By Karen Gregory
If you happen to visit the most recent updates to the CUNY Graduate Center’s website, you’ll be greeted by the rather kind words from the President, Chase Robinson: “A graduate school of arts and sciences, a center for applied and theoretical research, and a platform for performance, conversation, and public debate, the Graduate Center is a community of students and scholars committed to the idea that learning is a public good.” For new students arriving, as well as those of us “roaches” who have perhaps overstayed our welcome the words are a lovely sentiment. We are a community of students and scholars committed to learning as a public good. In a time when “the public good” seems in short supply and even shorter social support, being welcomed into such a community might even feel life-affirming. If we listen to President Robinson, we have found a place, maybe even an intellectual home, which will nurture and support our development as students, scholars, theorists, researchers, activists, and writers. And, ideally, this home won’t force us to choose between the roles, as we imagine that such multifaceted development is more or less essential if we are going to carry on the noble mission the Graduate Center has outlined.
What the president has omitted in his albeit brief but nonetheless branding remarks is any mention of the role that many of us will play during our time at the Graduate Center— the role of educator. Or, we might say the role of teacher and worker. For some, this role comes with the slightly problematic distinction of “teaching fellow,” which makes it sound like you have been selected for your unique abilities and may be engaged in a professionalizing fellowship. Others come to this role through adjuncting, picking up courses here and there, both during and after your studies (sometimes serially at one or two campuses for several years. Teaching fellows may also find themselves adjuncting if and when their contract allows.) For students who rely solely on adjunct work to make ends meet during graduate school, it is not uncommon for them to teach four courses a semester, each semester, in addition to summer work. While there may exist a certain fantasy world in which the word “teaching” conjures images of the community of practice alluded to by President Robinson, in reality teaching as either a fellow or an adjunct is to step into the heart of the modern University’s rather pernicious labor conditions. While adjunctification is by no means a recent development, it has now become the case that the majority of teaching in “the university” is done by us — graduate students and part-time faculty who are being cast off the ever-elusive tenure track. As Rebecca Burns reports, “tenure-track faculty positions today constitute just 24 percent of the academic workforce.” Sarah Kendzior has labeled these conditions “indentured servitude,” and Marc Bousquet has famously referred to graduate students as a form of systemically harvested “shit.” Bousquet writes, “they know they are not merely treated like waste but, in fact, are the actual shit of the system—being churned inexorably toward the outside: not merely ‘disposable’ labor, but labor that must be disposed of for the system to work.” If you haven’t read Marc Bousquet’s book How the University Works, I encourage you to do so. Excerpts from the book can be downloaded for free on his website.
Indeed, these labor conditions are irrevocably tangled in what has regularly come to be referred to as the “crisis in higher education”—a crisis that reaches across the national terrain of education, assembling an array of “disruptive” forces aimed at recasting the university as a corporation to be run according to a rather boggling “discourse of excellence.” As Aaron Bady has written on his blog, and what many of us discover we move through graduate school, is that to “qualify for a job as a university professor basically requires you to spend your twenties working ninety hour weeks for poverty wages, often without health insurance, provision for maternity leave, or all sorts of things that make it possible to live in life.” Teaching, in this regard, is miles away from “a community of students and scholars committed to the idea that learning is a public good.”
And perhaps this is why the role is overlooked in the branding soundbites culled on the CUNY Graduate Center’s website. Who wants to call attention to the mess? Or call attention to what some have called “zombies” in the academy? The undead probably don’t make for the kind of brandable affect University leaders are paid top-dollar to inspire. Yet, given what I think is at stake in the recognition of graduate students as teachers and, by extension, workers—perhaps a slightly different understanding of a “public” and a “good”— I think it’s worth tracing out a more honest description of our institution, particularly for incoming students, many of whom will be conducting their graduate studies in a newly “restructured” five-year program, which as Gluck, Tomas, and Spurgas report will grant some incoming students “$25,000 per year for five years along with a one course per semester teaching load during years two, three, and four.” Restructured or not, you will find yourself teaching, often without the designation of worker. While it may be tempting to see these five-year programs as an attempt on the part of the administration to curb both the time and debt demands graduate school can make, in reality these students will be no more protected from the broken job market that adjunctification and casualization has produced when they graduate in reduced time. While it now seems quite popular to tell people that going to graduate school is a loser’s game (I’ll let you search out those stories and sites), I’d like to suggest that if you have found yourself here, restructured or not, there are a couple general principles that might help you find your way through what is, undoubtedly, a rather difficult time to be a graduate student.
