Tag Archives: pandemic pedagogy

Providing Audio Feedback on Students’ Writing

By Sritama Chatterjee, a third-year PhD student in Literature at the University of Pittsburgh

Due to the shift to online learning because of COVID-19, one of the things that I miss about teaching are the corridor conversations with students, before and after a class, and listening to their fears about an impending Chemistry exam, their excitement about an upcoming Taylor Swift album or the joys when their favorite team has won the Superbowl. It made space for knowing the students on a more personal level and who they are as human beings without overstepping boundaries. However, the shift to an online medium made it necessary for us as instructors to reimagine how we make these connections with students.

For me, one way was through a shift from written feedback to audio feedback and an exploration of  what the medium of sound offered. In a pre-COVID world, I had tinkered with audio feedback, but still preferred written feedback because I was not too sure about the technical challenges: what if my microphone did not work? Did I need to install another piece of software? However, once I got over the initial difficulties, it was a smooth process. You can find technical advice for providing audio feedback on Blackboard, here, for Canvas, here, and how to record using the recording software Audacity, here.

One of the reasons I shifted to providing audio feedback was to convey the affect and tone of my feedback, as speaking can avoid a potential scope for misunderstanding. Students can hear the excitement  in my voice when I come across an idea in an essay that I think is really interesting.   I can also clearly communicate when an argument lacks evidence. It also allows me the space to create a more personal and meaningful connection with students. Often I ask a question to my students when I am particularly curious about why they have made a writing move in a specific way or what brings them to a topic or idea. Although there is no requirement on their end to respond to my comments/questions, I find that students write back to me in an email responding to my questions or set-up a time to talk to me and that these follow-up conversations often take us in directions that I did not anticipate.

Before providing audio feedback on a draft, I read the draft at least twice, making a mental note of two things: areas where the essay is already strong, so that I can provide examples of what the essay does well to take the argument one step further, and two instances of where the essay needs more work and in what ways. Once this is done, I record the feedback, addressing the students directly, as if I am in a conversation with the student, guiding the students through specific areas of revision and ending the feedback by inviting students to get in touch with me with questions or if they need to clarify something. I learned this conversational approach in audio feedback from Annette Vee’s piece on providing audio feedback, who takes written notes before recording.

Here are some things that I have found helpful for providing audio feedback:

I usually keep the feedback between three to four minutes for a 1200-word draft. Initially, it used to take me six to seven minutes and I found myself repeating the same things. However, with practice, I have grown out of this practice and find four minutes to be of optimum length. However this may vary depending on the pace of your feedback. Keeping a timer in front of you might be helpful. As a graduate worker, I am protective of my time and I ensure that I do not spend more than three hours providing feedback on a major assignment to twenty-two students (and this includes time for reading the assignment).

I use audio feedback only when I am providing feedback at a more conceptual level rather than structural or craft level, though I can imagine that audio feedback could incorporate both of these components. One could use audio feedback in a stand-alone manner or use it in combination with written feedback.

I quote specific page numbers, paragraphs and sentences while providing feedback so that it is always grounded in an idea and students are not lost about what I am referencing. Initially I was not referring to specific passages, but after listening to feedback from my students, I adapted accordingly and am now more direct about what I am talking about.

I try and keep things as spontaneous as possible. The pauses, “aaahs” and “ummm…” are very much part of the feedback.

From student feedback*, it seems that they appreciate audio feedback because of its clarity. For instance, one student wrote: “I really like the audio feedback! I think that a number of times when professors give comments on essays, the tone of what they are trying to say is lost, so the audio gets rid of the ambiguity.” Another student pointed out, “It was nice to hear from you in that way because it sounded like a conversation, which is a nice change from just seeing comments on my assignment.”

In the future, when I use audio feedback, I might make it optional for students to respond to the teacher’s comments, asking them to listen to the feedback first and then summarize their revision plan either in a written or audio form. Having pointed out some of the benefits of audio feedback and the ways in which students have responded to it, I will note that audio feedback might not work for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and as educators, it remains our work to make feedback more inclusive.

