Living Cheaply

The campaign this year is asking students to think specifically about whether they’re “living cheap enough,” Ainsworth said, and encouraging them to forgo immediate gratification for the payoff of graduating with minimal debt.

“I understand that it’s poverty wages,” he said of many students’ budgets, “but [they] have to understand what [they] do now, [they’ll] pay for later.”

That’s A. Jerald Ainsworth, dean of the Graduate School at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, quoted today over at Inside Higher Ed, on making sure poor people are acting poor enough. The article gets moderately better later on, when discussing other options such as limiting fees or raising loan limits, and makes a less than passing reference to maybe providing more assistantships to graduate students, but that quote is a kicker.

Graduate students work a lot, and are paid very little. Ainsworth even acknowledges that we’re talking about poverty wages. But his solution isn’t to provide more support, instead it’s making sure students continue to be poor, but do it better. But we all know that living cheap takes its toll on those doing the living, and when the very same people are doing the researching and the teaching, it’s students and work that are dragged down too. And if you put impoverished grad students alongside impoverished adjuncts, you’re talking about a bulk of the work being done on most campuses being a casualty to a lack of support or even adequate pay.

Living cheaply means pretty much everything is more time-consuming and life-draining. It’s difficult to teach at your best when you had to wait half an hour for the bus before sitting in the bus for another half hour to get to class on time, all the while lugging your bag full of assignments you had to grade while sitting at the laundromat. And since living cheaply means cooking instead of eating out, you might have to make that return trip for lunch. And keep in mind that amidst all of this, you’re trying to do top-quality research in order to move forwards, all the while trying to excel at living cheaply.

I’m curious how cheaply these people expect graduate students to live. I’m lucky enough that I have a manageable, rather than unbearable, amount of debt thanks to help from my parents with tuition and my wife working all of the time. Meanwhile I walk a couple of miles a day and frequently devise plans to get free food. I suppose that Ainsworth’s campaign might tell me to assess my utilities and turn the heat down a little, but they could make the required hospitalization insurance cheaper or provide more teaching positions or provide better notification of scholarships. And these are mostly PhD students we’re talking about. In some ways, they have it far better in that they receive tuition stipends and are first in line for teaching fellowships. Often times, MA students are self-financed and (if they’re lucky) get the leftover teaching assignments. Only one in my cohort of eleven are teaching this semester, and only some of us received funding for tuition.

Rather than teaching graduate students to be better at being poor, maybe provide a little more support for them?

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