How To Radicalize Graduate Students

Take these simple steps to intimidate, alienate, and agitate your own flock of graduate students.
By Heather Steffen

As the recession, budget cuts, endowment losses, and Republican governors gut university funding, campuses across the country have become host to occupations, union actions, and demonstrations.

Except for yours. When you gaze out on the quad, all that greets you is a file of book-bagged undergraduates nose deep in text messages, a few graduate students hauling books and lab equipment, and that weird squirrel with the crooked tail. What’s wrong with your corner of the ivory tower? Why aren’t your students marching shoulder to shoulder with the others? You included a three-week unit on Marxist criticism in your fall syllabus and proudly display your Obama ’08 poster, and last month you tacked a strip of Jorge Cham’s comic critique of academia over the photocopier, but your graduate students stubbornly look only to their reading, teaching, and the lab.

If this sounds like your campus, it’s time for a change. The steps below offer simple ways to rile up and radicalize your university’s graduate student population. Why target graduate students? Because they live and work at the crux of the university: when they’re not bothering you, these people are teaching undergraduates, giving conference papers, and living lives entwined with the community. Radicalize them and your university’s troubles will be broadcast where it counts—the classroom, the hotel bar, the statehouse. (And you can be assured, doctoral students will protest with abandon, having already demonstrated an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation by considering academic employment in the first place.)

But before we get to the steps you need to take, one caveat administrator: the things that radicalize are the same things that enervate. Your graduate students, appearances to the contrary, are intelligent adults with adult responsibilities and concerns. Those Chuck Taylor sneakers carry them home at the end of the day to support partners, care for children, feed pets, and call aging parents. Pressures and duties of that magnitude, on top of the commitments they’ve made to your university, are what make each turn of the screw worth two. But if you push too far, you’ll exhaust your most capable rabble-rousers and wind up with nothing but a bunch of broken-spirited, careerist brownnosers in your program.

On the upside, they’ll probably improve your program ranking, but walk this tightrope carefully. If you follow these six steps and keep a sharp eye out for signs of the tipping point between insurrection and burnout, your campus, too, can ring with the tones of disaffection, discontent, and incipient democracy.

Step 1. Build on graduate students’ existing strength: worrying. Depending on your region and Carnegie classification, you may be well on your way to creating a culture of anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt among your graduate students, and lord knows they arrive with plenty of that already on hand. But no matter how competitive and intimidating your campus is, the first step to fostering a vibrant radical population of graduate students is getting their hearts beating faster. These three tactics are sure to give any grad student’s pulse a jump-start:

A. Evaluation Assassination. When you evaluate a graduate student’s work, do you treat it like that of a future colleague, engaging with its ideas and style as if you were reading a friend’s article draft? If so, you’ll need to relearn your approach to grading. every seminar paper and dissertation chapter represents an opportunity to shake a graduate student to the very core. An offhand “This is not doctoral-level work” will more than suffice in most cases. (Nota bene: The probability of a demand for rationale decreases in inverse proportion to the time between submission and return of work.)

B. The Draft-and-Switch. Prospectus, research performance evaluation, thesis overview, dissertation: the merest whisper of any of these words makes graduate students curse having lapsed (“It was only one slice!”) on that irritable bowel syndrome diet. The draft-and-switch takes advantage of their inevitable prostration before the task of defining an academic identity. Advisers, perk up your ears.

A prospectus draft hits your inbox. Open that sucker up and give it a skim—does the lit review or the original research get more airtime? Whichever it is, fire off a response within hours apprising your student that she’s failed to incorporate the other. Include a list of at least six monographs against which the student has not adequately positioned herself, and request a total rewrite within three months.

Revision in hand, warm up your reply button, because you’re about to drop a bomb: the document must again be completely recast, and you are concerned about the project’s viability: “This reads like a review essay; what is your argument?” Before closing, recall to the student’s mind that her standing in the program depends upon swift approval by multiple entities and reveal that you are not at this juncture certain of her ability to meet the deadline. Will the student think she’s lost her mind? Will she spend the next two hours combing through her e-mail for your previous comments? Yes, all the while shaking like a leaf. Give yourself a pat on the back, open a celebratory diet coke, and wait for draft three.

C. The HPT Meeting. Around the Pentagon, HPT stands for “high-payoff target,” and that’s exactly what you’re aiming for, so use this tactic sparingly. Here, HPT is a mnemonic you can use to plan meetings with overconfident graduate students.

A few days after a friendly interaction (drinks at a reception, a chat in the hall about good news on the publishing front, or some similar light conversation), casually request a meeting with your student to check up on his progress. Be sure to say something personal in the e-mail to maximize the sense of informality (“I was glad to hear that your cat’s surgery was successful!”).

