I had coffee recently with one of my dissertation students. We talked about his workload. He reads a book a week for our independent study, in preparation for writing the dissertation proposal he will defend in May, and he probably reads twice as much for the intensive theory seminar in which he is enrolled. He is also preparing to take comprehensive exams over Thanksgiving break. And he is, of course, a teaching assistant. He is responsible for three sections of a large introductory class, each holding twenty-five students. That makes seventy-five students in all. We talked about a lot of things that day, but publication, not surprisingly, never came up.
I got my first publication opportunity in graduate school. It came from a graduate student, the editor of a grad student-run film journal at another university. She approached me at a conference and asked me whether I wanted to revise my paper for publication. I revised, dutifully, and submitted. Reader reports came in; I revised again, and the article was accepted. It wasn’t easy to get the revisions done. I was still in coursework, I had comprehensive exams, and I was a teaching assistant. At the time, I thought I had it rough–I was responsible for two sections of an introductory course, a total of thirty students–but it certainly wasn’t impossible to get the work done.
So obviously the title I’ve given this piece is ironic. The Monty Python skit to which it alludes is an escalating series of complaints about how much easier the kids have it today. But when it comes to postgraduate education, that’s utter bullshit. Some people are lucky, but for most grad students, the work that’s required to earn the stipend is double what it was ten years ago. Knowing that tenured faculty are aware of this is cold comfort. In fact, I can imagine that it is enraging to learn how much easier your advisor had it, especially if she now has the outrageous luxury of a sabbatical in which to do her writing. Sympathy is no kind of compensation. In fact it can easily turn into a substitute for action.
Ashley Dawson mentions the importance of seminars on publication, but those kinds of things seem like window dressing to me. Sometimes I wonder whether they work against people’s interests. You only get so many courses in your time in graduate school–why spend that credit taking a seminar about publishing when you could enroll in a course where you learn new stuff, think about things you’re interested in, share your ideas with your peers and test-drive them in a seminar paper? But then again, maybe these professional development courses have their advantages. A gut seminar on how to get published can give you more time to revise something for publication or, if you are saddled with twice as many students as your faculty advisor, it can give you some breathing room so you don’t have to spend every Saturday night grading. Who wouldn’t want that?
Ultimately, though, I can’t help feeling that all of these well-meaning professionalization courses that faculty “teach” (the quotes reflect the fact that, quite often, a minimal amount of preparation is involved) are motivated by an insidious combination of accomodationism, ensuring the system never changes, and guilt-alleviation on the part of the liberal professoriate. The bottom line: academic publishing requires more than a room of one’s own; it requires time. Don’t buy it when your department chair tells you that he toiled in the vineyards too. It was a lot easier then, and he knows it. I agree with Ashley when he says that organizing with other grad students is important–how could I not, when a grad student gave me my first break? But organizing should go beyond establishing the intellectual and professional networks that are necessary for doing, and sharing, your writing. It should also involve working to change the terms under which you earn your stipend, because that is the only way you are going to get more time to write, and write well.
Some suggestions: get your grad reps (or your union, if you have one) to start speaking up in faculty meetings. Tell them to make it a single-issue semester–they should never stop asking the tenured professors whether they would be able to get their writing done if they had to teach the number of students you teach. Guilt your advisor into raising the problem at curriculum meetings, if you think it’s possible. Tell your students about it–your excessive workload hurts them too–and ask them to mobilize their undergrad reps on the issue. Suggest to the person you TA for that they do some of the grading, too. People won’t want to talk to you about it. You’ll hear about the intractability of deans, the need to keep enrollments up (the varieties of buck-passing are endless) but remember that ultimately, it’s your department too.