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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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If this “tsunami” is allowed to wash over our university system, then we will have cause to despair not just for academics, but for a country deprived of expertise about looming, preventable disasters. It is hard not to dread how a public already primed for skepticism would evaluate the opinions of a low-status, deskilled academy on, say, evolution, economic stimulus, antibiotic overuse and superbugs, or climate change.

And yet it seems that the only people who are particularly alarmed by the situation, and thus capable of doing anything about it, are those trapped in the path of the corporate juggernaut.

The beginnings of such efforts have appeared in various branches of Occupy directed at university administrations—most prominently last fall at UC Davis—and in the Québecois student movement. But the same paradox plaguing Occupy Wall Street in general dogs them too: moral force has failed thus far to produce political organization and, therefore, exerts little real power. The emergence of undergraduates and recent graduates speaking with a clear voice about their debt burdens should be welcomed, and will be an important part of any movement to reclaim the universities. But it is not sufficient on its own.

Among faculty, two opposite conditions combine to produce inaction, beyond the normal reasons that professors are more oriented toward their work and families than are students in close social contact with each other. Although many senior and tenured professors recognize the problems at their universities and colleges and attend or organize rallies, sign petitions, and so forth, the professoriate is very far from being organized enough to exert significant control over the direction of institutions. Meanwhile, those without tenure or even a chance at it usually cannot afford the career risks of taking action.

This leaves graduate students, who, I believe, are uniquely positioned to observe and act to reverse the deterioration of conditions for academic work. The collapse of the job market is likely to define the course of much of our lives. In the sciences, many will spend years shuffling from one postdoctoral position to the next, hoping, by maintaining an inhuman pace of work, to score an increasingly unlikely breakthrough to a tenure-track job. In the social sciences and humanities, much the same goes, but with adjunct teaching positions instead of postdocs, even fewer tenure-track jobs, and without the scientists’ escape route via Exxon or Google. What is more, since many of the crises described above have not yet reached their zeniths, graduate students about to enter academia are likely to be hardest hit.

Graduate students are positioned to see the crisis nearly as clearly as adjuncts and postdocs do, but we are less likely than our slightly older colleagues to face immediate retribution for attempting to organize. We are in frequent and direct touch with each other and share much more of a sense of community than any professors, adjunct or tenured. This allows us to build the bonds of solidarity necessary to effect significant social change and to withstand the hostility that such efforts inevitably provoke.

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There is an immediately viable and plausible mechanism for graduate students to organize and gain political leverage: the trade union.

Unions are already present at many public universities, though their strength varies widely. In many cases, they are vulnerable to the budget axes of revenue-starved state legislatures. Yet despite having many thousands of engaged and activist members, virtually none have managed to build social movements around themselves in a way that could gain them some leverage over state legislatures. The opportunity the Teaching Assistants’ Association at Wisconsin had disappeared with the failed recall of Governor Scott Walker. In Michigan, the union movement is aiming to enshrine organizing rights in the state constitution. This effort, partly a response to the Republican governor’s union-busting of research assistants, may offer a model to follow, though it’s unclear how much such efforts will institutionalize bargaining power.