Grad Student Employment and Institutional Batshittery

As often happens in the careers of graduate students and academics, I encountered a bit of institutional batshittery at my university this summer, institutional batshittery that I was going keep off this blog, because some part of me felt that complaining about it was inappropriate, but Tenured Radical’s brilliant post (via Historiann) on overwork and exploitation within the academy has inspired me to put this turd of a situation right out there and call it what it is.  TR and the blog commenters highlight the pressure to overextend oneself, a pressure that tends to be particularly acute for vulnerable employees from underrepresented fields:  the adjunct who takes on more than her fair share because there might be a full-time position opening up next year, the instructor in Native or Queer Studies who feels the need to allow more students into his class or take on more advisees because he’s one of only two professors doing what he does, or the “girl” at the committee meeting who volunteers for every project in order to avoid the awkward silence and the disappointment of the chair.

TR’s point is that the modern dysfunctional university system thrives on people who are willing to overextend themselves, who are willing, in fact, to set aside the activities necessary to actually building a successful academic career in order to do the work that the university needs done (advising, writing recommendations, serving on search committees, reading applications, etc.) but that holds no opportunities for advancement, prestige, or remuneration:

Worse, the generative political urgency in the various fields that make up American Studies, Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies often moves us to throw our personal energy at immediate needs that are actually the result of long-term institutional dysfunction that our sacrifices help to maintain. Don’t make up for the deficiencies of the institution by taxing yourself. Don’t. The academic world is littered with broken and bitter people behind who thought that institutional neglect was only temporary.

Graduate students face this dilemma as well.  ABDs in particular are told that their first and primary concern is finishing their dissertation.  But let’s not kid ourselves:  graduate students supply an ample, inexpensive, and often quite eager supply of labor for the university.   Graduate students teach introductory classes, grade papers for the faculty, sit in the archives transcribing stuff for their professors, and checking the mail of advisors who are doing invited lectures abroad.  Yes, this is part of our “apprenticeship,” but it is also a job.  Let me just say that one more time:  it’s a JOB. Yet graduate students are often conditioned to think of this labor not as a job that they may enjoy and for which they will also be justly compensated but a privilege for which they must simply be thankful because we rejected 9 of 10 applicants in the year you got in. And very often we are encouraged to think of this work as something we should be happy to do for free.

Here is one small example before I get to the big one, but I must surround it with layers of disclaimer before we proceed.  I work in an English department at a major state university that is, by the standards of English departments at major state universities, lavishly well-funded and strongly committed to the careers and overall well-being of their graduate students.  We have a Graduate Advisor–who will play a heroic role in the sob story I’ll get to in a little bit–and a group of faculty that are nothing short of phenomenal in their grasp of the issues that graduate students face.  That said, this English department resides within a massive bureaucracy that doesn’t necessarily share their commitments or give them the resources to fulfill them.  In fact, due to a recent budgetary clusterfrack, this massive bureaucracy now taketh away quite a lot more than it giveth at the moment.  There used to be a pedagogy course that first year TA’s could take concurrent with their first teaching assignment, in which they got to work three hours a week for credit with their faculty supervisor, learning methods for leading classroom discussions and grading and developing their own teaching philosophy, and whatnot.  As of this year, that class is being cut, and last May they announced that it would be replaced with a system in which current experienced Assistant Instructors (all graduate students) will mentor new TA’s.  On one level, that sounds like the sort of program that I might volunteer for if I were asked. But I was not asked.  This extra hour or three of work per week was simply added to my job description, and we are not even getting cost of living raises this year. Furthermore, new TA’s will be taking the standard full load of courses and working as a teaching assistant without the benefit of close faculty mentorship.

Now, to the credit of my department, I think someone realized that this was a little effed up, as we’ve been getting emails asking for volunteers for a mentorship program that sounds pretty similar, and no one has broached the topic of required mentoring since that May meeting.  Or that could be wishful thinking on my part.

That’s a small example.  But about a month ago, I was given the sort of reminder about how the university views my status at this institution that made me start perusing for full-time jobs requiring editing skills and good time management.  Since last June, I’ve been working as a part-time research assistant for a professor who is very well known in his field.  Some would think of this as a pretty plum job in terms of the c.v. line and the recommendation that I’m going to get for the job market, but let me just repeat:  this is a job.  This is work for which I deserve to be compensated (I have to repeat that to myself like a mantra), not merely another educational opportunity for which I should merely be grateful.  This work that I have done for this professor has been crucial to the publication of a monograph which will confer more status on this professor and this university.

