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Perhaps the largest source of shame — the exploitation of graduate students

November 8, 2010

This post is a hybrid examination of a recently-posted job (and more about why I believe that we should all be thinking of academic fellowships as jobs in a bit), and cribbing from a volume that I think everyone in the academic labor market should read — Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation.

First, the job:

The School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is seeking applicants interested in Digital Archiving and Curation and in earning a Doctoral Degree. These Fellowships are funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

The two-year Fellowships offer:
· A 20 hour a week position as a Research Fellow in Digital Curation
· An annual stipend of $19,000
· In-state tuition and health coverage
· Extensive opportunities to meet key leaders in the Digital Curation research and practice arenas through workshops and symposia to be held at UNC at Chapel Hill

About DigCCurr II
The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)-funded project, “DigCCurr II: Extending an International Digital Curation Curriculum to Doctoral Students and Practitioners” seeks to develop an international, doctoral-level curriculum and educational network in the management and preservation of digital materials across their life cycle. This project will prepare future faculty to perform research and teach in this area, as well as provide summer institutes for cultural heritage information professionals already working in this arena.

I have to point out that “DigCCurr” is pronounced “dij – seeker.” Too cute by half, but that’s hardly a substantive criticism.

And before I start the shaming, let me say that I was encouraged when I saw this, because I’ve been thinking it over for a long time (since evaluating the Bryn Mawr and Haverford computer science departments when I was on the curriculum committee in college), and I think that more of us need to be willing to acknowledge that we have a big, fat gender problem in computing, even computing for libraries and archives.

Let’s say I have a young professional on my staff who is smart, has an MLS and is interested in library software development (or even in just using digital library tools). S/he knows metadata principles and is a competent consumer of digital library/archives technologies. What are the steps between where s/he is now and being able to implement Hydra or XTF or JHOVE2 or any of the other cool tools I saw last week at the DLF?

I actually brought this up when I was out for dinner with some really wonderful folks who do software development for academic libraries. Most people told me that the first step would be to find colleagues who knew these technologies, and have my staff member ask a lot of questions, or to travel back in time to when s/he was 14 and just spend a lot of time screwing around with computers. Well, thanks.

But if we’re relying on social networks, a lot of social justice problems get in the way. Maybe my bright young thing doesn’t want to wear the coder t-shirts and listen to the dude jokes at social events. Maybe s/he just isn’t friends with coders. And I’m unwilling to believe that learning to program is radically different from anything else a person learns, that this reasonably smart young person can’t do it another way. As a manager, I must be able to provide something better than “go make friends with someone who might be willing to teach you this.”

But there just aren’t good models. In my experience (and in the experience of many of my colleagues), library schools do a terrible job of this and their technical education is absolutely gendered. They think that the way CS is taught is the way that it has to be taught, and stick with same curriculum despite knowing that it tends to disfavor women. And I knew that it doesn’t have to be this way, because I know that Bryn Mawr found another, better way of serving students who are motivated to be strong computational thinkers and computer scientists. Who is being serious about this at the graduate level? For whom is this a real priority?

And this isn’t just a problem for women — it applies to anyone who doesn’t currently have access to these careers. Wouldn’t we see more and better ideas if we saw more women, more minorities, and more first-generation college grads creating tools to meet our digital needs? And wouldn’t we be better able to connect with the diversity of our user communities?

So hooray, yes, how wonderful it is that we have an educational institution devoted to teaching these theories and practices to future library school faculty, who will be in turn able to relay them to practitioners.

And yes, I see that for DigCCur I, a proposed activity/outcome is:

6. Attract a diverse student population through widespread advertisement of the program and fellowship support.

And here we are. I suppose that the nature of our disagreement may have to do with the terms “diverse” and “support.” Oh, and probably “widespread.”

Money...What Money?

Even this white male grad student is DICKENS POOR. Many thanks to flickr user stuartpilbrow

Because here’s the deal. Graduate students are workers too, and they deserve the rights of workers. Just because they enjoy their work or because their brains are involved doesn’t mean that they should have to give up a fair wage, good job prospects, and fair relationships with management. And the university doesn’t see them as future colleagues — it sees them as current workers. Graduate students will only be able to gain leverage on the situation if they begin to think of themselves that way.

