believe that by coming together, the UH English Teaching Fellows not only enacted justice, but also brought out the best in the administration and in each other. I think of the students about to graduate who had nothing personally to gain from the sit-in, but who sat doggedly from 9 am until 5 pm on the floor of the President’s office, chained to the idea that justice really can be achieved.