GRADUATE STUDENTS PREPARING FOR THE FALL (PART 1)

Edited by G. Edzordzi Agbozo, with support from the members of the CSGSH

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has meant that universities undergo shifts in the coming fall semester. The MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities asked for reflections on how graduate students are responding to and navigating the challenges that this drastic change brings. In the first of this two-part series of blog posts, Dina López and Amir Hussain reflect on how they are preparing for teaching online. Below are their reflections.

Dina López
Ph.D. Student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric, Texas Tech University

Today, July 1, 2020, marks the end of my first year of teaching First-Year Writing and the first summer session of a sophomore-level Introduction to Technical Writing as a graduate part-time instructor, or GPTI. The summer course ended on a nice quiet note; however, I was very relieved to see this day come. In the spring semester, which had exhausted me physically and mentally, my first-year students had been frustrated with the first-year writing requirement. It was a very expensive box to check on their list of non-degree related courses. Most of the time I felt as though I were walking a fine line between student, counselor, substitute parent, and doormat. Going online mid-semester made a lot of the complaints seem to disappear in the Zoom classroom; however, one effect of the pandemic was that some of my students returned home to difficult situations. Many returned to environments that exacerbated their mental health struggles and interfered with strategies for navigating the first year of college. For the rest of the semester, we all just floated on down to the last day, glad it was over.

That experience made me a little concerned about preparing for the summer: I had only two weeks to frontload my course and prepare for a full online synchronous class, something I could easily adapt for fall teaching. Given this new set of circumstances, I decided to become an instructor/user experience (UX) researcher to learn how I could make this course useful to my students/users in a digital environment. I began by sending out a survey and looking at their general descriptions. Most of them were juniors or seniors. Several were taking full loads for the summer so they could graduate in December or May. Areas of study varied from computer science to sports management. Class introduction posts revealed that some were enrolled in the class for the humanities requirement: they were either genuinely interested in boosting their technical communication skills or just needed the three hours.
This combined knowledge led me to prepare my class for users who were, for the most part:

● Interested in the course for its content
● Mature enough to begin working in groups with a foundation of trust
● Going to be tired as we approached the end of the summer session

Armed with this knowledge, I carefully tailored the four-week summer course and placed the bulk of the reading
assignments and quizzes into the first two weeks. I threaded the objectives and goals of each unit into the next during class discussion and lectures. Sometimes I opened a space for discussion on how each of their projects would inform their own studies (again, threading the objectives), but the general daily pattern was the same so there would be no surprises during the fast-moving summer session. I now have a conceptual framework as I prepare for the fall: study my users to determine the scope of their learning needs and create a structure and skeleton for a course, so that on the surface the course will be fairly free of issues.

Amir Hussain
Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature, Emory University

When the Coronavirus pandemic started last spring, I was in Germany on an exchange year for dissertation research and language study. Universities in Germany, like in the United States, quickly moved to online learning. Since the semester schedule is different in Germany and since I continued distance learning in another institute after I returned to the U.S., I have now taken four months of a weekly language and culture course online. Drawing on this new online experience and on my prior teaching experience, I will briefly present several suggestions for graduate students trying to navigate and make the most out of an online course—whether preparing to take a course or to teach one online. While the overwhelming majority of graduate students have likely grown up with computers and digital technologies like smartphones or social media and are comfortable with and accustomed to them, it still takes a concerted effort to adjust to an online learning environment for the first time. Following are three tips:

1. Make it Synchronous

There has been discussion about both the advantages and the challenges of synchronous (or real-time) classes versus asynchronous classes, but my personal experience as a learner is that synchronous class sessions are crucial for getting the most out of an online course. Reading materials, written discussions, and assignments can of course be done asynchronously, but having the class meetings in real-time cannot be replaced as far as getting immediate participation, input, and feedback. The online sessions can be split into small synchronous groups for activities where students talk to each other. Still, I have found the bigger discussions and conversations that the teacher guides are particularly useful from a pedagogical perspective. In a language course, for example, hearing and seeing the language spoken correctly by the teacher is very important, and the synchronous sessions can provide a place for a question-answer conversation to unfold. A recent article titled “Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom” from The Chronicle of Higher Education further discusses and presents useful suggestions for how online classes can “build community”; in that sense, synchronous class meetings become a place where, despite the distance, one becomes part of a community meeting for a shared educational purpose.

