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.



So, I might be starting my stint as an intern at a local refugee resettlement agency here. After going through the (often-times very long) process of being accepted as a refugee, many people finally find themselves resettling in the Phoenix area. When they first arrive, they get a sparse bit of help directly from the federal government and they begin a process with each state to put them on track to a new life. My task will be to make sure they know the ins and outs of life around these parts.

Earlier this week I sat in on an orientation which including getting people up to speed. The refugees in the room had almost all just arrived within the past week, and many were just beginning to figure things out. Wednesday and Friday I sat in on another, smaller orientation where the group learned about the services they are receiving from the state of Arizona. Before long, I’ll be leading similar orientations to help clients get a feel for what’s going on around them and teaching about state services, mass transit, home rental policies, the justice system, and laws.

And Summer Turns to Autumn…

A year ago, I was returning from 10 weeks of adventurous interning in Uganda, ready to get back to my job, busy myself wedding planning, and getting back in the overloaded schedule of classes. This August, I’m in a slightly different situation. I began the year by getting married (awesome!) and teaching up a storm, but the reality of my circumstance is that – except a two-week stint as a long-term sub – I’ve been unemployed for virtually all of 2011.

I had high hopes for starting a new school year tomorrow, but my hopes have so far been dashed. As school districts across the East Valley begin with their respective staffs, I’ve been getting pretty down about the prospects. During this summer I’ve applied for six positions (every single one I found) and have had no luck so far. I’m leaning on substituting, but don’t really know the reliability of that either.

I’ll be spending most of this week in Washington, DC – because unemployment is the most opportune time for vacations – and when I get back I think I’ll be hunkering down for any sort of income I can get my hands on. In the meantime I’m also trying to find ways to build up my academic resume for next year’s prospects when my wife is done with school. I have relatively no idea where I’m headed right now, so it’s been a grueling road so far. I’ll continue to jump on every teaching opportunity I can, but in the meantime I’ll be on the old-fashioned job-hunt. Hopefully things will look upwards at some point. I can’t really go a whole year without a job.

Coming to America

So, I’m back!  I’m still getting used to everything here.  With the help of a steadier internet connection, I’ve put pictures up about Murchison Falls, Prom and Kampala for your enjoyment. I’ve also started the cultural detox of trying to use regular English a bit more (still saying a Ugandan rendition of “sorry” and I “ah-ah”-d our dog as if she were Ugandan).  I’ve been home for a good week now, and things are finally settling.

Saturday I launched full speed into life.  I met our dog Cindy, who is completely adorable and kind but can be very timid – sometimes I think she’s scared of me.  I’ve enjoyed walking her, though, and it’ll be nice to get to know her better.  Saturday night Kim and I took her to a dog park in Scottsdale and met up with Kenny.  I also cleaned out the rat cage, and Vlad and Jasper have gotten really skinny, so I’ll be checking on their health and making sure they’re okay.  Sunday I went over to my parents’ house and enjoyed a nice welcome back party.  Almost all of my family showed up and I got to see everyone and have some delicious food.  I ended up doing a (somewhat) impromptu slideshow and talking about random points of interest before we watched a movie.

Mariah, my car, is completely broken.  She worked okay on Saturday but has been out of commission ever since.  I got a new battery and I fiddled with the terminals a bit, but it’s looking like it might be the starter or alternator, which sucks a lot.  Hopefully I’ll get everything patched up before school starts.  Speaking of which, I’ve spent the past couple of days buying books here and there getting ready for a rompin’ course load.  School starts on Thursday, so I’ll be getting into the groove soon enough.  I’ve enjoyed my first and last full week of work – back to the grind of splitting my time between building ScanGauges, boxing them, and answering e-mails.  Things haven’t changed too much while I’ve been gone, so that’s good.  Next week I’ll be dealing more with car problems and school starting so we’ll see how I fair then.

ACF and My Last Week

As the end to my hopskotch volunteering, Erik found me some work with his team at ACF International.  Erik works in food security and last Friday I helped for a few hours since they needed to sort through an excel sheet of some 1,500 names to find conflicting reports.  This week, though, I got to do my ILF expertise: data entry!  The food security program gives unconditional funds to a number of beneficiaries in villages to ensure that they can provide for themselves.  On Monday I had an overview with Cresencia, a woman from Erik’s team, and four surveyors.  We went over the questionnaire and I made some changes to the main document while the surveyors translated everything into Luo.

