Unpaid Labor

How does a graduate student in the humanities make a living? I entered graduate school at UC Irvine in 2009, amidst the Great Recession. Ignited by the subprime mortgage and financial crises, the economic recession brought on a new wave of budget cuts to the public university. This (mis)management of the crisis is part and parcel of the turn, starting around 1973, toward neoliberal privatization, which, it can be argued, was what led to the recession in the first place. The series of budget cuts fell especially hard on the humanities, at a time when departments were measured based on numerical standards that plague public education at large (see, for example, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System). At UCI, one of the manifestations of this was the designation of certain departments, notably diverse ones, as needing attention, concurrent with the intent to cut language and humanities requirements from the undergraduate curriculum. (For more on the “needs attention” designation, see this reading guide, which highlights the conservative notion of the humanities on which it was based, and this elaboration of consequences, one of which was the freeze on faculty recruitment.) In other words, humanities departments were threatened for not having enough majors and/or enrollment at the same time that policies were contemplated that would have the effect of keeping their numbers low. This was done at the same time that their very existence was thrown into question based on doubts regarding their ability to “pay for themselves” (see, for example, this account by a UCI professor and administrator). Responses (such as this and this) to this supposedly “numerical” assessment of department productivity point out not only that the cited numbers are wrong (at times maliciously, against diversity), but that they fail to comprehensively take into account the work that department members perform, including, notably, scholarly research (!).

This context is better documented and debated about elsewhere. I mention it here to ground my own discussion, which aims to look at the working conditions by which students have to live as they pursue their PhDs. Graduate students are not necessarily the ones worst affected by the budget cuts, but we are certainly there at the bottom. It is also not the case that these recent cuts caused our current working conditions. What I describe here through my personal experience has been true for a while; in fact, these conditions define the structure of humanities graduate education in the US, compounded by the neoliberal trend toward privatization, the budget cuts being one of its symptoms.

So how do humanities graduate students make a living? For the most part, graduate students support themselves through teaching assistantships, also known as TAships. Fellowships are available to some as well, but they typically last only a year, maybe two, and they are not adjusted for inflation (my fellowship this year, 2014-2015, of $2,000 a month for 9 months is the same as what I got during my first year, in 2009-2010). Graduate education in the humanities lasts 5-7 years, so for most of one’s graduate career, TAships constitute the major lifeline for the student. How much does one make as a TA? In 2013-2014 (the last time I was a TA), my annual pre-tax income was $17,655. This is considered a 50% teaching appointment, so it’s supposed to be earned by working 20 hours per week. This breaks down to about $1,962 per month, a rate of $24.52 per hour. Looking only at this per hour rate would lead to the wrong conclusions about graduate student working conditions.

First of all, let’s look at it in relation to the cost of living: $1,962 a month is hardly a livable wage in Southern California. According to the living wage calculator (based on the 3/24/2014 update), the living wage for a single adult in Orange County (where UCI is) is $13.12 per hour, which translates to $2,099.20 per month ($13.12 multiplied to 40 hours per week times 4 weeks; this is actually an understatement since the living wage calculator presupposes 2,080 working hours per year, which is about 173 hours per month). So we’re almost there, but not quite. But even this does not give the full picture. Graduate students earn $1,962 per month only during the school year, i.e. for 9 months. For a full 3 months in the summer, we don’t have any income, or can’t rely on our job for an income. So for 3 months, we’re making $0 in relation to a $2,099.20 monthly living wage, those $6,000+ having to be made up for by the income we make the rest of the year, which already falls short of the living wage. So the $1,962 per month we make is, if we take the three summer months into account, really more like $1,471.25, and we’re supposed to live on that in California. One can argue: well, can’t you get a teaching job in the summer? If you’re lucky. I’ve been doing that for the past 4 summers, but this year, because of my fellowship, I didn’t get offered a teaching position. And if you do get summer teaching, you’re supposed to teach for 10 weeks, and get paid for only 8, at a rate of $1,648 per month in 2013, way below the $2,099.20 living minimum, and, let’s not forget, with one month still unpaid for.