2. Make it Meta

One challenging thing I have found in my online classes has been adjusting to speaking to the computer screen and not being able to expect discernibly clear nonverbal cues that are important to human communication. Online discussion, for example, means there is a greater mediation or lag time for how one may be able to register other people’s reactions to what one is saying. For those taking their first online course—and I assume for many this would be the case—an opportunity to explicitly reflect on technology or more simply reflecting on something that one is finding challenging in the online environment can be useful. If teaching a course online, one suggestion might be to include technology and online environments into a sub-topic related to the course. In a humanities course, for example, a session on how to vet sources that one finds online or on how to use digitized primary sources for research would be very relevant for coursework and could be tied to discussions about online environments and/or digitization. Also, a low-stakes writing assignment (low-stakes meaning that the assignment is short and counts for a minor portion of the grade) could be designed—perhaps to take place within the first few class sessions—where the class is asked to explicitly reflect on their experiences and challenges with online learning.

3. Make a Presentation

My final suggestion is to have presentations—whether individual or small group ones will likely depend on the syllabus and the class size. In the first online class that I took in the spring, everyone was required to do a group presentation on a topic of their choice (but one related to the course theme) where each presenter had to speak for a certain length of time. We used a website I would recommend—padlet.com—to post our presentation materials online. This site provides a blank page where anything can be posted, including PowerPoint slides, images, or other website links that might be relevant for a presentation while making it synchronously available for anyone with the link to open on their personal computer. I recommend a presentation because I noticed that it makes a big difference going forward in the class—that is after one has presented online to the class, there is a sense of being more comfortable talking in the online environment in general. While some students might be intimidated by the thought of having to deliver a presentation online, having to give a presentation can surprisingly speed up the process of adjusting to online learning and its technologies. Needless to say, the sooner one acclimates to these things, the smoother the course and the overall online semester can go.

Researching and Teaching Toward an Uncertain Future

Graduate Studies in the Time of Coronavirus, Part V

Edited by Didem Uca, with support from the members of the CSGSH

For the past few months, this series has documented how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected graduate students’ personal and professional lives. The contributors have reflected on the importance of building empathy and community in a socially distanced reality, addressed mental health struggles and survival strategies, discussed their activism and advocacy work, and shared the additional challenges experienced by international students in this moment. In this final post of the series, the contributors speculate about what their post-COVID futures might hold. In addition to immediate concerns––fall teaching and coursework, research, and progress toward degree––graduate students everywhere face existential questions. They wonder what our disciplines will look like as universities turn toward increased austerity measures; what job opportunities will be available when the dust settles; and, furthermore what they want their disciplines and careers to look like. Building on previous posts, the contributors also consider what forms of connection and community will be available to help sustain them during and beyond graduate school as we look toward another atypical academic year.

As these issues continue to develop into the fall semester, we seek contributions for our next series, “Grad Students Preparing for the Fall: Covid-19, Online Teaching, & Visa Issues”; you may find the call for reflections here.

Meggyn Keeley

Butler University, Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing–Fiction student

The words “Giant Eagle” glow in red fluorescence in the dim of 7AM. I’ve never been scared of a grocery store before. We pack the car and spray every package down with Lysol in the garage with the care of diffusing a bomb. Maybe we are. The daily press conferences have become white noise in the background as I stare at my homework assignments uploaded online. My routine of jotting down daily tasks has become a long list of links to click on, new papers to write. Studying pedagogy suddenly doesn’t seem as immediately important when trying to rationalize the devastation possibly next door. The world outside mirrors my motivation: abandoned. 

I know that there will be a next. My professors, my family, we all adapt to the technology we are grateful to have. Reading posts on Facebook is the closest I come to seeing my classmates. My assignments keep coming, and each day I motivate myself to try to maintain the positive energy in my home for the sake of my family who can’t drown out the news. It’s easy to feel like my line of work is useless in the grand scheme of things. How does editing and writing fiction help anyone when people need doctors, engineers, builders? I try to remember that there will be a next. And as countless individuals find their days suddenly void of responsibilities, they turn to art to fill them, to distract them, to have white noise that isn’t this reality. 

In the Giant Eagle parking lot, another woman is reading a book in her front seat as she waits for her husband to return. We trade smiles and book titles across rolled down windows, and I try to remember that my focus on my craft may one day be another’s peace. None of us can pause. I cross off another item on my to-do list.

