Are Grad Students “Doing What They Love”?

A few weeks ago I was in a room in which people were debating the pros and cons of forming a graduate student union. News of NYU’s victory vote was still fairly fresh, and many Yale students were eager to step up the push for union recognition. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale has been spending recent months on laying the groundwork: recruiting more graduate student members, promoting the idea of a union as a worthy goal, etc. but hasn’t gone much into what it will do with such status.

I’m for a graduate student union. Scores of public universities have them, and private universities should have them too. Obviously, Yale is one of the more better off universities when it comes to graduate student wages and working conditions, but there’s always room for improvement. On a more fundamental level, it would be great if graduate student labor was acknowledged as labor – especially since graduate students teach the discussion sections, writing-intensive sections, and some full courses as well as conduct research and undertake all sorts of other projects as a part of their time at the university.

But the conversation I heard wasn’t even about the nitty-gritty stuff. Some had mentioned questions about tax issues that arise from calling grad student work “work.” Others had talked about the importance of a union for bargaining, while others were skeptical of what a union could do that student government or department-level organizing could not. All fine points, I suppose. But one person asked how similar a graduate student contract would be to the unions already operating on campus (technical and clerical workers, for example), and whether that was a good thing or not. Another fair point, but then the speaker ended it with this:

Presumably I’m a graduate student and I love what I do, and would be doing it regardless of the money if financially possible, while a janitor is not really interested in his job.

I was struck by such a framing. I was struck even more by the response, which was circuitous and ended with:

I would say that that maybe that custodian does love his work.


Labor is labor. There’s not really any way around it, but work in the classroom is work in the factory is work in the call center. There are different types of labor, but they are still labor. The idea that loving your work means that that work is suddenly priceless in some way just doesn’t make sense. If you love your work, you fight for your work. You protect it for all it’s worth – demanding that its worth be acknowledged. At the same time, judging what you love based on what the market says it’s worth gets at a whole other issue. Either way, I couldn’t believe my ears when both the critic and the proponent of unionization decided to couch labor in terms of loving what you do.

It just so happened that Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra had just been published a couple of weeks prior to this discussion. In it, Tokumitsu explains that such a motto creates a divide between “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” She turns her pen to academia, writing that:

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL [‘Do What You Love’] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

There might be a debate to be had over unionization. But that debate shouldn’t be about how much we love our discipline versus how much others love their jobs. It should be about how, if we love our work, we’ll fight for it. The adjunctification of higher education, the shrinking budgets of colleges, and the eagerness of universities to push out graduate students demand more of emerging scholars. Those scholars should demand more in return.


Against Teach for America

I’ve never been a big fan of Teach for America, and in the last few years I’ve grown to downright hate the organization. And yet, I’ve never actually explicated about it on this, my more enduring venting platform. Now seems like the time, though, as a conference called Free Minds, Free People is organizing against TFA this summer. This is happening despite TFA’s broad popularity among education “reformers” and neoliberal bureaucrats that would love nothing more than to break teachers’ unions and privatize the education sector. Can you tell a rant is forming?

None of this is groundbreaking opinion if you’ve been paying attention to the education scene. Governments at all levels are tightening their purses when it comes to education, and public schools are doing what they can to continue teaching the students entrusted to them. And by doing what they can I mean by and large students are being funneled into giant classrooms where they’re being prepared for the next standardized test. Social studies took the brunt of the class size increases while English, math, and more recently science absorbed the standardized testing aspect. But right now the English classrooms and science labs are growing too, and there’s perennial talk of state-standardized social studies exams. And as this continues across the country, some states are working hard to shut down teachers’ unions and shuttering schools. Only now are we finally seeing resistance, but even this is a little defense against an onslaught of government and business efforts to radically alter education for the worse.

Enter Teach for America. Plucking college graduates from across the country, TFA throws them into a summer preparation course before placing them in some of the toughest communities in the country to serve students in dire need of a quality education. Instead, students on the margins are being taught by brand new, untested and unqualified teachers who have only committed to two years of teaching before they move on to graduate school in fields only tangentially related to education like administration, psychology, or business. The aim of the organization is to concentrate not on actually helping students in need but instead on providing top college graduates with experience before they move on to other fields.

