• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Graduate Student Employees and Unionization - Part I

Two GradHackers weigh the pros and cons.

February 23, 2016



Madeleine Elfenbein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. You can find her on her website and at @maddy_e.

Patrick Bigsby is a student, employee, and wrestling fan at the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.


Welcome to Part I of our discussion of graduate student labor and the benefits and concerns related to unionization! Two GradHacker authors, Madeleine Elfenbein and Patrick Bigsby, have agreed to discuss their experiences and views related to graduate employment and explain some of their feelings on graduate labor unions.


Let’s meet our panelists!


Name: Patrick Bigsby

Employer: University of Iowa

Union or Labor Advocacy Group on campus: COGS (UE Local 896)

Relationship to labor union: nonmember


Name: Madeleine Elfenbein

Employer: University of Chicago

Union or Labor Advocacy Group on campus: Graduate Students United (GSU).

Relationship to labor union: proud member


What kinds of work do you do at your university?


P: I’m a teaching assistant in the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I currently teach two of the required professional skills courses for undergraduate journalism students. My appointment and salary are based on 20 hours of work per week. Between class, staff meetings, office hours, grading, responding to student questions, and the other trappings of being a teacher, I don’t have trouble reaching the 20-hour mark.


M: The way I see it, I do a lot of different kinds of work at my university. Some of it is paid directly by the university, some is paid by other sources, and some is entirely unpaid. The most obvious form of work I do is my teaching: I’m currently a lecturer in the college’s Social Science core, where I teach first- and second-year undergraduates in a sequence called Classics of Social and Political Thought. I’ve also been paid by the university for my work as an academic workshop coordinator, a conference organizer, a teaching consultant, and an instructor in the Writing Program. And for the first five years of my Ph.D. program, I was paid for my learning and scholarship as well.


In my first few years of grad school, I felt more like a student than a scholar, and the work I did on campus was not really scholarly in a deep sense. That’s no longer that case. At this point in my graduate career, I am no longer taking classes; instead, I am teaching them. Like my professors, I do a lot more than teach: I conduct research, write for publication, and I spend time contributing to the intellectual life of the university through participation in workshops, conferences, and public outreach efforts. My professors do all this because it’s part of their job description; it’s what they’re paid for. And in fact, it’s what I’m paid for, too, although my pay situation as a grad student is way more complicated. But the pattern was set for me in those first five years of my graduate program, when I received a salary (although it was called a “stipend”) that was designed to make my studying, research, and service work possible. This stipend amounted to only a small fraction of what my professors earn, but I paid my bills with it, and I paid taxes on it. It was a salary for scholarship -- for all the scholarly activities it enabled me to pursue.


P: Do you consider those workshops, conferences, and public outreach efforts to be part of your job? For me, I limit work duties to the requirements of my contract. I perform other functions for the university (e.g. I judge at the undergraduate research festival, serve on a university-wide judicial body, etc.) but those are volunteer positions I assume out of a sense of citizenship within the organization. I don’t associate that work with my job because I don’t expect anything, remuneration or otherwise, and I could stop performing them at any time without any penalty.


M: I wouldn’t receive a formal penalty if I stopped doing these things, but I do consider them to be part of my job. Like you, I feel a sense of citizenship, but I also see these things as essential to my current role as as a teacher and scholar and to my training as a future professor. So I’m doing what I want to do, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be paid for it.


Generally, how do you approach graduate student employment?


P: I consider my status as an employee at Iowa and my status as a student at Iowa as totally different, nearly unrelated roles. They’re certainly correlated insofar as I wouldn’t be one if I weren’t the other, but I separate the two worlds as much as possible. This separation is probably enhanced in my case, as I don’t spend a lot of time as a student in the department where I spend all my time as an employee.


As corny as it sounds, I really love my job and take training future media producers and consumers seriously. Since my income from teaching sustains my enrollment and costs of living, being able to excel at and retain my job is paramount.


M: I respect that you see your work as a student and your work as a teacher as completely separate. Maybe the difference in our perspectives comes from the kinds of Ph.D. programs we’re enrolled in and the professional futures we envision for ourselves. Myself, I can’t imagine doing the teaching work I’m doing now without the promise of future employment as a professor. It’s very satisfying work, but it’s too poorly paid to be a job on its own. Instead, I see my current college teaching as part of my training as a future professor, alongside the mentorship I receive from my dissertation committee. I also recognize that the university’s revenue model relies on graduate instructors like me to educate its undergraduate and even MA students. So when I teach, I’m doing more than getting myself some professional training; I’m performing a service for the university. I’m contributing to its bottom line.


Here’s the trick: it’s not just my teaching that contributes materially to the university’s mission. It’s also the outside fellowships I apply for, the paid and unpaid work I do presenting my research in public, hosting visiting scholars, etc. These are all activities that feed the economy of revenue and prestige that drives the university. I earn my living from a combination of research fellowships and teaching wages, and I see both activities as branches of the same scholarly project.


I know people who work exclusively as scholars or as teachers, and I can imagine doing one of these things to the exclusion of the other, but I would be sad to have to give one of them up. And what’s more, the value-system of the research university where I’m in training strongly promotes the idea that these two are best pursued in tandem. So in that sense, you could say I’m a product of my environment, with the same ideological predispositions as most of my peers.


P: That sounds ideal. Since you can’t imagine doing one without the other, I have to ask: would you do one for free? In other words, if you didn’t receive a paycheck for teaching your classes, would you still do it? I enjoy teaching and have had a great employment experience, but it is time and energy that my employer has contracted from me and not something I would volunteer for. My current college teaching, like yours, is a great professional development opportunity, but that’s a side effect; I’m in it for the compensation. It’s a job that leaves me with enough time, energy, and money to accomplish the goals I want to accomplish. I haven’t been promised future employment as a professor and, since that’s not in my contract, I don’t know why I would expect to receive it.

M: I have taught for free before, as a volunteer tutor for kids living in shelters, for example. But I would not teach for free a class that someone is paying for. My willingness to do this labor isn’t a measure of how much I enjoy it, but a function of the conditions under which I’m performing it. If someone is drawing revenue from my labor, I want to be compensated for it.


Please join our discussion the comments below - and come back on Friday for Part II! What have your experiences with graduate employment been? Have these had any impact on your interest or participation in a labor union?


[Image by flickr user The U.S National Archives and used under Creative Commons license]

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