 

Mallory Jones 

Northern Michigan University, Master’s in English student

The coronavirus pandemic has caused me to become flexible and adaptable in a short time frame. In the spring, my university gave faculty and staff two days to transition their courses to online instruction, and I was left panicking about what I was going to do for the rest of the semester. My first-year composition students were still working on their second essay out of four, and I was left with the task of moving the course online with only one semester of regular teaching under my belt. I turned to friends and colleagues for ideas on how to proceed, but also considered all of the factors that would cause great challenges for students in the online environment.

Reflecting on my personal experience, I knew moving ten hours home and adjusting my academic life to this new location and schedule was incredibly stressful and that it has been a struggle to complete simple tasks. Other factors that I kept in mind was that some of my students may not have access to Wi-Fi, have difficulty managing their time on an open schedule, and have other responsibilities as they return home. This helped me realize that I did not want to ask my students to do a huge research project when they could not even access the library or stop by my office with questions. Ultimately, I decided to simplify the original essay requirements, which I believe was in my students’ best interest.

Looking toward the fall, I am still navigating how to stay organized as both an instructor and a student. During this challenging time, I am left wondering what the future of higher education will hold when this pandemic is finally over. 

 

Bailey McAlister

Georgia State University, Ph.D. Candidate in English: Rhetoric and Composition

As grad students, we constantly feel the impact of non-academic situations on our research projects. Every student’s education can be radically altered by societal pandemics. But graduate students’ learning paths are particularly vulnerable because of the transitional period we are all experiencing at different paces. While the COVID-19 pandemic has some students transitioning to online teaching during their first semester, it has others doing video dissertation defenses during the home stretch.

I happened to be composing my proposal for comprehensive exams during this pandemic. My committee was formed the week my school announced our campus closure, and my comprehensive exam intent form was due mid-April. COVID-19’s most prominent effect on my academic life is that it has given me a lot of time––perhaps too much time––to think about what my dissertation is going to be. This is my first time actually creating an outline for what this three-year project will look like.

For me, the most difficult thing about writing a dissertation is the freedom to create one’s own path. We don’t tell incoming undergrads, “Come up with a major––an overarching theme to define your research. Then, design all of the courses relevant to your major and choose which courses you want to take.” Instead, we define the majors––the career paths––and we design the courses. Then, the students choose their paths based on the outline we’ve created.

Writing a dissertation is showing my committee the path I am choosing based on an outline of my own creation. It is no longer someone else’s job to tell me the criteria for what I write; it is now my job to set the criteria for my own writing.

Whether the effects of COVID-19 are positive or negative on my writing, I feel that my reflection on these effects will allow me to understand the foundations of my dissertation project better later on. As a rhet-comp student, at the very least, this societal pandemic has influenced how I see my future audience and my intended purpose for this research. Entering the academic conversation during this uncertain time promises an interesting path going forward.

 

Cassandra Scherr

University at Buffalo, Ph.D. Candidate in English

Is it still a privilege?

I had assumed that I would always view living alone as a privilege. One of the things I promised myself when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at 30 was that I would do everything in my power to live alone. “You’re too old for roommates,” I told myself. When I cut all luxuries to stretch my grad student income, I’d remind myself, “you will be able to focus and manage your time as you see fit, like a real adult. You’re an introvert, think how tiring living with someone would be.” And the thing is, for the most part I’ve felt good about my choices these last few years. On occasion, when I felt lonely, I knew that I would at least get to see my students multiple times a week. Yet, now as I face weeks on end with only occasional digital contact with my peers for companionship and guidance, I am grappling with not only my choice to live alone but also with the question of if this all really will be “worth it.” Because right now I am working harder than ever, with an abundance of the “alone time” I said I needed to accomplish my work and I am wondering what it is that I am actually accomplishing. When I was teaching in the spring, I would send my students the material they needed to develop new critical thinking skills each week, but they no longer have the community of classmates to apply them. I work diligently on my research, crafting page after page, but it feels like each word goes into an echo chamber of my own design. I work for the prize of more work, to earn a job that will pay me what I am worth, or at least enough to survive.  But now, after weeks alone, I sit at my computer late into the night wondering about the possibilities of finding this prized job in a market that was already grim and now will be further hobbled by the inevitable backlash of a country recovering from a pandemic. I try to find comfort, asking out loud, “will it really be worth it in the end?” And in return I get the silence I worked and sacrificed so hard for. Is it still a privilege? 