Meeting set, the HPT agenda proceeds as follows: (1) Humiliate the student immediately by asking an exam-style question tangential to his area of knowledge. After he stumbles through an answer, inform him that he is devastatingly wrong (for proper affect management, imagine he’s just farted audibly while speaking). As he tilts toward the abyss of his self- doubt, (2) patronizingly offer an olive branch to help him out—a task useful to your own research that also happens to be the only thing capable of saving him from his overwhelming wrongness. You’ll either get a domesticated free research assistant or he’ll resist, declaring that that is not what his project is about at all. If the latter occurs, (3) bring out the threats: “It will be very hard for your thesis to gain my approval if this is not accounted for.” As fear enters your student’s eyes, open the door, extend your best wishes to the cat, and tell him you’ll look forward to seeing how his work progresses. If you’re not naturally coldhearted, the HPT meeting might shake you up a little, but keep in mind that as you’re sipping your evening pinot, your student might be getting in touch with his inner Wobbly at the bar down the street.

Step 2. Practice nepotism and lack of transparency in policy and decision making. Experienced administrators will roll their eyes at this one: “I already do that. I wasn’t promoted because of my sterling teaching record, you know.” But for the sake of faculty readers new to the managerial rim of the labor divide (that’s you, Ohioans), a few words on nepotism and obfuscation are in order.

Nepotism in regard to graduate students is easy, and chances are you’re already better at it than you think. Have you ever invited a couple of friends to present on a panel because writing a call for proposals would take too long or given the nod to a mediocre job candidate whose thesis happens to be signed by your college roommate? Congratulations, you’re half-way there! Now just turn the same principles to the assignment of plum classes and jobs to your favorite graduate students.

When they start to notice the repetitions in the course catalog, it’s time to shut the window on your decision-making process. Remember that graduate students are heavily invested in meritocratic and democratic ideals, so if they see perks accruing where they aren’t deserved and program requirements becoming a moving target, they’re going to want to nose out the culprit. By keeping the decision-making process tightly under wraps, you’ll not only increase its efficiency but also help your graduate students hone their investigative research and networking skills while they close read the handbook and compare notes with their comrades in other departments. Suppression of information is the agar in the petri dish of revolt, after all.

Step 3. Raise tuition and fees. Graduate students don’t pay tuition, do they? But why not? Take a look at your department’s budget sheet—how many of your hard-earned FTEs are wasted reimbursing the university for graduate credit hours? No one’s even teaching those classes, what with the pack of dinosaur ABDs you’ve got hanging around. A refresher on accounting and some well-timed hints about counterbalancing the athletic director’s fall spending spree will not only unify students across the two cultures, it might even get your name on the CFO’s go-to list next time a spot opens up in administration. To preview the results you can get from this one simple tip, look no further than California and Illinois, where just the threat of tuition increase spurred months of strikes, insurgent dance parties, and the authoring of manifesto upon manifesto.

Step 4. Pay them below the living wage. Choosing to starve your students might sound distasteful, but if they’re getting PhDs in late-thirteenth-century barley farming or the morphology of south Bolivian musk gnats, they must come from well-to-do backgrounds, right? These pampered savants need a reason to identify with the working man, and there’s no better way to foster identification than to make sure they’re standing behind him in the Shop ’n Save checkout line instead of flipping through a Dwell at Whole Foods. It might make them less entertaining dinner companions, but the gains in class consciousness will more than compensate for any lack of fluency in microgreens and manchego.

Step 5. Cut centers, programs, and departments. Even—if you’re as daring as the Minnesotans were—dissolve the graduate school. For maximum impact, go for the arts and humanities first. Donors and corporate partners are unlikely to register the loss, and students on the softer side of campus are already steeped in leftist theory, jealous of their profs’ glory days in the sixties and convinced of the need to enlighten the masses, so they’ll take the dissolution particularly hard. (And when was the last time you saw video of stomatology students getting arrested for failure to disperse?)

Step 6. Keep that tenured head buried in the sand. Are flyers about a graduate student union showing up on the bulletin board across the hall? Did the administration just announce that graduate tuition and fees are going up? Who cares? You’ve already got fifty-two hours of research, peer reviewing, committee work, and lecturing to do every week, so going to bat for your grad students is the last thing on your to-do list, and you should let them know that—loud and clear. If a wild-eyed graduate student idealist asks you to talk to your faculty senate or to advocate for the union, blink confusedly, mumble something that intelligibly includes the word “busy,” and remember to keep your office lights dimmed next time you come in for a meeting. Knowing they’re on their own encourages graduate student self-reliance and solidarity with organizations that really can help them out.

Follow these six easy steps, and pretty soon your campus could join the lucky ones already garnering the attention of police and Fox news anchors. Then you can sit back and let your grad students and the exasperated public take it from there. As one effectively and efficiently radicalized student at the University at Albany put it last January, “A lot of people who are supposed to be protecting us aren’t doing that. So unless we turn a little wolfish on them, they’ll just eat the sheep.”

Heather Steffen is a PhD candidate in English at a research university in the Rust Belt, where she is working on a dissertation about academic labor in the Progressive Era. Her e-mail address is heather.steffen@gmail.com.

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