A Contribution to the Critique of Graduate Student "Work" by Kelly Swope

Work is not uniform among Vanderbilt graduate students, but it is universal.

Among the universal issues driving Vanderbilt graduate students to unionize–comprehensive healthcare coverage, stipend increases, legally arbitrated contracts–the issue of recognizing and improving graduate student “work” is an essential one. According to the National Labor Relations Board’s 2016 Columbia decision, “work” is what all stipend-receiving graduate students at private universities have in common, and our legal status as workers allows for cancer biologists, civil engineers, and literary critics alike to form a single collective bargaining unit through which to negotiate contracts with our employer. Despite these assurances from federal labor policy, however, I have heard many graduate students express concern that our work varies so widely across departments and programs that they cannot see the common thread in it. Indeed, different departments ask for different contributions from their graduate students depending on their missions. Some departments ask graduate students to serve as instructors of record in introductory courses as early as the first year. Others allocate teaching assistantships that involve grading and guest lecturing under faculty supervision. Some require a combination of these first two (such as my own Philosophy Department), while others require no teaching at all from their graduate students, instead putting them to work as research fellows or laboratory assistants. Long story short: work is not uniform among Vanderbilt graduate students, but it is universal. Federal labor law recognizes this basic fact about what it means to be a graduate student at a private university, while Vanderbilt’s administration, longing for bygone days, continues to present us with alternative facts about what we do for the university.

Yet all graduate students, no matter our area of study, need to cultivate specialized professional skills in order to survive in our PhD programs and become competitive candidates on the job market.

Once we acknowledge that work in all of its forms is the legally sanctioned foundation of our solidarity, we can start to think for ourselves–without the administration’s counterfactuals–about what our work means for us and for the university as a whole. The first thing we notice is that graduate work is a universal economic need without which we could not become viable candidates for future jobs. Now, the administration tells us that we ought to think of ourselves as “students first,” rather than as employees, and that we ought to view our work in terms of “professional opportunities,” rather than professional needs. Yet all graduate students, no matter our area of study, need to cultivate specialized professional skills in order to survive in our PhD programs and become competitive candidates on the job market. Gaining teaching and research experience is not an optional “opportunity” that we may or may not choose to seize, according to our whims. Imagine a new humanities PhD trying to compete for a tenure-track job at a four-year teaching college without having ever been an instructor of record or a TA during her graduate career. Imagine a biomedical engineer trying to land an industry job with a medical technology company without ever having worked in a state-of-the-art laboratory. Neither of these candidates would have a fighting chance. Encouraging us to think of graduate student work as an educational “opportunity” rather than an economic need is to mislead us about our relationship to the world beyond Vanderbilt University.

Graduate work generates substantial economic products that bring revenue and recognition to Vanderbilt.

The second thing we notice about graduate work is that the university depends upon it for its day-to-day functioning. That is to say, at the same time that graduate work meets our own professionalization needs, it also generates substantial economic products that bring revenue and recognition to Vanderbilt. Countless examples corroborate this essential point. As far as graduate teaching is concerned, Philosophy PhD students serve as the gatekeepers of our department by designing and teaching the Introduction to Philosophy and General Logic courses that are required for the undergraduate major. Similarly, English PhD students design and teach writing-intensive cultural studies courses that fulfill core requirements in the undergraduate curriculum. On the research side of things, science and engineering students labor year-round in labs generating raw data that eventually turn into publishable papers for their faculty supervisors. Every paper that comes out of a lab staffed with graduate student workers contributes to Vanderbilt’s growing global reputation as a leader in science and engineering research. And let us not forget the hundreds of graduate teaching and research assistants whose efforts as graders and editors generate time for Vanderbilt faculty to write the articles and books which secure their own positions within the university. Knowing how integrated graduate students are into the productive activity of the university, it is nothing short of amazing that Vanderbilt’s administration continues to claim, contra federal law and all empirical evidence, that we are not employees.

The structure of a graduate education presupposes a measure of equality between graduate students and the faculty who teach them–further confirmation that even as students we act as professionals do.

This twofold understanding of work as professionally necessary and economically productive should influence how we think about the “student” part of our status as well. We know, for instance, that the educational dynamic between faculty and PhD students is quite different from that between faculty and undergraduates. For, unlike our undergraduate counterparts, graduate students have already demonstrated a certain level of competence in our subject matter and are in the process of becoming faculty ourselves. Hence, we are expected to deal with the same intellectual materials that tenured faculty deal with, and to produce intellectual work of comparable quality to our teachers’. Moreover, graduate students are encouraged–if not expected–to submit our work to professional conferences and peer-reviewed journals where the best minds in our fields come together to judge each other’s work. By graduate education, then, we understand an activity that is already professional in numerous respects. This is not to say that no significant knowledge gap obtains between PhD-holding faculty and their graduate students. It is rather to recognize that the structure of a graduate education presupposes a measure of equality between graduate students and the faculty who teach them–further confirmation that even as students we act as professionals do.

Vanderbilt owes us more than it currently gives us for our labors, and we owe more to ourselves for giving so much of our lives to this institution.

I hope this analysis makes clear that the corporate hierarchies at Vanderbilt University do not reflect the real conditions of graduate student work and education here. A graduate student properly understood is the unity of a worker and a learner. As workers, we are both trainees and producers in relation to our employer. As learners, we are both students and colleagues in relation to our faculty. These activities entitle us to negotiate with the administration concerning the conditions of our employment. Furthermore, they warrant the recognition and accountability that a legally binding contract would bring. Vanderbilt owes us more than it currently gives us for our labors, and we owe more to ourselves for giving so much of our lives to this institution.