 

Ingrid Asplund

University of California at San Diego, Ph.D. Candidate in Visual Arts

When I got the announcement about UCSD going online, my first fear was about figuring out how to teach my TA sections online, followed with worries about taking my own graduate seminars online. What never occurred to me until it started happening was that so many of my friends would move back in with their parents out of state, in some cases permanently. While I am blessed to have an affordable living situation with a reliable roommate (in part thanks to my long commute), many of my colleagues haven’t been so lucky. As the COVID pandemic was beginning to escalate, so was the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) movement in the UCs, because many grad students pay more than they can afford in rent. When faced with the opportunity to live rent-free with their parents, many of my peers chose to return ten or more years after moving out for an indefinite amount of time.

One of the most gut-wrenching aspects of this process has been its suddenness. Many of my friends have moved away without saying goodbye to most of their inner circle. One by one, people in my social circle told me they were thinking of going away, and the pandemic finally became “real” to me when my best friend in San Diego came over for a grading session in the early days of social distancing. When he walked in, he said, “I’m glad you invited me over because tomorrow I’m moving away from San Diego forever,” and after a wave of shock, I felt hot tears spring to my eyes. He had been given a window of a few days to get out of his housing contract and told me that he couldn’t justify continuing to pay rent. I knew he was going to graduate in June and probably move away in the fall, but I had been counting on our last few months together. Grad school is a time of constant transition, but knowing that my proximity to my fellow grad students is temporary didn’t make it any less painful when this friend offered me a final parting elbow bump.

It may not make such a difference while all of our socializing is virtual, but when I think about a post-COVID world, it’s difficult to know who will be left in the social landscape of my city. Of the friends who are graduating, I wonder how many of them I said my last goodbye to without even realizing it. In addition to not being able to celebrate my friends who have graduated without ceremony, it’s hard not knowing how many of my friends will decide to continue their education in absentia. I have no idea how long it will take for us to collectively emerge from this crisis, and there are many things that I hope will never go back to “normal.” However, it is painful to think about returning to a social life with many loved ones missing and I expect that part of my recovery from this experience will include finding new connections in my community.

“Caught between closing borders”: International Graduate Students in a Global Pandemic

Graduate Studies in the Time of Coronavirus, Part IV

Edited by Didem Uca, with support from the members of the CSGSH

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered all aspects of society in North America and around the globe, including higher education. In the past few weeks, graduate student contributors have shared their perspectives on how this crisis has affected their personal and professional lives, reflecting on the importance of fostering empathy and community, mental health struggles and survival strategies, and activism.

While all graduate students have been affected in myriad ways, part four of our series focuses on the experiences of international graduate students, many of whom face heightened challenges, from a lack of local and familial support networks and a recent surge of xenophobia, to travel disruptions and bureaucratic complications that make it impossible to predict whether returning home may mean being unable to continue their programs. Challenges extend also to U.S.-based graduate students doing research abroad, who have had to abruptly return to the U.S. due to federal travel guidelines. As the representatives of a community of researchers and instructors of various linguistic and cultural traditions, the Modern Language Association’s Executive Council recently recommended that institutions “provide legal and other material support to international students and scholars” during this difficult time. The following contributors’ reflections echo the need for such support.

 

Samadrita Kuiti

Ph.D. Candidate in English, University of Connecticut

Twitter: flctionista

As an international graduate student in the U.S., I am part of a large demographic that often faces a more severe form of precarity than its American counterpart. Without intending to downplay the extent to which all graduate students occupy a much lower rung on the academic ladder when compared to most faculty, I would like to emphasize the delicate situation in which international students find themselves in the time of COVID-19. As graduate students across the United States organize to have the value of their labor recognized and their needs addressed by the universities that benefit from their research, teaching, and service, it is important to highlight that a subset of this same population is currently contending with a heightened threat to their professional lives and emotional well-being.

