Sunday, May 02, 2004

Is there something wrong with me for being really annoyed at the tone of the first paragraph of this Village Voice article about the grad student strike at Columbia? Don't get me wrong: I'm all for grad student unions, and I acknowledge that a lot of the concerns raised in the article are legitimate. I'm alarmed by the casualization of academic labor, and not just because of what it means to my personal job prospects. I'm worried that we're moving towards a two-tiered model of academia, where a small cadre of tenured stars will produce scholarship and a much bigger pool of poorly-paid, untenured adjuncts and grad students will teach undergrads and do the mundane research tasks that are beneath the alpha-profs. I don't think that state of affairs would be good for anyone, besides maybe the alpha-profs: not undergrads, not the academy, certainly not the T.A.s and adjuncts, and if I can be pretentious, not our society. This is all just part of a much bigger crisis about how we fund higher education, and in general we're failing to address that crisis well. At the moment, universities are attempting to balance the books by exploiting workers (and not just academic workers) and by raising tuition, pricing a lot of working-class kids out of higher education. Clearly, this is not ok.

And yet I'm having a really hard time seeing myself as a victim. That Village Voice article makes it sound like I was lured to grad school under false pretenses, and I wasn't. Nobody ever promised me tenure; nobody ever denied the realities of the academic job market. I always knew that there was a chance that I wouldn't find a tenure-track job, and I've kept that possibility in mind at every stage of my grad school career. I've tried to develop a skill set that might have some utility outside the academy. I've thought about how I can sell my dissertation to think tanks, non-profits, maybe even the government. I didn't go into this with the attitude that the world owed me tenure, and I'm not limiting myself to a single career path. I sort of don't understand why grad students seem to think we're the only people in the modern world who should be exempt from thinking creatively or proactively about our careers.

There's also something slightly bizarre about that article's description of grad student life. Grad school does require some big sacrifices: if I'd gone to law school, I'd be making ten times what I earned last year. And I agree that academia has done a particularly lousy job accomodating people's family lives. It's not that you can't get married, as the article suggests, but there's no guarantee that you'll get a job in the same state as your spouse. This is a huge problem.

Having said that, in a lot of ways, grad school is a pretty amazing life. It sounds corny, but I feel immensely privileged to be able to spend my days reading and writing and researching and talking about ideas. Despite the many petty frustrations, I'm sort of flabbergasted that I'm getting paid to do something that's so much fun. I don't feel like my entire life has narrowed to the production of my dissertation, and in fact my dissertation has been enriched by my interactions with a big group of smart, committed grad students from all over the world. At any rate, if I were miserable, I'd leave. It's not like I went to grad school for lack of other options.

(And now I've just been hit with the depressing thought that, because of the VRC, I actually can't leave grad school. I need to keep my health insurance. I think I am not going to consider the career implications of the VRC right now. La, la, la, la, la...not thinking about it.)

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