This week, I’ve been reading about an institution that has violently opposed every kind of educational technology. That has locked up and restricted access to books. That imposed a ban on private, silent reading to prevent the uncontrolled spread of information… no I’m not talking about Trump’s campaign management, I am instead talking about… universities!
Admittedly, some of those heinous misdeeds took place way back in the 14th century, when new typesetting systems had just made silent reading possible and everyone was trying to work out what to do with this scary new thing. My point is that university life has undergone massive change over time: students are no-longer permitted to keep a goat on the cathedral green, although punting down the Cam is still a haven of English pastoral bliss. Pipes have gone out of fashion. Slaves and servants are no longer permitted. I cannot, on a blog, do proper justice to the increased diversity and continuing complexities of race and gender, suffice to say that I am grateful that now I can get a PhD – in dance, no less!
University use of time has changed: in 1830, at one American university, students would get up at six for prayers at 6:45. Seniors were excused from 7am classes, but everyone enjoyed breakfast at 8, and the second class for everyone started at 11. Students would enjoy a light lunch at noon, prepare for their final class of the day at 4, and had to be in their rooms by 8.
The subjects we teach have changed, how we teach them has changed… but universities themselves are slow to change, and I offer the historical perspective as a cry to radically reconsider what it means to be a student, especially a graduate student at the beginning of the 21st century.
Right now, it is impossible to get a job simply by successfully following a course of education. From undergraduate admissions to doctoral employment, it is never ok to just do school. Let’s take dance as an example: a company will often refuse your right to audition unless you have 3-5 years of professional experience. Before you reach that magical point you will mostly work for free, if at all. But if you want to get into an MFA program you have to have choreographic experience, so you work for free and you go to grad school. In grad school you’ll get to choreograph, but if you want to get a job in the academy you’ll need to have experience choreographing for large groups, and MFA students don’t really get to do that, so you’ll work for local studios to get extra teaching on your resume and the opportunity to make work. If you want to teach as a doctoral student, you have to attend conferences and publish articles, and the performing and choreography that tie you to your field have to happen in un-credited time, and don’t even get me started on the process of tenure.
To maintain good academic standing with the university, a graduate student is expected to spend an official minimum of 24 hours a week in study time. To graduate in three years, class requirements actually work out to be about 36 hours a week – as long as you can read and write fast enough to stay within the recommended homework hours – dear other grad students, how possible is that? To pay for graduate education, students are then also asked to spend 20 hours a week working for the university. One semester out of six that 20 hours has now become 25/30, and I would imagine that for graduate students without a university stipend the burden of time needed simply for subsistence living is even harsher.
A 55 hour week is tough, but not unbearably so, if you’re generally healthy, and you don’t have kids, and your partners are understanding, and your friends are flexible, and you’re willing and able to give up your other professional commitments while you’re in a university program… and those are all gigantic and unreasonable ifs. Of course, what with time between classes and warming up and meeting with your students and another student’s crisis and rehearsals and “I’ve been grading for three hours and I need a cup of tea and a break before I start this paper” it’s NEVER just a 55 hour week. EVER. A “55” hour week that earns you a hair over $15,000 a year pre-tax, pre university deductions, pre insurance etc. etc.
And then you realise that if you want to be employable when you graduate you need to have another job on top of your extra-full-time job, and that when you are employed it is most likely to be as an adjunct – a position subject to horrific abuse by the university system, without guaranteed hours, pay, or benefits – more on that, and please watch it, here.
Am I complaining? Well… yes, I am. You’ve just sat with me for 500 words of me doing just that (not counting the introduction because, frankly, that was just fun), so I can’t really deny it. I also love grad school, and I would honestly rather be spending my time here right now than anywhere else, but loving grad school doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the fact that the conditions it imposes on faculty, staff and students are systemically… tenuous. I am not blind to the 50% attrition rate of PhD students in American universities. I am not blind to the fact that statistically 47% of doctoral students, and 37% of master’s students, met the clinical criteria for depression in 2015, not counting those experiencing symptoms of other illnesses, or those who simply didn’t quite tick the boxes.
This is not a complaint specific to my own program (I’ve simply drawn data from where I know it best), nor about any program or university in particular. It is not a demand for less work or fewer opportunities. It is simply a statement of the need to re-think what it is to be a graduate student. Or to think about what you want a graduate student to be. We’re not going to bed at 8 anymore. We’re not going punting. What are we trying to do instead? How does that mean universities have to change?