Recognizing and Managing Precarity as Graduate Student Workers
Megan Heise, Doctoral Candidate
Composition and Applied Linguistics
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
As graduate students who work in Graduate Assistantships (GAs), Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs), or similar roles, many of us are particularly vulnerable to overwork and exploitation as we navigate our professional and scholarly identities. As both students and workers, a positionality Vossen (2017) describes as “beyond weird,” (p. 126) and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC; 2015) notes as “acutely vulnerable” (p. 1), we often find ourselves torn between our work and studies, whether we work as GAs, GTAs, other contingent academic work, or beyond the academy. Under a capitalist system, this means that we often are forced to choose between the work that makes us money to pay our bills now, and the promise of economic mobility our degrees (seem to) hold at some time in the future. In fact, I argue that many graduate students are part of the precariat, a burgeoning class of over 25% of the world’s workers who “lack a secure work-based identity and investment in employment, have a limited range of rights, and have experienced deskilling, alienation, and downward economic mobility” (Birdsell Bauer, 2017, p. 275). I use GTAs and graduate student contingent faculty as an example of the problems of precarity below, but these themes resonate with a range of work situations beyond teaching in higher education.
As Rao et al. (2021) point out, GTAs “often work on an hourly paid basis, where the contact hours of teaching are rewarded but preparation, marking and pastoral care of students are not often remunerated” (p. 457). In their Position Paper on Equitable Treatment for Part-time, Adjunct, and Contingent Faculty, TESOL, Inc. (2006) acknowledge that contingent workers’ “employment conditions are certainly substandard when compared with those of their full-time colleagues” (p. 1), including on the grounds of benefits, salary, and institutional support, which often leads to over-extension, working across a number of campuses just to make enough money to survive, let alone on top of finishing coursework or a dissertation (c.f., Murray, 2019). CCCC (2015) also highlights how this is a problem especially for GTAs, who “may be misused as a significantly cheaper method for institutions, departments, and/or writing programs to ensure course coverage without the significant investments in salary and benefits for full-time, tenure and non-tenure track faculty” (p. 1).
Furthermore, due to GTAs’ precarious standing within universities, it is hard for us to enjoy the same rights as our tenured or tenure-track colleagues. As Tabares (2019) writes, “In weighing their own professional future alongside the institutional norms that regulate their professionalization, graduate students are often compelled to assimilate to the peace and stability of their departments and, by extension, their disciplinary fields” by compromising our values or identities in the name of “peace” and relative job security. In fact, as Banville et al. (2021) point out, GTAs in particular are often multiply marginalized based on our diverse identities, including our race, gender, immigration status, and many other identities. Given the demographic findings of the recent AAAL Graduate Student Council’s Diversity Among Graduate Students Survey (Rahming et al., 2022), these disparities, while not a full representation of all of the intersecting identities that can impact graduate student precarity, are important ones to note. For example, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) represent 55% of the precariat (Steinmetz 2016) and only 25% of full time faculty (NCES, 2022). This “leaky pipeline” (Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group [SSFNRIG], 2017) is a massive problem that all in higher education, including those in and outside of applied linguistics, need to attend to. The NCES (2022) also tracks a consistent and considerable pay gap between male and female faculty (with no data on non-binary faculty), and notes that within institutions with tenure systems, men are more likely to have tenure than women as of the 2020-21 school year. Furthermore, these issues are often compounded for international students, who comprise 33% of GTAs (McNicholas et al., 2019). As Banville et al. (2021) note, international student workers “may not enjoy the fundamental right of expression or the freedom to leave a program, as that could lead to deportation” (pp. 8-9), and in Jiang’s (2021) reflection it’s clear how international GTAs “face unique vulnerabilities tied to travel, citizenship, and work restrictions” (p. 306). These aspects of identity – and many others like disability, socioeconomic status, parenthood, sexual identity, and many more – can compound the already vulnerable situations graduate student workers find ourselves in.
Banville et al. (2021) note that “when we face oppression or threats to our careers, stipends, health insurance, or programmatic roles, it takes courage and bravery to speak out, often at great risk to ourselves” (p. 6). While not every graduate student might be in the position to speak out, I follow Banville et al.’s (2021) call to action by speaking these truths and encouraging other graduate students, faculty, and administrators alike to hold these issues as ones of great importance as we move forward in building coalitions to right these wrongs. Stemming from the AAAL graduate students’ desire to learn more about “managing power dynamics as early career researchers” (Rahming et al., 2022, p. 15), it’s crucial that all stakeholders engage collectively in making a more equitable future for graduate student workers:
● One way forward is through mentoring, with CCCC (2019) noting that within graduate students’ precarious realities, “mentoring relationships can become flexible responses to students’ differentiated needs as well as part of larger efforts to dismantle institutional biases and exploitative practices” (p. 1). Apple (2014) echoes this call for “deeply committed mentors…people who demonstrate through their lives what it means to be both an excellent researcher and a committed member of a society that is scarred by persistent inequalities” (p. xix, emphasis in original). In both cases, mentorship is not only an individualized solution, but also a collective one.
● Another way of moving forward in collective action is unionizing. According to SEIU Faculty Forward (2016), all workers in the U.S., including international student workers, have the right to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain. TESOL, Inc. (2007) further “supports the following rights of all members of the teaching profession,” including, “the freedom to exercise the civic rights generally enjoyed by all citizens,” which can include union action. In making demands, union members and supporters can call for fair and equitable wages, benefits, labor conditions, and administrative support from their institutions, including course caps, multiyear contracts, pathways to tenure, and pay minimums (CCCC, 2016; TESOL, 2006). Specifically for graduate students, CCCC (2015) also calls on institutions to provide appropriate monetary compensation, full tuition remission, benefits, professional development opportunities, and appropriate office space and resources.
No matter how we move forward, it is crucial that we do so with a full awareness of the challenges that we and our peers face as graduate student workers in and beyond higher education. Fuller and Russo (2016) write on community accountability that “the radical work of collectively addressing everyday oppression and violence through interrupting it, supporting survivors, and asking for accountability is a logic that values students, communities, and our healing together as the ‘impossibility now’” (p. 196). Given our positions of vulnerability as members of the precariat, we must rely on each other and on our mentors to prefigure more just and equitable labor conditions, with and not only for each other. It is only by working together that we can change these precarious and unjust systems, for ourselves and others.
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