Here’s the thing, though:  research assistants at my university are not given tuition assistance.  During the fall and summer, my tuition was semi-covered because I also had a part-time teaching position.  However, in the summer, most departments employing research assistants do a little trick in order to ensure that research assistants don’t have to enroll for a class and pay tuition during that term.  They appoint them as a Student Technician rather than a GRA.  GRA’s have to pay tuition.  Student Tech’s don’t.  It isn’t really clear why.  Last summer, there was no issue appointing me as a Student Tech.  None at all.  I made my measly $700 a month and got a lot done on my dissertation thanks to the flexible work schedule and the fact that we had enough in savings (my husband, a high school teacher, is paid over 12 months as well) to cover the deficit created by the cut in pay between summer and the rest of the year.

In June, however, (the day before my sister’s wedding, in fact), I was notified by the admin in the department that was hiring me (not English) that my appointment as a Student Tech did not go through, that the university was forcing me to take the GRA title, enroll in a conference course, and fork over $1500 in tuition and fees.  Let’s run down all of the absurdities of this situation, shall we?

  • The conference course that I would have registered for would have been the same conference course that all dissertation writers register for.  It’s not actually a course.  It’s just trading emails and having a meeting or two with your advisor, which I would be doing whether or not I was actually enrolled.  I would be paying tuition and fees and receiving no instruction. I would just be paying to work.
  • I was informed of this two weeks after the job had technically begun.  Had I known about the problem ahead of time, I could have applied for a teaching assistant job in my home department, which would have come with tuition assistance (and better pay).  By waiting so long to notify me, they effectively prevented me from obtaining any other employment at the university.
  • The basis of the denial was that this work would somehow interfere with my progress toward the degree.  That’s bullshit.  Asking me to pay this much in tuition would have meant getting an extra job at Starbucks or something, which would have interfered with my progress toward the degree a hell of a lot more.
  • The university insisted that this had always been their policy, but they had just never audited it until this year.  This is also bullshit.  As it later turned out, three GRAs in the institutionally savvy English department also got screwed.  This end-run around the summer tuition issue had been common practice long enough that new admins in each department were instructed to do it as part of their job training.

This was, in every sense of the word, a shake-down, an attempt to avoid paying employees by exploiting the slipperiness of the terms job and education, student and employee as they are applied to people in graduate programs, redefining their status whenever it’s convenient.  As employees with jobs, we would be entitled to something.  As students getting an education, we should merely be thankful for the learning opportunities provided by working with such excellent faculty.  As students, we should me in awe of the opportunities such contacts will give us on the job market (not that I have any illusions that knowing one famous professor is a ticket to a plum job or any job at all for that matter).  I can very well imagine a situation in which a graduate student would be told by her boss, by the hiring department, and her graduate adviser that she should  be so very grateful, that this work she is doing is part of her education, not her job.  Luckily, I was not in that situation.  Luckily, my boss, the hiring department, and the Graduate Advisor in my home department collectively pitched a fit, writing letters to the Dean and getting the decision reversed for myself and the other research assistants who had had the rug pulled out from under them.

I am immensely, indescribably thankful that they went to bat for us, but truthfully, I am galled that they even had to.  I am galled that my subsistence this summer depended entirely on a) working for people who get that graduate students can’t feed, clothe, and shelter themselves with a dissertation, and b) were institutionally savvy enough to fix the problem.  And truthfully, there was a little voice in my brain, the “girl” voice that kept saying that I really should be willing to do this work for free, that all jobs have problems, that I really am very very fortunate to be working with this person and to be in this program AT ALL, and after all I’m not so bad off considering I have spousal support, and OTHER graduate students would probably be thankful for this opportunity, and NO.

If other graduate students are willing to do this sort of work for free and just be “thankful,” STOP.  The truth is that if I hadn’t appealed to all of these people, if I had just sucked it up and worked essentially for free, it would be sending the message that universities can get away with this sort of thing.  NO.  STOP.  Ironically, the most politically significant thing I could have done in that situation might actually have been going and getting a full time job at Starbucks, and screw the university’s time-to-degree and attrition statistics. Now, that might have been a little bit like cutting of my nose to spite their face, but hey, I’d have more money at pretty good health coverage, and knowing myself, I’d probably still finish my dissertation in due time.  The truth is that the academic labor market–and we really need to include dewy-eyed 22-year old grad school applicants (like I was) when we talk about that labor market–is not only oversaturated, it is oversaturated with people who are willing to put up with crap, who are willing to do their jobs for little or no money, who are willing to buy into the idea that they should just be grateful for this opportunity to learn and work in such an enchanted place.  Yes, there are unethical and exploitative and morally horrifying employment situations all over the place, but I’m pretty sure that even Wal-Mart doesn’t charge you $1500 just to walk onto the property.

