Monday, August 29, 2016

Workers Rights and Academia

Back during my first orientation at my current university, the Dean of the College of Graduate Studies gave us a "pep talk." He gave us the standard "4-year plan" information, but he also said something else interesting -- enraging, actually. "Graduate school is a pretty good deal," he said, "which is why you get the salary you do. If it was any higher, you'd never want to graduate." He said it jokingly, but he was serious, too. He also called our graduate stipend "beer and pizza" money, not something we are meant to live on. (Given that I do 60 hours per week, I assume he wanted us to take out unpayable student loans.) When another friend of mine questioned him on our lack of health care coverage, he brought out that "not supposed to live on your stipend" line.

I started thinking about that moment again after two recent incidents.

First, a friend of mine recently had someone hit&run on her rental car. She had a rental because of a manufacturer's recall on her primary vehicle, but she also couldn't afford the $17 dollar rental insurance, so she went without. Thus she got hit with a $800 bill which her regular insurance wouldn't cover -- an amount, she emphasized, which constituted 72% of her monthly salary. She was understandably both enraged and despairing.

Then I also recently saw a facebook discussion of library fines from some of my old M.A. cohort people. Because of an issue too long to get into, the OSU library would deliver books to its students from a location far from campus. This was fine if you didn't mind waiting a few days for books, but it also created situations where the system said you had books you returned or which they lost or they forgot to check in when they were returned. Whatever the reason, my colleague had been hit with a few hundred dollars worth of fines for "lost" books.

Her fb comment was heart-breaking: "Screw the osu library. Between that and other bullshit undeserved fines they wouldn't waive, pointless research cost me more than just my time and youth. Not that I'm bitter or anything." Heres the thing: it's been nine years, and *A never got her Ph.D. She's never GOING to get her Ph.D. She could never break free of the stress of trying to write the diss, and anyway she has a tenure-track in a community college that doesn't care about research.

Half the people who start a Ph.D. never finish. Of those half that finish, 9 years is the average time to defense. That's across all the academic disciplines And then, in the humanities especially, add the poverty-level wages, only slightly better than adjuncts (who too frequently become eligible for food stamps). All of that in a high-stress, high-workload environment. Sometimes the lack of affordable health-insurance. The vast uncertainty of job prospects in a market that produces -- intentionally -- drastically more ph.d.s than the market warrants.

And that doesn't take into account all the nickel and dime-ing the new corporate university does to its employees (which it refuses to call us, since that we grant us greater legal rights) -- all the extra fees, the strange accounting practices, the extra ways of squeezing more money out of us.

So . . . yeah. Mental breakdowns in graduate school are not that uncommon, so when the dean of CGS talks about what a great life this is -- well, it's galling, I suppose. I just feel for all the people I know suffering through this. Graduate school has been good for me (as in, "fish in water" good), but my experience has been drastically different from many of those I've known.

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