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Can Graduate Student Teaching Survive?

If graduate students don't want to find themselves replaced by video lectures delivered by “information curators,” collective action will be essential.

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There is, however, some good news: the Obama administration’s NLRB appointees are expected to once again grant members of Ph.D. programs the right to organize in the very near future. And if anyone can challenge the frightening trends in U.S. higher education, it is graduate students. If graduate students like myself do not want to come into work one day to find ourselves replaced by video lectures delivered by “information curators,” we will have to learn to take collective action. We need to organize not just because teaching loads are too high or pay is too low but because if we fail to do so, academic work itself—the daily grind of pursuing knowledge and developing arguments—will wither.


Since at least the Second World War, there had been a fairly wide and durable consensus that the United States had the best universities in the world, that this was a good and important thing, and that the better the universities were, the better it would be for everybody. Even the harshest critics of universities found in them a kernel of promise. Student radical Mark Rudd, for example, famous for his 1968 warning to the Columbia administration to get “up against the wall, motherfucker,” argued in 1969 that universities were an important resource, a “place from which to launch radical struggles.” Once his revolution failed to materialize, Rudd became a community college math teacher.

Indeed, the flight of a previous generation of rebels into the university indicates one of their most important attributes: though they appear staid, universities are often a refuge for those with new ideas and an incubator for those ideas—social, technological, and scientific. At their best, universities have been able to combine the practical and the theoretical and achieve extraordinary things for society. They have powered regional booms and waves of innovation in such places as Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh, and the high-tech corridor along Route 128 near Boston. Today, in any given midsized city in the United States, the largest employer is probably the university-and-medical complex (“eds and meds”). A catalog of the inventions, medicines, and ideas that first emerged in a university department would read like a timeline of the last hundred years of history. And though they are far from models of egalitarianism, universities have proven essential to U.S. democracy itself—providing opportunities for social advancement, contributing energy to numerous social movements, and allowing for the development and discussion of uncomfortable subjects.

But today, for the first time in living memory, higher education has an array of antagonists who are not just critics but outright enemies. Last year, Florida governor Rick Scott said of his state’s universities, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” The sound bite played into a long tradition of right-wing anti-intellectualism, but there is now an agenda to back it. State governments have abandoned their public universities financially, and their political appointees on university boards push administrators to slash any programs deemed a waste of money. Meanwhile the market share of exploitative for-profit colleges has expanded rapidly to fill the spaces caused by cuts in public education.

These profit-seeking trends are also growing stronger at traditional (nonprofit) private schools. Although most don’t face the same budget problems as public schools, they have made endowment growth and competitive position the arbiters of institutional success. At Yale, where I am in graduate school in history, the administration has scaled back discretionary funds for academic departments and become increasingly stingy toward, and resentful of, its graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. Recent policy changes keep many Ph.D. candidates from the teaching jobs that are their livelihood and speed them through their programs too fast to do good research. The dean of the graduate school urges students who have not struck research gold in their first two years (a time span in which it is virtually impossible to achieve major research goals in many fields) to drop out with a master’s degree and seek other employment. He fondly refers to a would-be historian who ended up making a fortune on Wall Street. As his office put it in a recent report, “Some of our most successful and generous alumni used their master’s degree to build satisfying careers.” Meanwhile, Yale has built a new campus for its business school at a cost of $230 million—an amount of money that could fund the entire graduate school for nearly seven years.