American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Graduate Education and Academic Labor for Graduate Students during the Pandemic

prabhdeep singh kehal, PhD candidate
Michael D. Kennedy, Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University

“If people need help and I’m here, it's my fight.” – Riri Williams, Ironheart, Issue 9

If faculty are intellectual capital for a doctoral-granting, research university, what are the graduate students? What do faculty communicate and recognize as valuable during graduate education? As Harvard doctoral candidate Nadirah Farah Foley (2020) recently argued, “Our labor sustains colleges’ educational missions. Now it’s time for universities to sustain us.” In what form does sustenance, and dare we say relief, come from these institutions? 

During a pandemic, graduate students may have different needs relative to other arms of academic labor, but departments can center graduate students in their pandemic planning as well as articulate solidarity as a goal and not only a resource. We know decision-making during global crises requires systems of clear communication, collaboration, and reliable relationships. In the context of graduate education, faculty’s discretionary power and proximity to graduate students should not be taken for granted, as these are grounds for building responsive and flexible systems of information that sustain graduate students and faculty. 

We offer a brief analysis of our department’s efforts as they develop alongside our students’ needs. Our institution is hardly typical of the colleges or universities most students navigate along lines, among others, of institutional wealth, size, demographics, or status. Though there are similarities among other PhD-granting institutions, we must respect and think-with the academic labor field’s heterogeneity. Our summary of lessons learned is, thus, meant to help others build appropriately flexible systems for each graduate education.

Affirm Your Agency and Contextualized Knowledge

We are changing through this pandemic, and not equally. Both faculty and graduate student teachers learned to teach online and cultivate remote classroom relations, while those from and conducting research abroad rethought plans. Though university communications were invaluable, their piecemeal, triaging introduced, and increased uncertainty. For example, relief for graduate students, university staff, and non-tenure track faculty was unclear in initial communications, moving concern as to whether any support would be equitably distributed. As ameliorative policies emerged, graduate students continued organizing through Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees to “minimize economic insecurity, provide better healthcare, and protect graduate students and other vulnerable university employees”.

As institutional responses developed, our department’s emerging practice was to name what we do not know and exercise and experiment with our own agency. Communications can be challenging even in a familiar department like ours with 56 graduate students and 27 voting faculty alongside another seven faculty affiliates. But in this crisis, leadership marked what they did and did not know, solicited questions, and created ongoing virtual office hours and town halls. Brown University’s Patrick Heller, Janet Blume, Scott Frickel, Amanda Figgins, and Betsy Valle mobilized departmental resources for, and remained in touch with, graduate students, while prompting faculty to act proactively with their students. With this coordination, faculty have provided summer support for graduate students beyond university allocations by creatively matching contributions from faculty research funds. 

This organic response was only possible, though, because faculty, staff, and graduate students had been building a communicative relationship grounded in trust and honesty over the past few years. Conceptualized as ongoing social practices that could grow or decay, the trust and honesty from prior negotiations in the department could now be used for information sharing. For example, our leadership regularly encouraged the Graduate School to clarify policies and develop additional plans for students while regularly communicating what was newly known and still unknown with both individual students and three graduate student representatives. 

The Future Has Always Been Uncertain

Pandemic in higher education, just as in society, follows and lingers in the racial and colonial color line (Pirtle 2020; Yarbrough 2020). Sociologists must learn from the tools they develop now to inform the academic world they wish to build next. What if we took diversity in need as an invitation for inclusion in matters of academic evaluation rather than a challenge to be managed alongside others? Will we change what we recognize as valuable in academic labor, or cling to the same standards of valuation institutionalized over a century ago? With academic labor markets shrinking, how can sociologists mobilize resources to support graduate students not only during their education but after their PhD? 

It is time to renegotiate the social and economic contract of academic labor to ensure that those institutions educating and training the majority of our students are being supported as such. This begins with a simple choice at the department: Will tenure-line faculty choose graduate students and staff as their allies, or their competition for resources? It has always been this way; the pandemic simply prevents us from mystifying ourselves into believing and acting otherwise. Our discipline depends on graduate students. Their present, and future, livelihoods and our disciplinary distinction are intertwined. Following Riri Williams’s lead, at the very least, solidarity and forward.