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
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%.
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.
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.