Universities Must Save the Next Generation of Essential Workers

The pandemic is threatening graduate students even though their labor is essential to the university and its students, argues Sarah Stinard-Kiel.

June 30, 2020
 
 
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I am one of the essential workers you have never thought about. My graduate student colleagues and I are your future teachers, researchers, scientists and social workers.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is threatening our already tenuous job prospects and the next generation’s access to quality classrooms, scientific discoveries and leadership for supporting populations in need.

Even in “normal” times, graduate students are asked to sacrifice, to go into debt, to live in a constant state of anxiety. Before the pandemic-induced hiring freezes, the likelihood of attaining a secure academic job was slimmer than ever, with many considering contracts renewed yearly a lucky gig given the alternative might be working as adjunct professors for a pittance and no benefits.

Parents who send their children to large public institutions like Temple University may not realize that one-third of all courses are taught by graduate students, according to a study by Temple University’s Graduate Student Union. Many of us begin with little classroom experience and are also engaged in full-time research or writing. This is not to disparage graduate instructors. Some of my best undergraduate courses were taught by graduate students, and I personally take great pride in the classes I’ve taught throughout my Ph.D. work.

In fact, I see many graduate students devote more energy to teaching than tenured faculty. My point is that graduate student labor is essential to a university. Graduate teaching assistants and instructors generate hundreds of thousands of tuition dollars for the university. And besides teaching, graduate students across fields work as researchers, counselors and health-care workers. Yet we are rarely paid a living wage, we receive no stipend over the summer and our futures now are drying up before our eyes.

As universities rushed to move courses online because of the pandemic, all professors and instructors were left with less than a week’s time to overhaul their lectures, seminars and labs to accommodate the crisis. Across institutions, few instructors were compensated by their university for the added labor of learning new technology, creating new assignments and helping students navigate redesigned courses.

With underpaid, unsecured instructors scrambling to educate, many of whom have no income during the summer and no guarantee of funding in the fall, how can the university expect quality undergraduate education? The answer: they cannot. If graduate instructors were compensated to reflect their contribution to the university, they could spend less time applying for piecemeal research and travel grants, as well as less time searching for summer jobs in the service and retail sectors. Allowing graduate students to solely focus on their research and teaching would greatly improve the quality of their work, the quality of undergraduate education and the quality of the university.

Even under the best circumstances undergraduates are getting shortchanged, but what about students with disabilities? Or students who lack access to technology or reliable internet? Or those who might not even have a safe place from which to learn? Educational institutions that continue to rake in money off the backs of graduate students are failing communities at every level.

Even when no immediate crisis exists, university systems will often use the excuse of budget cuts to avoid pay and benefits increases. My academic department offered graduate students who helped faculty transition their courses online compensation for their labor, and it routinely finds summer teaching jobs for those who need it. If a department can scrape together enough resources, then certainly universities can dip into their coffers to support graduate students. During a crisis, such support should not depend on which particular department a graduate student is in. The university should take responsibility to ensure we become better online instructors and have our basic needs met.

We know that the system cannot change overnight, but by providing graduate students pay that is commensurate to their contribution to the institution, we ensure a hopeful future for academe. At this moment, that would include payment for mandatory online teacher training, a summer stipend and health care for their families.

We talk about the future of the retail trade, the oil industry, the entertainment business, but this is the future of the heart of our democratic society. We are your current and future teachers, the scientists who will be creating strategies to combat climate change, and the public health officials who will be ameliorating the next pandemic. In order not to lose a generation of diverse and engaged scholars, universities must act now.

Bio

Sarah Stinard-Kiel is a Ph.D. candidate in geography and urban studies at Temple University researching trauma-informed care in social services and is student councillor for the American Association of Geographers.

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