As a member of this subset and a Ph.D. candidate on an F-1 visa, I am caught between closing borders; it is nearly impossible for me to leave the United States now to visit my mother in India, who is recovering at home from a surgery and is, therefore, immunocompromised. If I make the decision to be with my mother, I might not be able to gain entry to the U.S. because of my visa status and the various recent travel bans that have been enforced (quite justifiably) by the Department of Homeland Security and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. My re-entry into the U.S. is also contingent upon when and if this pandemic ends and restrictions on regular international travel are eased. If I am unable to enter the U.S. before the required start date for the Fall 2020 semester, then my trajectory in the Ph.D program might be disrupted, if not cut short altogether. In this moment of crisis, when most of us are trying our best to help out older parents and immunocompromised family members, many international graduate students cannot even begin to think of going back home to be with family on different continents, thousands of miles away. 

The short-term and long-term effects of this crisis on international graduate students will be far-reaching. Teaching online has proven much harder to accomplish for international graduate instructors located in a different time zone from their students, a situation that may well continue into the fall semester. Summer work opportunities, already in short supply for international students, have been decimated. This, in addition to the uncertainty that will beset the academic job market for the foreseeable future and the fact that the steadily intensifying negative sentiment toward legal immigration and foreign workers in this country (due to the pandemic’s detrimental impact on the economy) will ensure that the odds are stacked against prospective job applicants like us.

Quite unambiguously, the best option for me right now is to stay where I am, at least until governments across the world implement best practices to allow international travel again. In the midst of this uncertainty, I can only schedule Skype calls to help my ailing mother figure out how to order essentials online and take comfort in the fact that at least I can do something, even if it is not enough. Like many other international students in the U.S., I am having to deal with multiple anxieties simultaneously.

 

Pavel Andrade

Ph.D. Candidate in Hispanic Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Twitter: @pavelandrade

International graduate students—as a subset of the graduate student population—are hurting in specific ways. As student-workers with contractual obligations we are being forced to navigate this crisis under less than optimal circumstances on both educational and economic levels, often without clear guidelines from our administrations. For the most part, university communications regarding international students have been directed to our undergraduate brothers and sisters, many of whom were left to fend for themselves after having to vacate student residencies. Universities rely heavily on graduate students as cheap labor, but, over and over again, the university system has been reluctant to acknowledge grad students as part of their workforce.

In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, most international grad students are struggling to make urgent decisions that might end up putting their legal status in the U.S. at risk. American embassies across the world have stopped processing and renewing visas and international travel is rapidly coming to a halt. Most international grad students have very limited support networks in the U.S., and those are being heavily disrupted by university closures. Many international grad students have little familiarity with the U.S. healthcare system and there is real concern regarding our capacity to cover potential Covid-19 related expenses (inside or outside the U.S.). International grad students are prone to experiencing discrimination and racial violence, as xenophobia and ethnonationalist bigotry continue to gain momentum in the U.S.

Most international graduate students cannot rely on their extended families to create structures that allow them to mitigate the vast economic and emotional impact of the current crisis. On top of living paycheck to paycheck, international graduate students are, in some cases and to varying degrees, a regular source of income for their families. Already being underpaid, the financial burden caused by emergency travel, medical costs, and other unexpected expenses will, in all likelihood, have a significant impact on international grad students’ ability to keep up with their academic programs. Indeed, without assurance of extended financial support from our home institutions, many international, underrepresented, and first-generation grad students will be unable to continue their progress toward their degrees, as research fellowships, grants, and summer programs have been suspended and job prospects are rapidly dwindling for those pursuing both academic and non-academic career paths.

Despite these disruptions, graduate students continue to work and teach remotely, and have been, for the most part, mandated to continue working toward their degrees in a timely manner. As a graduate student worker, I stand in solidarity with my peers and other fellow workers who are facing similar sets of problems: professional students, part-time and contingent faculty, dining hall workers, maintenance workers, and every other worker involved in breathing life into academia. Many of my grad student peers and I are calling for mentors, faculty members, and the academic community at large to actively reach out to graduate students and push for administrative guidelines that address the specific problems international graduate students are facing. We urge all academic institutions to support graduate students by extending funding packages for an additional academic year, pausing the time-to-completion clocks, providing free access to health insurance for all graduate students, and providing partial or full tuition remission to tuition-paying students. We call for university administrations to put students’ and workers’ well-being before profits. #SolidarityNotAusterity

 

Andrés Rabinovich

PhD Candidate in Spanish and Portuguese, University of Kansas

Member of CSGSH

I am an international graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas, having done my M.A. in 2014-2016 and hoping to complete my Ph.D. soon. I grew up in Argentina, lived in Canada from the age of 15, and moved to Kansas at the age of 29 for graduate school. Fortunately, I am healthy, employed (through Spring 2021), sheltered, and I live with my fiancée. However, the COVID-19 crisis has impacted me in many ways, both negative and positive. I will share my experiences beginning with the downsides and ending on a positive note.

