Labor and Contradiction in Graduate Education

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking a good bit about both academic labor and graduate education. Some of this has been prompted by our own efforts to revise our graduate program over the year or so and my role as our department’s director of graduate studies. Some of this has come from my time on the University of North Dakota’s graduate committee. And some of it, as always, has come from conversations across social media platforms and over email with friends and peers.

Finally, my graduate advisor, Tim Gregory, retired this last year and last weekend there was a nice event held in his honor at Ohio State. I’ve begun to wonder how his style of graduate education and professionalism would hold up in the modern university. Tim personified the “always on” graduate advisor and archaeological fieldwork together for close to a decade complicated the traditional advisor-student relationship. On the whole, he was a good advisor and mentor who not only gave me opportunities, but also held me accountable. His style was idiosyncratic, but the outcomes of his work and priorities were not. He wanted his students to be successful.

I’ve started to think more and more about how changes in the academic economy over time, but particularly in the last 15 years, has exposed contradictions within graduate education in the humanities. The biggest reality facing our students and our curriculum is that there are far fewer traditional tenure-track academic jobs these days particularly in history. In the place of highly stable, tenure-track positions, higher education has witnessed the rapid growth of contingent faculty labor, and the disparity between the traditional stability, reasonable pay, and benefits of tenure track positions and the precarity of contingent faculty who often string together a series or one or two class contracts to make a living, typically without benefits or year-to-year stability, has thrown into high relief the potential for exploitation in the academic market. This has prompted more than simply criticisms of the use of contingent positions within academic market, but also supported renewed scrutiny of labor practices among graduate students and the tenure track.

Greater attention to labor in academia has also contributed to ongoing efforts to advance the larger professionalization project in the humanities. In particular, these efforts have sought to protect contingent faculty, early career scholars, and graduate students from the power imbalances that characterize their relationship with tenured faculty. The professionalization process has also sought to identify and root out long-standing discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class. These are good and important processes that will create a better and ideally fairer academic culture.

They have also produced some intriguing tensions in conventional academic rhetoric and practices that have troubled me as we’ve sought to revise our curriculum and as I have reflected on my own trajectory through academic life.

In history, we often say with all good intentions that we learn as much from our students as they learn from us. I would contend that this is even more true in graduate level courses. In fact, the seminar, which remains the basic form of graduate level instruction in the humanities, embodies this maxim by encouraging faculty and students to engage with sources together. Recent efforts to encourage faculty-student research draws on the spirit of the seminar and recognizes that by working alongside one another both the student and the faculty mentor will learn from each other and advance knowledge. In theory, this is all good and loosely parallels my experience working with graduate students both in the classroom and in the field.

At the same time, the idea that faculty can learn and benefit from work with students reveals how deeply we have internalized exploitative practices in higher education. The difference, of course, between a faculty member learning something from a graduate student and a graduate student learning something from faculty is that faculty can monetize their learning by publishing articles or even books which are, in turn, rewarded by their institutions. Of course, ethical faculty will share credit with their students depending on their contribution. In some cases it is appropriate to co-author a paper and, in others, it may be enough simply to recognize their contribution in an acknowledgements. Either way, there remains a significant difference between how the two parties can monetize this work and this knowledge.

In the old days, we might defend the seminar by saying that we’re preparing students for professional positions in academia where they would be free to monetize the knowledge that we co-created in seminar to their benefit.  With fewer faculty positions available and even fewer tenure-track positions that allow scholars to monetize their research, the future promise of the rewards of a student’s intellectual labor seems less likely.

I’m not proposing that we discard the seminar or that learning for the sake of learning isn’t a noble and to some extent, inevitable product of graduate education. What I’m trying to say is that the current labor situation in academia recasts in a new, and not entirely flattering light, the commonplace saying that both faculty and students learn in seminar. Even if all learning is equal, the opportunity to monetize this learning is not.

The vagaries of the current job market do more than complicate our rhetoric, however. Most graduate faculty in the humanities would claim that our primary responsibility is to prepare our students for the academic job market. This involves all manner of academic, intellectual, practical, and professional mentoring. It presupposes not only the existence of a market, but that we understand how it works. In general, there is an assumption that while the market it competitive, professionalization processes have ensured that the market is increasingly fair. The best students still have a chance to get good jobs.

I’m skeptical of this logic. As the market has contracted, the potential for a good student to get a good job has become increasingly random. The calls for graduate programs also to prepare our students for any number of “alt-ac” jobs is an obvious response to the scarcity of academic jobs and the vagaries of the market. Of course, the argument that preparing our students for alt-ac jobs itself is predicated on the murky logic that existing graduate programs both impart transferable skills that make PhDs appealing for a wide range of jobs, while at the same time programs could offer more opportunities for students looking to prepare for jobs outside the academic job market. Encouraging a history student to take a few GIS classes that might complement their existing coursework is one thing. Nudging a student toward a class in marketing or graphic design is another. It remains hard to discern how far preparing for an alt-ac career might compromise the very curriculum that made graduate students appealing candidates for non-academic positions from the start.

More than that, the position of faculty as successful models for an academic career is part of the graduate education process. Successful faculty attract students who want to study both with these individuals as experts, but also want to understand how to achieve a similar success. Part of this is the long-tail of older views of academic work that modeled graduate education on craft production with graduate faculty represented “masters” and graduate students “apprentices.” While this model has happily fallen to the side in the name of more professional views of faculty-student relationship, the disjunction between our experiences as faculty on the job market and our ability to prepare our students has caused increasing anxiety.

On the one hand, our position as tenured faculty represents extraordinary privilege. It is grounded in a moment of time in higher education where jobs existed and, at least in our idealized narrative, those who prepared best for those jobs could earn them. Even the most optimistic observer of the modern academic job market cannot make the same argument. This exacerbates a tension between the contemporary situation and our claims as faculty both to our positions in the academy and to our ability to prepare students for professional success. In other words, the power differential between faculty and graduate students is not only based on differences in our accomplishments as professionals, but also on a certain incommensurability of experiences.

Acknowledging this incommensurability reveals profound difficulties in creating a consistent perspective on academic labor. While it remains essential that tenured faculty advocate for change both at our institutions and in our fields, we also have to come to accept that our past experiences are unlikely – for now – to reflect those of our students and many of our peers. This isn’t to say that many of us didn’t work hard to get to where we are and that we haven’t overcome obstacles and triumphed on our pursuits through the sheer power of our will.

Instead, our awareness of our privileged place in the history of the academy should complicate any claims that the earned character of our positions grant us authority and instead push us to accept that our view of academia is one informed by our own remarkable situation. How this shapes our demands to be compensated for our labor (and, by extension, our privilege) will vary depending on the circumstances and the larger goal of our demands. For now, there will always be a tension, at least to my mind, between our right to earn a living, our responsibility to our students, colleagues, institutions and fields, and the incommensurability between our experiences and those of many of our peers.

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