Tuesday was my free day.  I spent a lot of time at home working on homework and gave dumplings a second try (turned out okay!) and then went out with a bunch of friends to PanAfric for Erik’s birthday dinner.  Food was delayed (like, two hours delayed) but it was great hanging out with everyone and I got see Martin and Annett’s place (they have little houses for all of their animals in the compound – too cute).  Got home and crashed soon after.

For the rest of the week I’ve been spending mornings (and a little bit of the afternoons) upstairs at the ACF office entering data from the questionnaires.  It’s interesting because I’ve never been an advocate of handing out money to people.  I’m still not fully convinced that it’s a sustainable program or that it helps any more than other methods that might promote more ownership.  That said, it’s been interesting to see how the money is spent.  Almost without fail, the beneficiaries are spending money on life essentials: food, health and education mostly, sometimes shelter.  On Wednesday I also took the position of native-English-speaker and edited some case studies written by German- and Luo-speakers to make sure they sounded good to donors.

Friday afternoon I spent relaxing and packing.  I threw all of my clothes and books and stuff together, and I hung out in the compound a bit.  I also ran around town a little getting soda for Alison’s farewell party.  The party was a lot of fun, I tried to dance a bit but that – as expected – was piecemeal at best.  But I got to hang out with a lot of people one last time and it was a lot of fun.  However, as the party wound down we realized there was a party crasher in our midsts.  Soon thereafter, Alison lost her phone and when I called it it was turned off.  So, we patted down the stranger and kept him inside – until a bad coincidence in which I was the last one outside and I turned away and then heard the gate shutting.  I ran outside and heard footsteps across the field, but couldn’t figure out how to give chase.  In the end, it was a really frustrating end to the evening, and I feel really bad for Alison.  Hopefully she can find the numbers to her Kampala friends and use my phone while we’re there together.

I’m spending the night at the ILF house tonight, and then I’ll finish packing in the morning.  Kampala, here I come!

Two Weeks

This post is about last week and next week, hence the title, but it also just so happens that in exactly two weeks (and three hours) I will be saying so long (and apwoyo) to Uganda.

In the passed week, I have bounced around sufficiently, and in a number of ways.  I spent two days working at International Lifeline Fund, three days working at Erikatten Buds Nursery School, and two days not working at all.  One day I actually, are you ready? consumed a bit of alcohol.  Altogether I spent three nights sleeping over at Ama and Alison’s place.  I also had the house to myself for a few days with both Nadja and Monica out to pick up significant others.  In more recent days I have met said significant others and played badminton.  It was a very up-and-down week of being really homesick and down and really social and distracted.  I was also really glad to be finding some work where I didn’t simply sit for four hours.

More recently, Lira is pretty much drained of water.  On Monday night I noticed the kitchen sink had no pressure, but thought maybe it was just something weird.  Tuesday morning we realized the kitchen and washroom had no water but the rest of the house did, so we figured the pipe burst or something.  Little did we know, the whole town was messed up.  At the nursery school we were getting water directly from the tap of the tank.  Junior Quarters (where the nursery, ACF, Erik’s house, and Ama & Alison’s house are) was completely out.  It was supposed to get fixed last night, but we’re all still waiting and conserving.

Next week will be my last week in Lira.  It’s very, very bittersweet.  I wish there was a way to go home without leaving Lira, but I’m pretty sure it would take a few natural disasters to make that happen.  This weekend I’m thinking about making a solo trip to Murchison Falls, but it could very well turn into a solo trip to wherever I get lost to, so I’m trying to get everything in order.  Next week I’ll hopefully be working with ACF International for a few days and checking in with NACWOLA one more time.  I’ll probably roll into Kampala on Saturday and spend a few days with friends before making my way to Entebbe.  I’ll check back in with more formulated plans and maybe some more pictures!


Typed the morning of Wednesday the 22nd of July.