One of the negative impacts has been an increase in my anxiety related to job market prospects and time to degree. These anxieties have always been there to varying degrees; this mentally taxing aspect of graduate school was something I accepted early on in my M.A. as part of the process. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitable changes that the (academic) world will undergo have made me psychologically spin out about my chances to both finish on time and obtain employment once I am done. My F-1 visa expires on May 31, 2021 and I am unsure of what will happen at that point. My department has traditionally hired ABD Ph.D. students as lecturers if they needed more time to finish their dissertation, but I don’t know if this will be the case next year. This uncertainty about my ability to remain in the U.S. has certainly hampered my ability to focus on my research and writing, especially during the first few weeks of quarantine.

However, this crisis has brought along some positive realizations to my life. An unexpected yet welcome outcome of being quarantined is that I have become more engaged in my neighborhood community. In the past 6 years, this had been something that I had been unconsciously reluctant to do. It had felt as though being engaged with my local community would cause me to put down roots in Kansas and thus uproot me from home. It turns out that getting to know my neighbors and hanging out with them—6 feet apart—has made me feel at home here in Lawrence. Now I have 3 homes and counting.

Oddly enough, quarantine has also brought me closer to my family and friends in St. Louis, Toronto, and Argentina. I have already spent 6 years in Kansas between my M.A. and my Ph.D., so I have long been far away from my loved ones. Though I kept in touch with them over the past 6 years, I think that the COVID-19 crisis has made me more aware of the relationships that truly make me happy and sustain me emotionally through the often grueling process of graduate school. I find myself talking to all of them more often and more candidly than ever before.

As a bonus, and in addition to the mental wellness that talking to loved ones promotes, I found in my dad—trained as a chemist, but a humanist at heart—an awesome interlocutor for my research ideas. It turns out that he is a fan of Frederic Jameson. Who knew?

ACTIVISM IN A CRISIS: ORGANIZING, ADVOCACY & COALITION BUILDING

Graduate Studies in the Time of Coronavirus, Part III

Edited by Didem Uca, with support from the members of the CSGSH

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered all aspects of society in North America and around the globe, including higher education. The Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities recently invited graduate students to share reflections on how this situation has affected them both personally and professionally. We will be sharing these perspectives over the course of several weeks, beginning with our first post on the importance of fostering empathy and community and our second post on mental health struggles and survival strategies.

The third part of the series amplifies the voices of graduate student organizers and activists. Their perspectives are micro and macro, ranging from setting boundaries to foster work-life balance, to setting more flexible policies in their own classrooms, to setting demands through campus-wide advocacy. Their calls to action highlight graduate students’ unique positionality as students, instructors, and researchers, providing recommendations for how administrators and faculty can better support them through this time of increased precarity and hardship.

 

Alba Isabel Lamar

Ph.D. Student in Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education, Michigan State University

Pronouns: They/She

I am from Manabí land and people, Indigenous to Abya Yala. I pay deepest respect to the past-present-future Lənape Haki-nk people and elders and ancestors, on whose land I was born and have settled. I acknowledge and offer deep gratitude to Lenapehoking and water, which nourishes my wellness and being daily, as I stand in solidarity with the folxs most marginalized and disenfranchised in society.

Ironically, the current crisis has helped me refocus my life by centering the principle that Johanna Hedva highlighted: “If only some of us are well, none of us are.” Though there is much trepidation in all of us, I am finding strength in the global collective efforts towards justice. Because it is my praxis to uplift my intersectional, interrelated communities on Pachamama, I work in solidarity with abolitionist movements towards Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty. Via Zoom with thousands worldwide, each week we dream together about the futures we deserve. With various social and environmental justice groups, I have been collaborating to organize, mobilize and hold teach-ins and workshops to develop concrete actions to ameliorate some of the woes our communities are currently facing. During this time, we are offering material support for working-class families of Color by fundraising and sharing and delivering food, wellness resources, virtual workshops, and providing other requested supports.

