Paranoia and Professionalization: The Importance of Graduate Student Academic Freedom

By Dan Colson

As one faculty member in my department often reminds me, graduate students are in an inherently paranoid position. The balancing act of teaching and coursework, the inscrutable whims of a dissertation director, and the heartless machinations of “the University” can all portend our demise. We imagine ourselves tenuously holding on, one unfinished chapter or poorly taught class from being unceremoniously dumped into the overeducated, underqualified mass of jobless failed scholars (perhaps an even worse fate than that of those unemployed academics who have finished their PhDs). In short, the pressures of graduate school turn us into the self-conscious subjects for whom there need be no watchful eye manning the panopticon: Chimerical scrutiny leads many graduate students to unwarranted stress. 

My professor reminds me of this ubiquitous paranoia to ease my mind, but the truth is, graduate students are in a unique position. We are less secure than full faculty yet, in many cases, more secure than non-tenure-track faculty. Although the AAUP has published recommended institutional regulations for graduate student appointments, there remain easy mechanisms for removing graduate students: unrenewed teaching contracts, periodic reviews, and “satisfactory progress” haunt graduate students and create an atmosphere of uncertainty. Unfortunately, this inherent contingency has few definite boundaries. As a graduate student, I should worry if my work is insufficient or unsatisfactory, but all too often I must worry about issues that extend beyond the quality of my research into elements of the learning process itself. I am learning to be a scholar and a teacher at the same time, but the relationship between my scholarship and my teaching is complicated and troublesome.

Ideally, good teaching is tied to quality research, but the general movement toward uniformity across the classes graduate students teach most (rhetoric and composition courses at my university restricts student instructors’ ability to build their courses around their strengths. These strictures have three key consequences. First, they prevent graduate students from developing a pedagogy and persona that is tied to their scholarship: They cannot learn to teach in the way that faculty–scholars are expected to teach. Second, uniformity lowers the quality of education for undergraduates. The best teaching is equal parts passion and expertise: Centralized curricula (required textbooks, themes, etc.) cannot account for the strengths and weaknesses of individual instructors. The quality of education suffers when overworked graduate students are asked to deploy a curriculum that is ill-suited to their research and personalities. Third, since most graduate students are sustained financially by their teaching, and their place in a graduate program is contingent on renewal of their teaching contracts, these constraints generate more uncertainty and paranoia. Restricting graduate students’ academic freedom, their right to teach classes in a way that embraces their singularities, places them in a catch-22: Teach within a structure that has little chance of preparing them for the work they hope to do in the future; or disregard curricular restraints and risk losing funding.

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