Tag Archives: graduate-students

Battelle, J. (2005). The birth of Google. Wired, 13.08. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.08/battelle.html

Google was the brainchild of Sanford graduate students Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who named the software googol, the name for the number one followed by 100 zeroes.

Unlike search engines that ranked results by keyword, Page and Brin’s system ranked results by the amount of links at each site. This mechanism privileged sites with more links, making them more “important” in search. The students cobbled equipment together in their dorm rooms and offices to service Stanford with PageRank, which regularly brought down Stanford’s internet connection in the fall of 1996.

Bousquet, Marc. “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible.” Social Text 70 (2002): 81-104. Print.

In this gritty analysis of the situation of PhD students, Bousquet explains that the idea of a “job market” for new grads operates rhetorically, not descriptively. He asserts that we must discard the Fordist assumption that the situation of those with doctoral degrees can be explained through a traditional production analogy, because PhDs are not, in fact, the primary products of the graduate employee labor system; post docs, adjuncts, and part time lecturers are.

The labor monopoly fails in this case because holding a degree no longer represents control over who may practice – in fact, getting a PhD is the logical end of one’s teaching career.

The system has no trouble bringing persons in through its primary gateways: admission to a graduate program at a research university. Its only problem is disposing of them after it has extracted six to ten years of their labor, to make room for new cheap teachers.

Irony: ghe best and most experiened teachers can be found in junior and community colleges, as the richer colleges expel those with the most experiecne in favor for “fresh meat,” young graduate students from whom the university plans to extract years of cheap labor.

The joke’s on us: PhDs are the waste product of a graduate education. Most graduate students are already laboring in the only academic job they will ever hold.

In order to better understand what’s going on, Bousquet says, we need to deploy an excrement theory of graduate education. The reason grad students feel as though they are being “treated like shit” is because they actually are the shit – the excrement, the waste – of the institution. They serve as cheap labor, and when their time is up, they are flushed away before they cause a toxic blockage to the system. The remedy, says Bousquet, is for graduate students to recognize the power to be had be being a toxic blockage. If they refuse to be flushed away, the system must respond internally.

The way to do this, for Bousquet, is through organization of unionized labor. By getting the message across to administrators and legislators that graduate students are not merely student apprentices, they labor – this idea is what Bousquet calls “we-work.”

Implicit in the understanding that “we-work,” and that this consciousness must be materialized in law, social policy, and workplace practice, are four important realizations:

  1. We are not overproducing PhDs, we are underproducing jobs
  2. Cheap teaching is not a victimless crime
  3. Casualization is an issue of racial, gendered, and class justice
  4. late capitalism does not just happen to the university, the university makes late capitalism happen

The conditions of the professoriate and the state of undergraduate education are intimately tied in to the abhorrent situation of hyper-exploitation of graduate student labor. Bousquet calls on grads to organize and on professors to speak out against cheap teachers. He shames professional organizations (particularly the MLA) for not recognizing and supporting the imperative of improving labor conditions for graduate students but for instead adhering to the administrative status quo. He points out that cheap graduate teachers are cheapening the entire academic system in myriad ways, from top to bottom, and offers specific ways in which it could be salvaged.

Fun fact: in 2002, 44% of higher education faculty were unionized, but the benefits of organization did not apply (or very rarely applied) to graduate students.


Bernard-Donals, Michael. “Interchanges: Solidarity Forever–Why TA Unions Are Good for Writing Programs.” College Composition and Communication 61.2 (2009): 437-451. Print.

He asks: “Should the work of grad student TAs be seen exclusively as a part of their apprenticeship as preprofessionals?” (440).

He says: Those who make this argument badly misunderstand both the nature of the current academic marketplace and TA work.

The fundamental argument here seems to be that though the traditional arrangement of TAs as that one prof designed a course and TAs helped run it, TAs now are mostly responsible for designing, teaching, and evaluating. Same responsibilities as tenure track profs, no protection or compensation.

3 ways unions work to the benefit of writing programs:

  • specify workload and terms of appointment (U of Wisconsin’s “workload worksheet” w/ specific duties & expected hours of completion
  • professional support of TAs (some programs offer no training to their students; TA union contracts can specify required training
  • process of bringing unfair practices to admins (“the phrase ‘benign neglect’ often characterized the way in which a faculty member oversaw teaching assistants” under the apprenticeship model (447)

Bernard-Donals claims that having a TA union made running the program much easier because there were clear boundaries and his decision making powers were constrained by contract. Says that exploitative relationships are almost inevitable given contemporary economy.

Lee, Jenny J. et al. “Tangles in the Tapestry: Cultural Barriers to Graduate Student Unionization.” The Journal of Higher Education 75.3 (2004): 340-361. Print.

The authors begin by acknowledging Nathan Glazer’s statement that “‘In the end, it is rather easier to change the world than the university” (341). Chronicling the relatively brief history of graduate student unionization, the article proceeds to introduce its purpose in identifying and better understanding the cultural barriers to this practice. It does so by examining the qualitative data gathered in 34 interviews with graduate students, administrators, and staff through several theoretical frameworks concerning culture and identifying the implications of their findings for faculty, administrators, and graduate students. The study took place at UCLA

Pains are taken to examine competing definitions of culture, which when taking the different levels of interpretation by “individuals, departments, institutions, and so forth… may be viewed as an interconnected web that is understood by recognizing both the underlying structure and the participants’ actions and interpretations (Geertz, 1973)” (345). Relying on Schein’s model of culture, which focuses on artifacts, espoused values, and underlying assumptions to make sense of how cultures operate, they examine these elements as they exist within subcultures of graduate students, faculty, and administration.


Graduate Students Their findings revealed that while most graduate students did not oppose efforts to unionize, many did not participate. Reasons for not participating were captured in the interviews, most of which boiled down to the idea that “we should get our work done and get out of here” (351). Because of the temporal nature of graduate school, many viewed the effort it would take to organize a union as too great a burden on their time and ultimately as a barrier to graduating. Some identified the stigma of unions and mentioned that unions were for “blue collar workers,” which the researchers claim point to the entrenchment of the intellectual ideal in academe. The interviews indicate that there is “an underlying assumption linked to [graduate students’] temporary… status: a sense that being overworked and underpaid is to be expected” (351).


Faculty Interestingly, while Lee et. al. claim that faculty is usually in support of efforts of graduate students to unionize in theory, in the interviews, some faculty expressed disdain for the “rules” that would be imposed upon them as a result and even indicated that nothing would really change as a result of a union contract.

‘The contract won’t be followed closely. People may pay lip service to it, but things won’t change. This contract could limit everyone’s flexibility. We’re in academia. We should have the autonomy to make our own decisions without having to follow all these rules and criteria.’ (353)


Administration Administrators, who often see themselves as the “caretakers” of the university, voiced concerns ans misgivings over unionization that the authors identify at times as “paternal.” It is the administration that most often presents the most difficult barriers to unionization, and as such the authors emphasize that administrators should be educated about the history of this movement and potential benefits to adopting it.


Lee, Jenny J. et al. “Tangles in the Tapestry: Cultural Barriers to Graduate Student Unionization.” The Journal of Higher Education 75.3 (2004): 340-361. Print.