The promise that a worker has to do his time by being a graduate student and making numerous sacrifices until the gleaming Ph.D. comes is patently false. As of 2000, it was difficult to find any sector of higher education where tenure-stream faculty taught more than 30% of course sections — even in the Ivy League (71).There are fewer tenure-track jobs because there are more graduate students. They want it to be this way. And guess what — this isn’t making higher education any better. The universities that rely on cheap labor have horrendous learning outcomes and graduation rates. Duh.

Indeed, any approach that emphasizes a supposed excess of Ph.D.s misdiagnoses the problem, which is not a surplus of Ph.D.s but a scarcity of tenure-track positions: “The concrete aura of the claim that degree holders are ‘overproduced’ conceals the necessary understanding that, in fact, there is a huge shortage of degree holders.  If degree holders were doing the teaching, there would be far too few of them” ( Bousquet 41). This is because the point of graduate programs is to produce contingent labor — cheap researchers and instructors to teach undergraduates or masters’ students, so that universities don’t have to hire tenured or tenurable laborers.

As an undergraduate, I was one of the rare few students out there who was only taught by tenure-stream faculty, and I remember being appalled when I arrived at library school and my sections were taught and work was graded by Ph.D. students. And my masters’ colleagues, who hadn’t attended a small liberal arts college, thought that this was both normal and okay. This despite the fact that frankly, these doctoral students were pretty terrible teachers, didn’t yet have significant research experience to impart, and their allegiances were to their own coursework and research rather than to our development as librarians.

But back to this job.

Let’s just start with the obvious. A yearly stipend of 19K fucking sucks. It just does. It. Fucking. Sucks. It’s shameful. It’s below the poverty line for a family. Do we as a profession say that it’s reasonable that a scholar should sacrifice a family in order to be a scholar when s/he very likely already has debt from his/her professional degree and is being expected to be a full-time student and work twenty hours each week as a research assistant?

And sure, the student could apply for other aid from the university — but s/he is already working twenty hours and is a research assistant, and there really are no free lunches in the world of financial aid these days. S/he simply doesn’t have time to teach a section or do someone else’s research. So what happens is that students who are in either pretty okay financial circumstances, or who have financial safety nets, apply for these kinds of positions. And students who might be willing to take a risk and enter a profession that traditionally hasn’t embraced them might not be willing to take the double-risk of financial hardship and an uncertain job future.

Frankly, I don’t see anything here that shows real concern for “diversity” or fairness or changing the way we think about technology.

I look forward to comments on this post, but before you comment, evaluate how critically you’ve really thought about the academic labor market. Challenge your assumptions. You may have a vague sense that professors and graduate students have a pretty good life — but is this true for everyone? Does the system make it true? Visit Marc Bousquet’s blog and learn for yourself how bad it really is out there.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2010 10:04 pm

    As a current graduate student, I have to say that I would take this position in a heartbeat:
    – 20 hours a week = manageable work load
    – $19,000 / 9 months [assuming academic year] / 80 hours a month = $26+/an hour = sure beats the $12.50 at my work study job
    – Tuition coverage = goodbye student loans!
    – Health care = goodbye being under/uninsured!

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on the issue of exploiting graduate students for free labor, but I think this is an example of the best-case scenario for many students. Personally, I’m looking at taking an unpaid internship [although IMLS sponsored] next semester [on top of my full-time class load & part-time job], just to get experience & to network.

    Also, I can’t believe that the ‘grad students = cheap labor’ dynamic is unique to the archival world. Does anyone know of steps being taken to address this on a large scale?

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      November 8, 2010 10:48 pm

      I don’t know what to say, other than that this is why I’m sympathetic to the explanatory framework of “false consciousness.”

    • laura permalink
      August 19, 2012 6:33 pm

      I just wanted to point out that tuition isn’t covered, its just reduced to instate tuition. Many institutions are moving away from GA’s/Fellowships including tuition remission.

  2. jordon permalink
    November 9, 2010 12:33 am

    I think Maureen’s point is not whether or not someone would take the job (what a terrific opportunity–I’m sure any aspiring archival scholar would!), but rather to raise the question if the compensation is inherently commensurate with the responsibilities and distinction of the position. Having great familiarity with the cost of living in the Triangle area, I would say that a minimum of 30K would be fair compensation for any doctoral student, and that’s the pragmatist in me allowing that there are cultural forces at work here that keep graduate assistant wages artificially low (the idealist in me would say 40K to attract and reward the brightest candidates possible).