Sadly, COVID-19 has taken five elders of our community due to social inequities rooted in colonialism that create conditions where Afro Indigenous people have the least access to healthcare and resources. Needless to say, it has been difficult to grade student work while also reading, analyzing data and writing my netnographic dissertation research, which entails learning from the tattoo narratives of Black and Indigenous women to build Tattoo Studies curricula. Just as I began feeling overwhelmed with grief about our loss and anxious about my dissertation and my two part-time jobs, I decided to take action. To alleviate some of the stress for the undergrads I teach, I totally changed the structure of the class. My students can now submit anything course-related once a week in an online discussion board in whatever format they choose–– I encourage creativity––for full points.

My students have shown much appreciation for my flexibility during this time and also helped me realize that we cannot go back “to the way things were,” because inequity was the norm. Today, I continue to learn and build with other fighters for the future we deserve. I am proud to be a part of seeding a more nourished and nurtured future for the 99%.

 

Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

Ph. D. Candidate in Comparative Literature & Literary Theory, University of Pennsylvania

This crisis has caused enormous, diverse hardships for graduate students, myself included––from lost access to labs and libraries, to lost time doing research abroad, and lost funding for that time. I have lost four months of funding and five months that I intended to spend conducting research abroad. I’m lucky in that, thanks to family support and some well-timed copy-making, I can keep working and I have a place to live. But my situation is not unique. Many graduate students have been put in extremely precarious positions by this crisis. This situation offers insight into why graduate students need 1) mechanisms for asserting our interests beyond hoping for the benevolence of administrators (a union), and 2) to be considered employees.

Turning back the tenure clock for junior faculty and extending grad student funding are different things from the administrative perspective, although it is basically the same problem that is solved in the same way––with time and money.  But, while “turning back the clock” for TT faculty is free and even saves money, extending funding for Ph.D. candidates costs quite a bit. It’s money the institution could certainly find, but is extremely unlikely to without the kind of pressure that only a union can exert. Yet institutions fight graduate student unionization efforts by telling us that unions are for people who don’t have it as good as we do. They further use this strategy as a way of dividing the potential bargaining unit: some among us have it better than others. Those in a more favorable position shouldn’t risk losing that position. But the point of a union is that we  cannot assert our collective interests without collective bargaining. This crisis has both clarified our collective interests, and our inability to assert them without a base of power. Various student council organizations, often held up as our voice in the institution, can do nothing except send out endless emails saying that they are “here for us” and we are “in this together.” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m honestly tired of it. We don’t need emotional support from the grad student councils; we need emergency material support from the institution, and they, like any employer, are unlikely  to decide to give it to us of their own volition.

This is also why graduate students need to be considered employees. While I’ve lost four months of income, I likely can’t apply for unemployment, because I’m not technically employed, I just have expenses covered by fellowships and grants. We’ve been told that it’s good for us that our fellowships aren’t taxed. But this actually creates endless confusion when we do file taxes, as people do it all different kinds of ways, some paying $0, others thousands of dollars they didn’t expect to pay, because there are no guidelines and the institution categorically exempts itself from providing advice. The institution saves money this way––they don’t pay unemployment insurance, for example. And, of course, it provides grounds for arguing that we are students and thus cannot unionize. I would love to just have taxes taken out of my stipend, get a tax return, qualify for unemployment, and be able to unionize! Without the status of employees, graduate students, who are adult professionals with families, expenses, care responsibilities, and the same need that everyone has to try to save and create some kind of safety net for themselves, end up being excluded from every legible category that could qualify them for aid, seemingly even under the new expanded unemployment benefits. 

There are many, many, many people suffering right now. I feel excruciatingly aware of that. I’m grateful to have a place to live to get through this and enough personal backstops that I’m not going to fall off a financial cliff. My program and my advisors are supportive and understanding, and trying to help all of us however they can. I appreciate it enormously. I am also heartened to see efforts from the MLA and others that articulate the needs of junior and contingent faculty and graduate students. I have to admit that in many ways, the conversation about unionization at this particular moment is moot. Graduate students who are not currently unionized are likely not going to be able to do so for a long while. Nonetheless, it is worth taking note of how useful a union would be in managing a crisis like this one, so that we can push for unionization when conditions are more favorable in the future. In the meantime, we will have to develop innovative means of collective organizing in order to assert our most urgent needs to our institutions. 