14 thoughts on “Grad Student Employment and Institutional Batshittery

  1. I found your blog through Shakesville. One of my professors talked about something that might be a solution. When he was in grad school, the graduate teaching assistants unionized. I’m not sure how he did it, but I’m sure there are unions out there at other schools you can get advice for. It may not be something you have the time and inclination to do, but if it is, it might help make changes.

    1. We actually do have a union! It has been very effective at getting graduate students here things like health insurance. We also have a very effective Graduate Student Assembly (Student Government for grads). And that is why, I suspect, the university used this back door way of enacting this policy–claiming that it always was a policy even though no one knew about it and it was never enforced. I would liken it to how credit card companies make changes to your policy and send notice of said change in a non-descript envelop that’s likely to be ignored and then charge you some whopping fee for violating the new agreement.

      1. Wow, that’s really awful of your school. I hope that some action can be taken to get them to stop doing that.

  2. Hi there,

    I really understand your situation being a recent PhD myself. I was at an R1 public institution and grad students were unionized, but there were abuses nonetheless. I did a LOT of free translation for one professor when I was trying to finish my thesis. I really recommend Mark Bousquet’s website and book about the realities of the academic job market–very eye-opening. Bousquet agrees with you that grad students are workers. He also calls new PhDs the “waste product” of the system. Getting a degree is, after all, the end of an academic career (on the tenure track anyway) for 2/3 of new PhDs now (and I fear the number is higher than that for women).

    Also, if you’ve never done so, give the Academic Jobs Wiki a read. I find the “venting page” as well as the links on the main page very interesting–and it all rings true with my own experience on the “market” that isn’t one.

    My personal history sounds like the phenomenon you’re describing. I’ve done visiting and adjunct work since 2008, in both positions being compelled to act like a full time, tenure track faculty member with less pay and no job security. My husband (also an academic, but on TT) and I lived in different cities for two years trying to make the career work. Academia demands a lot of sacrifices–more than I’m willing to make. I’m pretty certain I’m ditching academia for another field, probably hs teaching so I can continue to use my pedagogy training.

    In short, academia is not a healthy career track, but at least you know BEFORE you take a temporary job in an undesirable place hoping that the system will change. Individuals still get lucky. My husband’s experience was very good–he’s a good researcher and has excellent interview skills, but some luck was still involved. I know of other individuals who’ve gotten satisfactory tenure-track jobs. Those who haven’t are simply more numerous. I really wish I could turn the clock back four years and read Bousquet’s book and the wiki. What I really regret is spending years blaming myself (is it my interview skills? do I simply not look like a tenure-track hire?) for a systemic problem.

    Feel free to email me if you want to chat about these issues!

    1. Great comment! My first year in grad school, my TA supervisor had us all read Michael Berube’s The Employment of English, which really opened my eyes about the exploitation of graduate labor and the horrors of the job market. As hard as alot of that news was to hear, I’m glad I’ve been able to walk through the subsequent years with my eyes more or less open.

      Interestingly, one of Berube’s recommendations for academics who are unable to find remunerative and satisfying work at the university level is teaching high school, which gets a bad rap and isn’t considered to be “prestigious” but can be tremendously professionally rewarding and offers job security unknown to the adjunct ranks. Furthermore, there’s a real opportunity to “make a difference” as they say. My partner has taught high school for 10 years, so I’ve been able to witness its benefits first-hand. That option is most definitely on the table for us. We’ve even talked about teaching high school overseas for a few years. What fun that would be!

  3. I am also an English graduate student at a state university. I am continually amazed at the shady things my school will do to people. We have a union, in which I’m very involved, but I think it means I hear about more of the university’s abuses and makes me more bitter. But someone definitely has to fight for grad students. The attitude you describe where people just feel grateful for the experience they’re getting is so common. It’s difficult to convince some students that they’re workers as well and that they need to defend their rights as workers. It’s awesome that you stood up to your university and made them treat you fairly. And thank goodness for great professors who will go to bat with and for you.

  4. Found your blog via Feministe’s Shameless Self-Promotion, and I just wanted to thank you for your efforts to not just vent but to provide straightforward advice for incoming grad students. I’m probably going to apply to grad school, though stories like this scare me, and it makes me feel better to be prepared.

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