This Friday, to round out my week of bouncing around town for work, I went to a small nursery school run out of a Swedish woman named Erika’s home. I spent the day helping five children between ages 3 and 5 with geography, mathematics, and English and monitored playtime as well. It was really interesting because it was such a small atmosphere and the students were really getting attention to help them learn. I helped children find different cities on a map of Uganda, made sure they counted, added, and subtracted straws correctly, and made sure they copied down the right letters. Now, I haven’t been to a regular school in Uganda yet, which is a real shame because i know it would be a very interesting sight.

Just from footing passed a small school on my way to the matatu from George’s place and passed St. Anne’s on my way to NACWOLA I’ve heard the drone of hundreds of children reciting numbers and reading words off the board.  Some of my friends refer to it as “chanting class.” Rote learning can really only take you so far.  Since they are paid by salary and there is little accountability, there are a lot of cases of teachers not even attending class.  There are still many schools that are basically a teacher sitting under a tree talking to students with no materials or curricula.  Being in a small school with adequate attention being given to students was really nice.

I went back to the school yesterday to help out some more.  The power and water were both out (water is apparently out in all or most of Lira town, so we’re all rationing and Erik borrowed a bunch from us last night) but we were able to still do some math and some English.  I’ll probably go back at least one more day before my time here is up.  Here are a few pictures from my two days at school:

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Work! And a little worry.

In the days since the World Cup, there’s been a lot of confusion and hearsay. I heard confirmations that a bomb was deactivated in an area in southeast Kampala. Also heard unconfirmed reports of a bomb being deactivated at a petrol station. I know a lot of expats in Kampala are (understandably) worried and are trying to get out of there. Lira has been quiet, but most of us have an ear to the south and an eye on the news. My basic plan of action is to avoid Kampala until it’s time to leave, and then figure out exactly how safe Kampala and Entebbe will be.

In the meantime, things are maintaining regularity here.  Still no work.  Hope was actually really angry about not having funding yet, and when she found out just how soon I’d be leaving she was even more unhappy.  I ended up asking around and nudged myself into possibilities.  Yesterday I seconded myself to International Lifelife Fund and helped Alison with data entry.  It was nice to have a longer workday with actual work and also be able to hang out with her and Ama.

ILF has a sort of two-pronged program, and I was helping the environmental department which sells fuel efficient stoves to people (the other is sanitation with wells).  The stoves, called okelo kuc, are portable and use less charcoal and take less time to cook.  The environmental department oversees stove distribution and do surveys.  When I was in Gulu I ran into ILF doing pricing surveys, asking people in Gulu town how much they would pay for them.  Yesterday, I did some data entry including information for potential vendors of stoves and a small stack of the aforementioned pricing surveys.  If you want to learn more about the stoves, there’s a bit on their website.

Yesterday there was also some torrential downpour – it reminded me a lot of the occasional insta-storm back home.  I ended up moving with Alison and Ama and watched a movie before Alison and I double-teamed a pasta and bruschetta (she led, I followed) before watching another movie and then I proceeded to crash there.

Today I’m probably doing some more data entry, and tomorrow I’ll be shifting to another volunteer opportunity where I’ll help a woman who is running a really small nursery school.  The last half of this week is proving more beneficial than the first half of my 2 month stay in Lira.  Plus, I’m always on call from Lisa for when the UNOHCHR goes into the field.  Supposedly, funding will come through next week for NACWOLA, but I don’t know if I believe that or if programs will start right away.  I think I’ll be bouncing back and forth for a bit – but I’m glad to be productive!


Typed the 25th of June at Sankofa.

Today I went out to Ogur Sub-County.  Ogur is a small village north of Lira a ways. The road is narrow and bumpy to say the least, and it takes about 40 minutes on a motorcycle. And by the way, travel in Uganda means you get dirty.  Just check this handkerchief out- the left side is after the ride there and the right is after the ride back. Nasty.

The reason we were in Ogur was because NACWOLA facilitates community dialogs on different topics.  This discussion was about the local council court and whether or not it allowed women to access justice.  The room was pretty full and predominantly men (much to Jeoffrey’s dismay).  First, we introduced the topic and split the room into groups – those were thought the court was doing its job and those that thought it withheld women’s rights (it’s worth noting that all of the women present were in the latter).  One group left to deliberate in another room while one remained.  After some chatting and going over points, they reconvened and engaged in a loose version of a debate.  Basically, one person from Group A spoke and Group B could respond, and then Group B spoke and Group A could respond.  About an hour into it, a guy from Radio Unity began recording using a tape recorder and got a good sum of the debate recorded – it will be played on the radio as part of an informational talk show sort of thing which is pretty cool.