*Student permission has been taken to include comments in this piece.

Graduate Students Preparing for the Fall (Part 2)

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

In this final part of our series on preparing for the fall semester, two international graduate students — Meng-Hsien Neal Liu, and Joan Jiyoung Hwang — share how the ongoing pandemic and the recent national debate on international students in the United States has affected their lives and their work. While Liu focuses on syllabus redesign for online teaching, Hwang reflects on the challenges and rewards that international students experience not only during the pandemic but more broadly.

Meng-Hsien Neal Liu
Ph.D. English/Writing Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This unprecedented global pandemic has mournfully thrown many international graduate students, myself included, into a welter, as we navigate through drastic change of our professional and personal settings, routines, obligations, and even prospects. These sudden changes have continued into the present period, with some universities keeping classes online for Fall 2020, some offering in-person instruction, and the others opting for a hybrid model. Undoubtedly, each of these curriculum delivery methods poses different kinds of challenges to administrators, staff, faculty, and students, but as a graduate student who juggles teaching, research, and coursework, I find the emotional and physical labor exacted on me particularly taxing. Although my institution aims for a hybridized delivery for the coming fall term, the first-year-composition class that I am teaching in the Fall 2020 at my institution will be online. As I am now revising my syllabus, several critical, yet fruitful questions about pedagogy and social justice emerge. These questions help me to critically deliberate on my role as a graduate teaching instructor in the climate of uncertainty.

Adapting my in-person writing class syllabus into an online version presents itself with a wide array of local and perhaps far-flung questions that I need to consider strategically. For example, how should I facilitate peer work synchronously and asynchronously? How do my students coordinate their peer reviews when they are not able to meet in person, when they are in different time zones, or when some do not have reliable access to the Internet? What if some students do not have personal laptops to do the work at home or in dormitories? What if some students cannot work for a long time on their computers due to their physical conditions, such as their vision or ability? What are some topics that are amenable to online migration and thus deliverable through an online facilitation? What are some topics that need to be omitted or changed? For instance, my first-year composition class is typically themed around language ideology along with some discussions dedicated to gender, race, class, and ethnicity. How should I create a “safe” (virtual) space where my students and I could be encouraged to engage in meaningful discussions about linguistic imperialism, ideology, and domination without fearing our words will be decontextualized? Or should I just change the theme of my writing class and go for a more skills-based composition class so that I could “play it safe”? Do I still want my students to undertake original research projects (e.g., conducting interviews) when campus resources might be hard to access? How can I motivate my students to continue applying themselves to honing their academic literacy, provided that they faced mental and perhaps physical, disquiet? On that note, how can I assess their performance meaningfully, when they might have to de-prioritize their academic work due to living, housing, or food insecurities? When students miss several synchronous meetings, should I still strenuously enforce the draconian institutionally-mandated attendance policy and take off points ? Some of these questions have been extensively discussed since the outbreak of the pandemic, but I foresee that this situation is going to be slightly more glaring for my incoming freshman students (and for us instructors), as students themselves will be exploring their first (full) semester in college in an unorthodox fashion — virtually. They will be entering into uncharted territory and need to forge interpersonal relations and affiliations with their instructors, teaching assistants, classmates, friends, advisors, majors, departments, or colleges on those little Zoom chat windows and boxes. Therefore, I made it a point to bear those questions in mind as I redesigned the syllabus.

That said, rather than feel downright saturnine about the upcoming fall semester; I do believe that there is one overarching theme that can salvage us from the narrative and the spanned time of uncertainty. To wit, that is humanity. The pandemic, however devastating, highlights our graduate teaching instructors’ need to be more humanistic, empathetic, and sympathetic, because we, along with our students, are collectively experiencing this unparalleled historical moment. Coupled with the recent civil unrest and the federal visa restriction targeted at international students, the pandemic has disrupted the normalcy of many people’s lives, but as we are readying ourselves for the fall semester, I am convinced that first-year-composition classes can functionally serve the critical role of helping students to theorize and discuss their thoughts regarding social justice and equality, a necessary, if not imperative, outlet that could endow students with anchors to stabilize themselves and obtain countervailing power to contest debilitating discourses.