    As for solutions, graduate student unions are sometimes formed to help improve the compensation and quality of life for its members. I don’t know if the particular university has one of these, but given the state of organized labor in the South (or any part of the country, for that matter), I would wager that such an organization would not be particularly powerful counterweight to administration. I am often wrong, though (and I love when I am, particularly when it comes to the state of collective bargaining).

  3. November 9, 2010 12:41 am

    I especially love that this doesn’t even pick up your tuition – you just get in-state tuition. Anyone who actually has the tech skills in question can walk into a job paying many times the annual stipend – which is why the IT world is so full of people with advanced degrees in the humanities (at least in my experience – I’ve worked for at least 3 companies where the IT group was largely made up of refugees from academia – though perhaps I should lump the guy who fled being underpaid by Lucasfilm as well).

    • jordon permalink
      November 9, 2010 1:03 am

      Lisa, the lack of tuition remission is puzzling to me, too, since when I was at UNC, it actually was not that hard to find a work-study job in one of the libraries on campus that would include full remission of tuition. To wit: I worked in the ILL department at a 20-hour/week job and got to go to school for free. Disappointing that someone doing something far more challenging, and requiring a higher level of competence (like a lot of the jobs for which I have been hired, what I was doing was not rocket science), would actually get worse benefits.

      One of the things I loved about going to grad school at UNC was that the in-state tuition was really cheap (since I paid it before getting the aforementioned job). And that wasn’t during some kind of halcyon era of public education–it was just a few years back. Maybe the state isn’t subsidizing tuition like it used to, which means the universities are charging more, which means it’s more expensive to give full rides? I don’t know. There is probably a whole matrix of reasons why the compensation and benefits are what they are–all of them unfortunate, and none of them necessarily defensible.

      • November 9, 2010 2:57 pm

        Going off of the experience I have with my spouse and our nearly decade long foray into graduate school pursuits, it seems that more public universities are giving less remitted tuition.

        Two years ago, my spouse was accepted into a humanities Phd program at a public school. He was offered a teaching assistant position and interestingly at no point in the process until the offer was made, was the possibility of remitted tuition mentioned. The program website mentioned nothing about it, and neither did the department chair during his interview.

        Their offer was the usual low paying humanities TA stipend which wasn’t surprising; we were prepared for that. But we weren’t prepared for the slap in the face of being told he’d have to pay tuition but “only” at the in state rate. The tuition at this institution was very cheap. Too bad half the stipend would have been used to pay for it.

  4. November 9, 2010 1:37 am

    I certainly have a lot to say about this post (particularly in terms of the Maureen’s lead-in; perhaps that’s worth a separate post). I do think this is fairly ridiculous for a “fellowship.” That said, I certainly could have had more of a raw deal when I worked as a Head Librarian in the now-defunct Residence Hall Libraries program run by University of Michigan Housing. Unlike the corresponding University Library Associates program (which was in fact a true fellowship, with tuition and healthcare coverage), RHL offered the following at the time:

    Head Librarian positions include an on-campus apartment within the hall of your Information Center; 18 meals per week or a cash stipend in lieu of meals in non-meal serving halls; basic phone and cable service; a small refrigerator; an on-line computer for academic year; and a cash stipend for a total compensation package valued at $13,500. The Head Librarian position requires a 30-hour per week commitment.

    While it may sound pretty good, it’s worth noting that the program required participants to live in the residence hall. The stipend while I was in the program was approximately $5,600 for the academic year, and if you do the math (5600 / 9 months / 120 hours per month), you get an hourly wage of under $5.25. It’s also worth noting that grad student research assistants and instructors receive tuition coverage at a 25% appointment (i.e., 10 hours per week). We got pretty ticked off about this, especially because the Graduate Employees’ Organization at Michigan was in a contract year with the University. We ended up organizing, but it did little to reform the program at all.

    Anyway, enough about me. The DigCCurr fellowships are also interesting to compare to the Archival Education Research Insitute doctoral fellowships, which offer

    …full tuition and annual stipends of $20,000 to Fellows for the first two years of their doctoral study at partnering academic programs. Those academic programs will provide full tuition and stipends to their Fellows for two additional years of study.

