Friday, December 02, 2005

Learning from graduate student labor

Sandra Tam, a Ph.D. candidate in social work and women’s studies at the University of Toronto has written a nice essay over at Inside Higher Ed ( on "Demystifying the Intellectual Work of Grad Students" that confronts some of the persistent contradictions wrapped up in information labor. For example, she points out that "people’s acceptance of scholarly endeavors and graduate studentship as a privileged type of work often occurs at the same time that they disparage the actual associated academic activities" and products which result from this work -- accusations of elitism coupled with anti-intellectualism. But instead of just laying out some of the polarizing misperceptions that emerge about information labor, Tam asks why such misunderstandings are produced and reproduced in the first place:

On another level, the comments suggest that the intellectual work of academics and graduate students does not fit with other types of work, such as physical, manual, skilled trades, professional, service, care, and/or domestic labor. Perhaps people are just not familiar with scholarly work of graduate students and academics. Perhaps I need to explain what is it that I do between the figurative hours of 9 to 5. Some aspects of my work are more obvious than others. People generally accept that graduate students take courses, research articles, or teach, which involves developing courses, preparing materials/lectures, grading assignments, and/or academic counseling of students.

However, most of my time is spent thinking, reading and writing. There is less vocabulary for describing what I actually do when I think, read and write. How do I target what to read, which databases to search, which email lists and professional associations to subscribe to? How do I decide which conferences or lectures to attend, whom to network with, and which journals to submit my articles to? In addition, there is academic grunt work, for example, coffee making for conferences, data processing, transcription and assorted clerical tasks, babysitting professor’s children, or attending academic and community events and meetings to build future research alliances.

The rest of Tam's article explores one aspect of the invisibility of graduate-student academic labor by invoking a concept from feminist studies known as "provisioning":

Feminist economists developed and defined provisioning as the work of securing resources and providing the necessities of life to those for whom one has relationships of responsibility. Provisioning is introduced to make observable a wide range of work and work-related activities that reflect how young marginalized women are creatively surviving by juggling pressures and responsibilities of school, work, and family, while planning careers in an uncertain labor market. In a similar way, provisioning reveals the tasks and details of what I do as a doctoral student.

Provisioning might indeed be useful to explore the grey area of "employment versus education" which doctoral candidates inhabit. (Witness the acrimonious debates right now, both at private institutions like New York University and public institutions like my own UW-Madison over the dual nature of Teaching Assistant working conditions -- "are they workers or are they students" -- with no room for any dialectical understanding that in the process of producing knowledge and becoming knowledge-producers, they might be both.) But I think Tam's essay should point us as well to the ways that even post-Ph.D., salaried or waged information labor -- and academic information labor in particular -- might be misunderstood and mischaracterized (or, perhaps I should say, differently understood and contentiously characterized).

The fragmented space and time of information labor (am I "working" at home, late at night, when I brainstorm ideas for my next class or my next book on my laptop computer?), the polarized "front stage" and "back stage" performances of academic responsibility (time in the classroom is valorized, but time sending emails, compiling bibliographies, and blogging weblogs is not), and the differential social and temporal scales of research even among faculty in the same department (contrasting folks expected to author a dozen articles a year in collaboration with a group of smart Ph.D. students with people like me who need three years or more to conceptualize, research, and write a sole-authored book) all stand in stark contrast to many other kinds of labor. It seems to me that building a new vocabulary to describe, analyze, and legitimize graduate student work -- the kind of vocabulary which Tam suggests is currently lacking -- would benefit those of us in academia who are former graduate students as well.

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