Luck Is Not Chance

Frances Justine Post

Mar 06, 2013

There is a revolution going on in the shiny, humid halls of the University of Houston's English Department. Though it is so far a small revolution, a whispered revolution, we want it to grow and multiply, jump genre lines, departmental lines, state lines. The revolution, like many, concerns money. For twenty years, since 1993, University of Houston English Department graduate instructors have made the same salary: about $11,200 for PhDs and $9,600 for MFAs. Twenty years without a cost of living increase! 1993 is the last time the stipend amount was increased and that was only because the teaching fellows undertook a similar protest. That stipends have not been increased since then highlights an interesting fact for those of us who choose to work in the humanities: If we don't demand to be treated fairly, we will not be. When my friends started talking about rumors of a petition being written up to be submitted to the University Chancellor and President, Renu Khator, I looked at them full of doubt, frowned, and said it will never work. I said that I felt lucky to have my tuition covered. I said that I felt lucky to be making money doing something I love. I said we shouldn't rock the boat. I said we are lucky to be here, studying with glorious faculty such as Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Ange Mlinko, Kevin Prufer, Martha Serpas--and that's just on the poetry side. I said we are lucky to have each other, to learn from each other. I said we are lucky to be given a job in this economy. I said we are lucky to get teaching experience. Yes, that is all true, but you know what?
Luck is not chance-- It's Toil-- Fortune's expensive smile Is earned-- The Father of the Mine Is that old-fashioned Coin We spurned--
I was wrong. Emily Dickinson was right, and I was wrong. I was wrong on a key point. Luck is earned, and we have already earned it. That's why we are here. We, as artists, have a tendency to undervalue ourselves as much as the world undervalues us. The fact is, we are teaching as much as full professors. We are teaching classes in the core curriculum meaning every single student has to take our composition courses in order to graduate. Shouldn't this demonstrate that the University of Houston values the importance of learning to write? So why doesn't the University value the teaching fellows who are enlisted to teach? A recent Houston Press article on this situation quotes Shawn Lindsey, the university's director of media relations, as saying this:
Teaching fellows are students in the graduate program who receive a stipend as partial compensation for providing teaching support as a part of their education. These stipends are modest and not intended to serve as a living-wage salary--students are here to study, learn and work with their graduate advisers to help them prepare for their careers.
This statement implies that all teaching fellows in all departments make the same stipend. If such were the case, I might concede the point. However, at UH, teaching fellow stipends vary from department to department. In fact, teaching fellows in most colleges at UH, other than the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, make two to three times the amount that we in the English Department earn. For example, graduate student TFs in the College of Business make between $25,000 and $33,000 per year. In the College of Education: $30,000. In the College of Natural Sciences: $21,000-$23,400. If we in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences cannot possibly expect to make a living wage, why can those in other departments expect to? Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe everything will happen. But what is important is that we are demanding to be heard. For those of us who write, our voices are our art. We write loud and noisy prose. We write cutting poems. We write sentences that make you feel full of the world. We enjamb our hearts out in iambic pentameter. We say everything you ever wanted to say, but couldn't or didn't. In the confines and safety of a piece of paper, we are revolutionary. So, why do we become quiet and humble and shy when it's time to ask for what we need? No more. You will be hearing from us. In fact, won't you join us?