    • Jennifer permalink
      November 9, 2010 4:45 am

      I am glad you wrote about this! I was appalled by this posting, especially when Helen Tibbo talked this program up at ALA this summer like it was hot sh*t. And maybe it is, but the remuneration doesn’t make it appear that way, especially compared to the fellowships at NCSU. ($52,000 and pick your own department!) It’s not a degree program, but I know which one I am applying to and which one could take me places. Maybe she has no control over it, but wow… just, wow.

      The lack of tuition waiver is just a slap in the face. They can’t even provide their Ph.D. candidates with tuition? They must really want this program more than anything else, because there are a lot better options out there. I know there will be plenty of applicants, because we are desperate, but it needs to get better. And that’s what this blog is about.

      • Jordon permalink
        November 9, 2010 2:23 pm

        Jennifer, kudos for singling out NC State’s fellowship program. It really is a great model for how institutions can support information science students and get something out of it on their end. Not only does State compensate very well, but as you point out, they give the fellow a degree of flexibility, which encourages creative thinking.

      • Jennifer permalink
        November 10, 2010 4:20 am

        Thanks! I think the NCSU program is fantastic for entry-level grads. I don’t know how many “traditional” archives students are appropriate for the positions, but I think most multidisciplinary programs prepare students for similar things. Especially in the South, where pay is lower and it is hard to find flexible entry-level positions overall… those fellowships are gold!

  5. Francis Urquhart permalink
    November 9, 2010 6:15 pm

    The fellowship does Tuition and Health Insurance.

    As to any other matters raised, I couldn’t possibly comment.

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      November 9, 2010 6:24 pm

      Francis, do you have some inside knowledge? Because if this is true, then it’s unfortunate that someone couldn’t clearly communicate that in the advertisement.

      • November 9, 2010 7:32 pm

        It might actually just be poor phrasing; perhaps “coverage of in-state tuition and health insurance” might be more correct?

  6. Emily permalink
    November 10, 2010 2:03 am

    I have to say this is a very fractured post. But I wanted to address the PhD students teaching master’s classes point. PhD students will one day become faculty members where they will be required to teach students. Why would you not want them to gain experience before being left to their own devices? If you have a bad instructor with a PhD student then the school is not doing a good job of overseeing the quality of PhD students work and you should let them know. This is a disservice to the master’s students, but not letting PhD students teach is also a disservice.

    Second I agree, 19K is very low, but show me something else funded by IMLS that is significantly higher. Perhaps that is the problem not this particular project. Look at the sciences, they have much higher funding, but I also bet you that these IMLS grants are offering more than those in English.

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      November 10, 2010 2:35 am

      Ah yes, library schools’ new motto: at least we don’t treat you as badly as humanities programs.

      Except that in humanities programs they give you grounding in theory so that you can evaluate these issues critically instead of taking the tack that just because it is, it must be so.

      It’s the perceived powerlessness across every constituency of academia that makes me crazy. Blame IMLS, blame the “market,” or don’t blame anyone at all — this is just how it is, one must do one’s time, and shit continues to roll downhill. That’s absolutely fine.

      But I think that to be part of this system and not recognize the poor treatment of graduate students as a pernicious, growing labor problem, a person has to either be blind or stupid. And it persists because too many subscribe to the myth of upward mobility, that it will be better for them, and that there’s no need to identify as a group and demand stronger conditions for now.

      This is why these crappy jobs persist. People assume that these conditions are temporary and that the rewards will be greater in the future. But empirically speaking, they tend not to be. Tenurable jobs are being deliberately killed because there are graduate students to fill that labor void.

      Beating the odds and getting a tenurable job doesn’t make you a winner, it makes you part of the exploitative system. I get nervous about the argument of “I was totally broke but I made it work.” Many people who say this are speaking from a position of white privilege — they tend to have an easier time getting credit, using social networks as resources, and have models of how to negotiate these systems. But do we really want our future scholars to be the ones who are doing well enough already that they can take this kind of risk of [they assume, and too often wrongly] temporary poverty?

      • Jennifer permalink
        November 10, 2010 4:10 am

        Beating the odds and getting a tenurable job doesn’t make you a winner, it makes you part of the exploitative system.
        And forcing this system upon the next generation of us doesn’t make you a winner either. Telling us to shut up and like it because you had to go through it doesn’t make you superior or mean it’s a fantastic system or the right one. Excellent point about white privilege. I think of all the people who don’t enter these programs because they don’t have the support systems. How are the people who don’t get these grants supposed to fund their education? Even those that do get them may have to take out loans to cover other costs, especially if they don’t have another income in the house and/or have children. Not everyone thinks it is worth it to take out that much in student loans for something that promises so little. What are we losing as a profession because of this?