Joan Jiyoung Hwang
Ph.D. Writing & Rhetoric, George Mason University

It’s no longer a visa issue; it is our life.
Frankly, I turn my eyes away from any news headlines related to the U.S. government’s immigration policy. I know it relates to my family and me one way or another, but my heart already hits bottom without even reading the contents. Any news cannot be good news for foreigners. On July 6, 2020, when news headlines on TV and on the internet were plastered with these two words, “ICE” and “international students” , my mind was blown away and I could not resist, this time, scavenging for any piece of news about this topic.
Holding a student visa or F-1 visa status was an honorable, legitimate entry ticket to the U.S. higher education after years of preparation, family support, and the careful juggling of financial investment and loss of opportunities. I am sure all international students remember the celebrations and congratulations they shared with their families, friends, colleagues, and excitement when their passports returned by mail with a student visa stamp. Ironically, however, the emblem of celebration, pride, and privilege turns into a label of exclusion as soon as our lives as international students start. We start being called visa students, multilingual writers, or foreign students.

When I tapped into the job market, while pursuing my doctorate degree, with my master’s degree earned in the U.S, I encountered a common job application program that has a section asking applicants to answer “yes” or “no” to a question if they need a sponsorship when hired. The first time I read this question, to be honest, I did not get it. The disability section has disclaimers that the information will not be disclosed and not used as discrimination against applicants but only for the purpose of providing necessary accommodation; the sponsorship section has no such disclaimer.

Being a graduate student, especially being an international Ph.D. student, is not just running a life as a full-time student. We have family, and our children go to school and grow up here. They make friends, participate in community sports clubs, compete with their friends in local competitions in band and sports, and volunteer just like any other youths with citizenship or legal residency. During their parents’ 6 to 8 years of graduate studies, if advancing into a doctorate degree, our children’s identities, cultural, ethnic, and communal, shape and develop here. The most critical time of their life takes root here, beautifully growing into valuable cultural capitals. The student parents build their companionship with their colleagues, faculty, and students, and their spouses stay connected with their neighbors, local churches, or any other affiliation of their interests and values. The entire family becomes a part of the communities. Following their parent’s work and study, my children, both in high school, have now spent a total of 70% of their life here in the U.S.. Still, their legal status is an F-2. Suppose I am not hired by any employer willing to sponsor me after my degree conferral. In that case, my children need to change their status from F-2 to F-1 when they start college in the U.S. and inherit the status of a non-immigrant student visa holder, exempt from all college benefits their friends and peers enjoy or compete for.

Being on a full-time graduate teaching assistantship, I take six credits of coursework and teach two three-credit courses each semester with tuition waivers and a decent stipend. This is an amazing equal opportunity for international graduate students and another source that attracts many capable international students to U.S. education. However, more than the tangible equality— this never means than the material conditions matter less —the personal and professional growth that I have experienced being a part of the amazing academic community of faculty, staff, and peers in my program is something I would not want to forfeit but instead continue to belong to as my second home. International graduate students live with this fear that someday, we might have to involuntarily opt out of this community, displaced from years of personal, professional, emotional, communal attachment, if the label, once a gracious entry ticket to the prestigious higher education in the U.S. and now a tag of non-immigrant status, doesn’t change into a temporary work-visa or an employment-based green card.

The student status of a non-immigrant goes beyond studentship; it is a life rooted and growing in a new land. It is not something that can be uprooted and transferred back across the borders at the mercy of policy upheavals. I hope legal, systematic consideration can be made for international graduate students’ resident status and employment after their degree. Once they receive the doctorate degrees, their stay should not be considered a matter of visa, but a matter of sustainability, the sustainability of a person as a scholar, and of a family as community members and research community that invested and nurtured the international graduate students.

“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?


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. 



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


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.