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Guest Post: Why We Work

How much of graduate students’ time is truly their own? This post confronts this question by focusing on grad students working outside of their department or the university, and thus outside of their departmental funding. The authors of this post, one MA student and one PhD candidate, have each held/continue to hold such positions, and have been actively involved in an ongoing conversation in their department about whether these forms of work are appropriate and/or necessary.
While the piece is presented as a dialogue, both authors wish to emphasize the fact that this post is building upon numerous discussions each of us have had with other graduate students, faculty members, family and friends. This blog is therefore not intended as a definitive account of the matter, but is instead an attempt to highlight and work through some of the issues of importance surrounding this debate, as well as what we see as a broader disconnect between faculty vision and student realities.
K: Graduate student employment has become a point of discussion in our department. To simplify it, some faculty members were surprised at the number of grad students working in other departments and outside the university, and expressed a desire to limit our work hours in various ways. I became concerned about the assumptions that were being made about grad students and our needs, and I wanted to extend this conversation further. The way I understand it is there is this model English grad student, with certain desires and needs and practices, that is being supported through these guidelines. But there are many ways in which this model is outdated or wholly unrealistic.

M: Kaarina, I think you’re absolutely right that what seems to be at stake here is not just existing regulations and whether they are enforced, but a broader conception of who contemporary graduate students in the humanities are, and what they want or need to work successfully.

One of the ways concern about external work has been expressed, for example, is fear about time to degree completion. And it’s not that this isn’t an issue in academics, or that most graduate students aren’t crushinglyaware of the possible consequences of not completing their projects in a ‘timely’ fashion. But why, when there are so many studies out there demonstrating that completion times are rising across the board because of the uncertainties of the academic job market and other aspects of post-degree life, should non-departmental work be singled out as a cause in this way?

And, to get back to that ideal grad student again, this suggestion that extra-departmental work can only slow us down really seems to reduce us all to one type of worker. Many of us, I think, really value our time spent working on stuff that isn’t our own project, and find that getting some distance actually makes our work easier to return to and focus on. And we know this about ourselves, because we’re competent, professional adults who have, by this point, spent a long time in school. This doesn’t mean we’re beyond the need for guidance or support, but it does mean that the idea of being told how we can or should work best is more than a bit troubling.

The department we work in also emphasizes its interdisciplinarity quite a lot. It was definitely stressed to me during recruitment, and it’s all over the department website. Many of the students in my cohort identify their work as interdisciplinary. So I would think that gaining experience in other departments and beyond the university itself, would be considered not just permissible, but…necessary, even? Maybe that’s too strong a word, but my time teaching in Writing Studies, for example, has been incredibly valuable to my project. Not to mention that experience focusing on writing instruction makes me a better teacher within my home department! It sorta feels like everyone wins, here.

There also seems to me to be a broader connection to make here between the need for interdisciplinarity and the need for departments to really come to terms with the fact that the graduate students of today are not the graduate students of yesteryear. We don’t (and can’t!) identify primarily or exclusively as researchers. And from Day 1 in graduate school, many of us have been told that this is healthy, that we can’t get attached to the idea of a tenure-track job in a context where such positions are rapidly disappearing. If the Ideal Grad Student (™), is a trope that needs to be used at all, then, it should at least be updated to account for this context. And our department is making strides in these areas in several respects; we recently hosted a series of events related to alt-ac preparation, for example. But there seems to be a disjunction between the department accepting that a broader conceptualization of professionalization is important and necessary, and the ways in which these attempts to limit graduate students’ abilities to work outside the department necessarily contradict that awareness.

K: And obviously, money is a major factor. Even when funding is good, it’s only so good, and there can be a lot of unspoken discrepancies in funding between different students or different institutions. The rhetoric of adequate funding is totally bewildering–it does not account for the different needs of students who are supporting others, paying off debts, travelling to see loved ones, or simply saving for an unpredictable future.

M: YES! The language of adequacy really tends to treat graduate school as if it exists in this completely contained vacuum. This ignores not only the areas of life that fall outside of research during the course of the degree, but also the fact that we have lives that will go on after that degree is completed, and which cannot simply be put on hold.

K: For my part, one way I managed my stress this year was by taking on a second job to eliminate financial stress altogether. I don’t have to worry about making ends meet, and that has been a huge relief. Otherwise, my relatively excellent funding would put me below the poverty line.[1]

M + K: To move beyond the level of our department, this seems to be fundamentally an issue of transparency. There is so little transparency around funding, and this manifests in all kinds of ways. In discussions with other students, for instance, we’ve noticed a recurring theme of surprising ignorance (willful or otherwise) among some faculty about how and how much their students are funded. There have also been serious issues of over- and under-payment in our department, and these mistakes are indicators that the administration does not fully understand or care how our finances function. And ultimately, these ambiguities have real, material effects here and beyond. As Zane Schwartz explains, the U of T’s strategic deployment of the language of ‘wage increase’ deliberately relied on a similar lack of transparency, and used it against its students and employees.

Put simply, our struggles over graduate student labour here are necessarily part of the dysfunctional labour scene at most universities. We hope this post can function as an invitation broaden the conversation beyond both our institution and graduate studies itself. There are, for instance, important continuities and contradictions between attitudes toward graduate student labour and approaches to contract adjunct labour.
Kaarina Mikalson is completing her MA, and she is about to defend her thesis on Canadian fiction from the Great Depression. She is the project manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War, and a research assistant for CWRC.
Megan Farnel is a SSHRC-funded doctoral candidate working in the fields of new media, affect, and materialist studies. She is blogging her dissertation over on HASTAC, and blogging some more over the summer for UAEM Alberta.

[1]According to info from Statistics Canada.
Low income cut-offs before and after tax by community and family size, 2011 constant dollars.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, 27 Jun. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

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