Unfortunately for me, the entire four hours of debate was in Luo, but Stephen explained the gist afterwards, although this is just a smattering of details:

  • If a man dies, any land he owns goes to his parents, regardless of the wife. Widows were complaining that not only is this wrong, but that the local court will not hear claims to get the land back.
  • Some men argued that women were gaining ground in the public sphere and cited the example of a woman who recently made a power grab and ousted a MP.
  • Some argued that women were enjoying a freer justice system, but several on the other side countered that free in rights didn’t matter if it wasn’t affordable financially.
  • In the home, many women argued, they were overworked and still denied representation. If something went wrong in the home, it was seen as the woman’s fault since it was in her domain even if it was a result of the man’s decision-making.
  • The legality of polygamy in the face of a prohibition on polyandry gained mention.
  • In the education system, boys are often given priority at full schools based on the notion that the girls will grow up to work in the house anyways.
  • The marriage of a couple’s daughter is arranged completely by the father – from deciding on a dowry to deciding on the right man.  The mother has no say in this and some were complaining that courts would not hear motions to have a stake in these decisions.

Three Weeks Down

Typed on the 16th of June in the afternoon.

So, it’s been a while. And not much has been happening, therefore this post will be a jack of all trades. In the days since the last post I’ve been busy and not busy at all.

Work has been a complete bore. While I’m at work I feel like I might as well be at home because I’m not doing anything worthwhile, it’s been very frustrating. Just today the director returned and I talked with her for a while. Apparently I’ll be very busy once there are more funds for the child rights project. In July. So I’m trying to figure out my plan of action for the next two weeks. She said that next Monday one of the sub-counties has something going on and maybe I’ll go check it out. And next Wednesday ActionAid, the partner for the women’s empowerment project, is coming in to do training so I might sit in on that as well. Two days in one week!! And there’s a workshop tomorrow put on by two Brits so I may try to get into that as well.

I talked to Nadja a bit and I might fill out the week by visiting the orphanage she works at. That or I’ll try to meet with Monica’s friend who works with former LRA abductees. Either one would be a nice change of pace and get me a little more involved in the community, which is good. The other thing I was thinking was to use the downtime to plan some travel and figure out what to do.

In the meantime, I’ve now gone to four of the five restaurants in town. The passed three nights have seen me dine with a number of guests in different restaurants, so it’s nice. The first one, the night I got here and another time since then, was Hotel Aanya, an Indian restaurant that has a decent Chinese menu. Monday was Carwash, which is an Indian restaurant and its namesake. Last night was PanAfric, a more traditional spot. And I just got back from Lillian Towers, which is the fancy hotel/restaurant in town. I now have however many weeks to go to Whiskers, the last one standing.

Last week Erik left for a week’s leave to Kisoro (and Lake Bunyonyi, swoooon). Tomorrow Annett and Martin leave for a month on their honeymoon to Madagascar and the Comoros. The next day Monica heads to Kigali for a ded meeting, and she’ll be dropping Nadja in Kampala on the way. So all this disperal has reinvigerated my search for local travel, and I was thinking of maybe going to Gulu during the week next week since I have free days, but apparently Alison was thinking about heading over there this weekend and I might just follow for some company. I’d love to see Gulu sooner rather than later, but the IC office will be closed, so I’ll have to make a return. However! I could easily make this return on my way to or from the northeast, and I’m hoping to see Arua or one of the other towns in that corner of the country.

I went to the town market for the first time on Sunday! That was quite interesting. Lira isn’t big enough to say it was bustling, but it’s very much how I imagined it: tiny booths of all sorts of produce with a patchwork of cloth for a roof over an open-air market. I’m also learning Luo! Months ago Heather gave me a Luo-English dictionary and a pdf of Luo essentials, so I’ve been digesting it for a few days and bouncing words off of my colleagues at work. It’s actually a really, really simple language but I need to concentrate to remember all of the vocabulary. Other than that, just holding down the fort around these parts. Hopefully the next update will be more interesting, we’ll see.