        Many in the profession (not all with tenure) defend the status quo because they are entrenched in the system and don’t want anyone else to get what they (may) have without less work or before getting whipped enough to prove they are worth it. Hearing these replies that seem to boil down to “get over it and put on your big girl panties” avoid the issues at stake and further convince me that academia exists to perpetuate itself and not to educate others or work on new and groundbreaking research.

  7. MLT permalink
    November 12, 2010 11:47 am

    Here’s my question: In what world do you expect to make 30K for 20 hours a week? Plus health and tuition benefits. I think it’s a pretty sweet deal. The school is not responsible for supporting your family, you are. 26+ an hour is more than the average for post graduation library jobs if I’m not mistaken. Which isn’t necessarily right either, but still. I feel like there is a sense of entitlement here that is kind of silly.

    • Jordon permalink
      November 12, 2010 1:40 pm

      In a just world.

      While the hours might only be half-time, the expectation is that your course of study as a doctoral student will inform the work you do. In other words, your job is as a student and as an employee of the institute.

      If you think about it this way, 30K is quite low for a full-time job, isn’t it?

      I agree with Maureen and Mark that we might be misinterpreting that line about tuition coverage because it is poorly worded. My immediate thought upon reading the posting when they first offered this position last year was exactly like Maureen’s: they give you cut-rate tuition by making you in-state.

      I do think it is useful to examine the systemic issues that make these funding situations the way they are. For example, if we want to focus on IMLS: I bet if Congress came to them and said, “Hey, we’ve got this new pile of money because we rearranged our national and global priorities and we want to give it to you so you can reward scholarship and innovation,” they wouldn’t say, “Oh, that’s OK–we think we’re giving these grad students all the money they need. But thank you for asking!”

      • Maureen Callahan permalink*
        November 12, 2010 4:42 pm

        There seem to be a lot of comments from people with UNC email addresses, a weird lumpenproletariat streak, and poor imaginations. (Not you, Jordon. you are our philosopher king.)

        And the $26/hr an hour is a false comparison, because a person would indeed be paid more than that to do cutting-edge research about digital preservation. But Jordon’s point is the most important — this person is responsible for reproducing the university and is indeed taking on roles that several years ago would be done by tenured/tenurable faculty, who would be earning much higher wages.

  8. MLT permalink
    November 15, 2010 8:55 pm

    Hey! I resemble that!

    But seriously, rather than masking insults in 50-cent words, what is your practicable alternative? Where does the money come from to support these students-with-families? If the tenured/tenurable faculty are no longer doing these jobs, is it that it’s an ominous cost-cutting thing or is that you don’t need a PhD and ten years of experience to actually do this job? I suspect it’s cost cutting but you never know…so why don’t we brainstorm solutions instead of whining and deflecting criticism with rudeness? What does that ideal world look like to you and how does it work? How do we get there from here?

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      November 16, 2010 10:06 am

      I don’t agree that a critique has to be accompanied by a solution. My agenda is two-fold — to shed light on these kinds of exploitative job ads so that young professionals start to develop a consciousness that it doesn’t have to be this way, and to cultivate this consciousness so that when we’re in the hiring role, we can be much better advocates for our employees. I’ve written about this before, and in fact, my most-visited post was about what employers (specifically, my current employer) do right.

      But I don’t set anyone’s agenda about what he or she wants to post, and I would ask you not to as well. Blogs are free. Start your own. Or, if you want to see different content, you’re more than welcome to guest-post.

      And if you want to know more about the problem or the solution of the exploitation of graduate students, feel free to read the book.

      • MLT permalink
        November 16, 2010 4:40 pm

        I am not trying to dictate the direction of the blog, I was merely saying that if you’re going to say that people who don’t agree with you have a lumpenproletariat streak and no imaginations, it would be nice of you to explain how that job ad/situation could be made more ideal. Perhaps it was meant to be obvious. I was just curious and resentful of your condescending attitude. Anyway, I guess this isn’t the blog for me as it’s clear I’m not welcome here, so I won’t drag this out any further. But I suspect you’d attract more conversation and interesting dialogue if you didn’t insult people. Just because I don’t agree doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. Thanks.


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