In other words, we can’t look at the per hour rate without looking at things such as the cost of living. And even if we focus on the per hour rate, we have to look at cumulative totals. Again, the $24.52 per hour ($18.39 if we spread it out to the whole year) is supposed to cover 20 hours of work. This is misleading. First of all, this per hour rate has a ceiling, namely, the $17,655 income per year, $1,962 per month for 9 months (more like $1,471.25 per month for the whole year). While the per hour rate looks good, you can’t work, as it were, more than those 20 hours (say, by teaching another section) to get a higher monthly or annual income. Technically, you can get a second non-teaching job, but let’s remember that there are costs and barriers to entry in any industry, which would be characterized by yet another pay scale. More pointedly, you already have a job: shouldn’t one full-time job be enough to cover your cost of living?

Yes, graduate school is a full-time job, and more. In a more important sense, you really can’t work more than the preset 20 hours because, in actuality, you are working more than 20 hours. Let’s see what “20 hours” really mean. They designate the hours a graduate student is supposed to work as a TA. For composition classes, the appointment most commonly available to graduate students, TA duties include class instruction, class preparation, grading, office hours, responding to emails, attending staff meetings, etc. Composition classes at UCI have 21-23 students (this went down to 19 this year, still not low enough), so 20 hours is less than an hour devoted to each student per week. And if a student in particular need comes to you after 20 hours, I guess you’re supposed to say: Ooops, sorry, already done my 20? In other words, “20 hours” do not accurately measure graduate TA work. More importantly, TA work is not the only component of graduate work. What about taking graduate classes, doing research, fulfilling program requirements (the MA review, foreign language exams, the qualifying exam, the writing of the dissertation …), professionalization—in other words, what about the student’s own work, i.e. graduate scholarship? The “20 hours” do not take that into account. In this simplest sense, scholarship, what graduate students went to graduate school for in the first place, is, technically and in actuality, unpaid.

But of course everybody knows that TAships are there to support graduate scholarship. In other words, the $17,655 annual income ($1,962 or, more accurately, $1,471.25 per month) is supposed to cover both teaching and study. If we accept this line of argument, what would the per hour rate of graduate work be? Let’s say that one only spends 20 hours a week for teaching. What about studying? How many hours does a student spend on that? For me—and I would say this is pretty typical of graduate students—it’s everyday and all the time. But let’s say we want to quantify it. One starts one’s graduate career by fulfilling coursework, and irresponsible classes assign one book a week (at least) with no identified selections; in a semester or quarter, one usually takes 3 classes, so that’s about 3 books a week. Let’s say one manages to do that work by spending 40 hours a week (a modest estimate, as any graduate student knows). Added to the teaching hours, we can say then that a graduate student works 60 hours a week, i.e. more than 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. To highlight just how modest this estimate is, at the end of the term, on top of all the readings, presentations, and participation, the graduate student is supposed to write a paper of graduate caliber for each class. In the school term modeled after mass production also known as the quarter system under which UCI operates, we’re supposed to come up with that within 10 weeks at the same time that we’re grading our own students’ papers, all 21-23 of them. But again for argument’s sake, let’s just say that a graduate student spends 60 hours a week teaching and studying. What is the graduate student per hour rate, then? It’s $8.18 or $6.13 (depending on whether the summer months are included). That’s below the $9 per hour minimum wage in California. There’s another term for that: exploitation.