Take, for example, a statistic my friend (a former TFA-er) told me: Teach for America has the same number of staff tasked with recruiting at Columbia University as it does tasked with organizing teacher placement for all of the New York City area. That number is two. You could also take this professor’s widely-shared reasoning for why he refuses to let TFA recruit in his classroom:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

Treating youth in need as stepping stones to graduate school is but one of the major flaws with TFA. TFA’s woefully inadequate preparation for its teachers and tremendous lack of support for them is exacerbated by the fact that the two-year volunteers crowd out qualified teachers who are looking for work and create cracks in the fragile labor system that is teaching. I studied for four years and spent over 1000 hours teaching – including a semester in my own classroom – just to gain the experience and tools needed to be a good teacher, and even then I knew I had several years to go before I would be able to say that I excelled at the job. I’m desperate to get back in the classroom now solely because I want to continue that climb. But if I were to join TFA, I would be out the door and onto the next professional achievement outside the classroom before I could even get the hang of taking attendance. That is, of course, if I were accepted by TFA, which is notorious for rejecting people who want to be teachers and accepting future leaders in business and administration.

One former TFA-er reflected on the statistics of TFA teachers versus new, credentialed, trained teachers:

 Compare the performance of Teach For America corps members to another cohort: credentialed, non-TFA corps members. The same study indicates that novice TFA teachers actually perform significantly less well in reading and math than credentialed beginning teachers at the same schools. Keep in mind that to “perform significantly less well” as a teacher is quite literally to have a group of 10, 100, or even 200 students learn less than they would had you not been their teacher.

If you’re interested, you can read others’ thoughts on TFA here and here. While I think he gives a little too much credit to TFA, this former participanstill advocates for shuttering the program, citing the experience at his school:

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

This teacher goes on to inspect the budget of TFA and it reflects what was mentioned above: 40% of TFA money doesn’t even show up in the classroom. Keep in mind that a number of school districts hire TFA teachers instead of experienced, certified teachers who want to be teachers. As cities like Chicago move towards mass closings of schools and cities like Philadelphia privatize their school districts, and teachers that remain employed in the schools that remain open find themselves saddled with excess work that stresses the system to its breaking point, TFA is breaking apart teachers – the only group still working to actually educate students. It’s efforts like this, aimed at keeping needy students in the margins in order to benefit elite future business and law school students while our school systems crumble, that tears me up. Teaching is my absolute passion, and I’m sitting here watching the whole education system torn down by TFA, by high-stakes testing, by No Child Left Behind, by Race to the Top, by reformers, by administrators, by governments. But these groups and objects have operated all as one. As Andrew Hartman explains, in a brilliant look at TFA:

TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.


Successful charter schools, [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp maintains, also stop at nothing to remove bad teachers from the classroom. This is why charter schools are the preferred mechanism for delivery of education reform: as defined by Kopp, charter schools are “public schools empowered with flexibility over decision making in exchange for accountability for results.” And yet, “results,” or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools. Rather, crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher’s unions.


From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education. TFA insurgents, including Kopp and Rhee, maintain that, even if imperfect, standardized tests are the best means by which to quantify accountability. Prior to the enactment of Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes standardized testing was mostly limited to college-entrance exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But since then, the high-stakes testing movement has blown up: with increasing frequency, student scores on standardized exams are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations, upon which rewards and punishments are meted out. Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy—the brainchild of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools—further codifies high-stakes testing by allocating scarce federal resources to those states most aggressively implementing these so-called accountability measures. The multi-billion dollar testing industry—dominated by a few large corporations that specialize in the making and scoring of standardized tests—has become an entrenched interest, a powerful component of a growing education-industrial complex.

Teach for America. High-stakes testing. Charter schools. Union-busting. School-closing. It’s all part of the same, terrible effort to throw our education system in the trash, and I’m glad to see more people resisting. With the economy making its slow climb out of the recession, many states are gaining or expecting surpluses. Schools are right to demand that this money go into education and not into privatizing more of our public goods. Teachers are organizing, and hopefully it isn’t too little, too late. The fight’s just starting, but – with hope – we can save our schools.

We are the 99% – 1890 Style

I recently started a part-time job at a library on campus, stamping and source-marking books and manuscripts in acquisitions. My first project has been to sort through a large array of broadside ballads and booklets of songs. Last Friday I happened upon something pretty great: the December 17, 1890 edition of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain & Ireland. The issue is a collection of labor songs, and one on the front page struck me as particularly linked to contemporary issues. Unsurprisingly, it seems workers chanted against the stark inequality of the top one percent long before last September. Here’s a scanned copy, with the text below.

“Chants of Labour,” from December, 1890.

“There are Ninety and Nine”

There are ninety and nine that work and die
In want and hunger and cold,
That one may live in luxury,
And be lapped in the silken fold!
And ninety and nine in their hovels bare,
And one in a palace of riches rare.
From the sweat of their brows the desert blooms,
And the forest before them falls;
Their labour has builded humble homes
And cities with lofted halls,
And the one owns cities and houses and lands,
And the ninety and nine have empty hands.
But the night so dreary and dark and long
At last shall the morning bring;
And over the land the victors’ song
Of the ninety and nine shall ring,
And echo afar, from zone to zone,
“Rejoice! for Labour shall have its own!”