 

Anonymous 

I submitted my dissertation in late March, two weeks after beginning to shelter in place. Finishing now may not be wise, but I set this goal, so I’ll meet it. Obedience to arbitrary deadlines is my coping strategy when life seems out of control. Grad school taught me that, but it’s sound advice for pandemics, too. I had hoped that the time before I defended would offer an intellectual reset. I imagined reading broadly or dreamily drafting publications. Instead, I’ve been working with colleagues to pressure our university to recognize its moral responsibility towards grad students in this crisis.

I’m a Ph.D. candidate at a private university with a gargantuan endowment, an organizer with our grad unionization campaign, and a dues-paying member of AFT-Academics, the national higher education association of the American Federation of Teachers. My fellow organizers and I fight to hold administrators accountable to graduate employees, and have only redoubled our efforts in recent weeks. Based on our colleagues’ testimonials of their hardships, we developed a slate of proposals and collected hundreds of signatures on our petition to the administration. In addition to guarantees of healthcare coverage and emergency relief, we are pushing our university to stop the clock for all graduate students, extending enrollment and funding for a year in recognition of universal disruption and delays. We’re fortunate that our university has the resources to support this.. It should be trivial for such a wealthy institution to protect its community from the financial consequences of the pandemic and looming economic collapse.

Instead, the university has made its stance clear: We are acceptable sacrifices to the wellbeing of its endowment. They announced that graduate students may petition their departments for extensions, a week after warning all staff to trim budgets in preparation for future cuts. This is not relief. It is an assertion that graduate workers are expendable, and a shameless strategy for fracturing our collective power. And it is working. Alongside my efforts with our union, the colleagues from my dissertation completion fellowship cohort came together to request a short-term contract extension from the on-campus institute that funds us. Library closures make it impossible for many of us to finish on our planned timelines, and cancelled searches and rescinded offers mean that those who do finish face the prospect of graduating into a pandemic, unemployed and uninsured. Overcoming worries about speaking up from a position of precarity, my colleagues made our case to the program director, whose anodyne response showed he’d barely heeded our letter. If the university signals that it bears no responsibility towards us, why should any program or department act differently?

But we do not accept this brutal status quo. My union and others across the country are holding today as a Day of Action to force our administrations to face the reality of our needs and we are encouraged by recent successes at other institutions. A generation of graduate workers face declining job prospects, if they can even finish their degrees in the face of austerity and spending cuts. This problem is especially acute for our colleagues at public universities and less well-resourced private institutions. But the abysmal response from many of the wealthiest schools proves that the real problem is not financial. It’s that many university leaders don’t truly espouse the ideals of community they so often preach. As I grapple with the realization that my academic career may be ending before it began, I realize that the grad student’s old joke was prophetic. A lot of schools like mine aren’t universities at all; they’re hedge funds that offer classes to maintain their tax-exempt status.

 

Ariadne Wolf

Member of the CSGSH

https://ariadnewolf.com

Now that we are all obligated to work remotely, it seems that there is more pressure than ever to relax some of the educational and professional boundaries typically in place. Perhaps your supervisor at work wants to call you at all hours to discuss your performance; perhaps your student wishes for an extension on a project due before shelter-in-place went into effect; perhaps your colleagues wish to meet daily, rather than weekly, and you feel this is excessive. Now that we are all socially deprived, there is more impetus to schedule lengthy and arguably unnecessary check-ins, to relax our grading policies and procedures––in short, to confuse kindness for a simple confusion about the obligations and responsibilities we have to ourselves in this time of crisis. 

If you are feeling any of these pressures, you are not alone. It is easy for all of us to accidentally find ourselves taking advantage of each other emotionally, particularly when perhaps the only interaction some of us have all day happens online or via Zoom. Nonetheless, it remains vitally important to keep ourselves healthy by maintaining our own professional and personal boundaries. I would recommend the following strategies for boundary setting: Do not give out your personal contact information to students. Schedule your meetings at precise times, rather than permitting yourself to be available all day long. Draw boundaries around both your effort and your work product, just as you would in an office environment, whether that means closing the door on your partner for a few hours or asking your teenage son to walk your dog so that you can grade papers.

Remember: You are important, your health is important, and, in the midst of all this chaos, it is more important than ever before to remain sane, centered, and calm. This means being clear about what others can expect from you, as well as what you can expect from yourself.