I can anticipate two objections to this conclusion. First is the objection that graduate study is unpaid because it’s school, not work. The best variation of this argument states that graduate study is an investment for a future profession that affords the investor the ability to recoup the original investment, plus a substantial profit (e.g. tenure stereotyped as unconditional job security). I don’t dismiss the notion of investment per se, and I don’t think it’s necessarily capitalistic (after all, the same notion appears in psychoanalysis, even schizoanalysis, under the name cathexis, which is more than economic, narrowly speaking). But everyone knows that humanities PhDs face a saturated job market with precarious prospects in which, for example, tenure is increasingly replaced by adjunct positions. If graduate study is an investment, overwhelming evidence suggests that its structure is broken, in which case it really isn’t working as an investment, and there, it seems, is no “too big to fail” clause to protect student investors. Similarly, if we are to maintain the argument that school is an investment, then it has to be admitted that it is characterized by disproportionately (fatally?) high risks, which should warrant exceptionally high rewards for those who survive attrition and succeed in the job market. If we think this, however, it does get us into a capitalistic mode of thinking regarding something that is not solely or primarily about making money. That is, this logic inserts the humanities within a capitalist framework focused on making money and which reifies risk, at the price of labor. Indicative is the way in which this line of thinking attributes investment only to individuals, ignoring the social conditions that make investment possible and to which, in many ways, what is invested returns. More pointedly, this future-oriented notion of investment that accepts exploitation at all costs no matter how bad the present working conditions fails to see investment as itself work that, like the workers, ought to be accorded respect and protection.

The second objection points out that while, in terms of wages, graduate study is indeed unpaid, in another sense, it is paid, since the TAship or fellowship pays for the graduate student’s tuition and other fees. Against this, I would point out first of all that not all of a graduate student’s fees are paid. My winter 2014 bill says that my fees amount to $5,184.50, of which $4,928 is covered by my TAship. In other words, on top of the fact that I’m already short of living wage every month, somehow, every quarter, three times a year, I’m supposed to be able to come up with $256.50 to pay for school. One can add $5,184.50 times 3 (for three quarters a year) to graduate student TAship income to come up with graduate student “gross” income, but this is a dubious proposition. First of all, graduate students do not get that money; in fact, as I pointed out, we have to make up for the difference. Secondly, at UCI, we are at a public university. Counting university fees as part of student income (how much a student “makes” a year) plays into the neoliberal discourse that views education as a commodity that each individual customer has to pay for—anyone who does that has no place in public education. Against this, public education’s own raison d’être should lead it to assert in no uncertain terms that education is a public good that is integral to the collective work of the community, hence a social resource and responsibility.

Needless to say, this post is not intended as an attack on UCI or public universities; rather, the goal is to use my experience at UCI in an attempt to describe graduate student working conditions. Likewise, the post is not meant to dissuade prospective students from going to graduate school in the humanities. I do sometimes find myself resenting graduate school, or my younger self for being naïve, or planning badly. However, while deciding not to pursue a PhD is a legitimate response to such conditions—and I argue that any prospective student should know about them—I would point out that arguing that no one should go or that you shouldn’t go to graduate school because of your financial profile undermines graduate education and, more broadly, scholarship. It takes part in the cycle in which because no one “wants” to go (which morphs easily enough into: it doesn’t matter, the work it does has no value), well, then, let’s get rid of it … Rather than a warning cry telling others to jump off the ship, the post is more of an attempt to convey something like, See what we’re going through, and fight with us, fight for the humanities, and, indeed, for education (what is happening, after all, is not limited to the humanities). Teaching and scholarship, at least in the humanities, are not primarily about money; at the same time, however, money is what feeds the teacher/scholar, what gives him a roof over her head … I must admit that these sacrificial (tragic) or heroic (comic) conditions to which graduate students are put makes me very angry, indeed—certainly the sane and, I argue, politically viable response. At the same time, I think it’s important not to pour out anger indiscriminately, but to direct it to the appropriate targets, to the real causes. It is vital, after all, to understand precisely the nature of our wounds.


(Many thanks to friends who read earlier drafts of this post. Needless to say, any errors, distinct from the moral injustice, are mine. See also The Graduate Student Debt Review.)


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