The first is a very simple, basic principle: you work. Not only do you work as a student, a researcher, and a scholar, but whenever you step into a classroom you are working. Please don’t fall for the trap of believing that graduate school is a passion project to be completed only by those most committed to their general imiseration. As Bousquet writes in his essay “We Work”:
Despite the injustice and impracticality of the arrangement, large number of young people present themselves to the meat grinder of doctoral study. Most fall away, but a sufficient number persist, of the persisting few, only the tiniest fraction take advantage of tenure to refuse steadily mounting demands. These are questions that corporate managers had been examining for decades with a keen sense of envy. How to emulate the academic workplace and get people to work at a height of intellectual and emotional intensity for fifty or sixty hours a week for bartenders’ wage or less? Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring ‘I love what I do’ in response to response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks? How can get our workers to be like faculty and deny that they work at all?
Identifying your time, attention, scholarship, and teaching with valuable labor, rather than a gift to be perpetually offered in hopes of a future reward of stable work, is essential to realizing that you are not delaying your work experience. Rather, if you are here, you are part of CUNY and you are entitled to certain workplace protections, a grievance process, and benefits through the Professional Staff Congress, which is the exclusive collective bargaining unit for instructional staff. I will leave a more detailed analysis of the relationship between the CUNY/ PSC and graduate students to a future Advocate column because that relationship should be outlined, clarified, and considered. Understanding both the pros and cons of this relationship for students could be a basis of a public forum in the coming months. Still, the presence of the PSC does mark the CUNY experience as somewhat unique. Numerous organizing campaigns are being waged across the country by graduate students and adjunct faculty in hopes of being recognized as workers and having the right to unionize and collectively bargain. This is not to say that the presence of the union solves the issues we’re facing nor adequately represents part-time faculty or those designated as “students” rather than “employees.” Rather, it is just to suggest that incoming students acquaint themselves with the PSC and the rights and benefits they ensure.
In addition, students should be aware of the CUNY Adjunct Project, which seeks “to organize its resources for graduate students around two areas: 1) labor issues and concerns, and 2) teaching resources and pedagogy.” The Adjunct Project holds monthly meetings, coordinates students across campuses, and regularly hosts labor-related events. As bargaining for a new PSC-CUNY contract takes place, the Adjunct Project aims to be an effective liaison between students and the union, providing both information to students, as well as considering new models for organizing.
Still, understanding that both time and energy become limited commodities in graduate school, simply calling for students to “get aware” and “get involved” is really not enough. We also need to embrace a basic sense of solidarity while we are here. While I intend to write more about the challenges of graduate student organizing and the labor market as this Advocate column unfolds, I would like to conclude by emphasizing that what is most at stake in embracing the designation of worker—both personally and collectively—is the power of solidarity or the power of standing together to fight for both immediate improvements, as well as to really consider what our role is in the future of academics. As I write this column, I plan to speak with faculty, particularly junior faculty, across campuses who have been involved in organizing campaigns in order to understand how this experience has shaped not only their perceptions of academic work, but relations of solidarity across and beyond the university. I am hoping to find that solidarity is a better form of care than careerism.
If you are a new student to CUNY and are reading this, I am going to assume that you came not just for the five-year package or the degree, but also for the vibrant community of students, scholars, teachers—and workers. Welcome.