Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Belated Call To Arms

(I'd actually forgotten I'd written this until someone said something to me yesterday regarding my problems with grad school. This was an essay I wrote in September of 2008, which shows how far back my resentment and dissatisfaction go. I was originally going to print out a hundred copies and tape them all over the Virginia Tech campus, but I ended up not having the guts. So much for my career as an iconoclast.)

Imagine a system where it was impossible to get fired. Nothing that a person did could ever lead to the termination of their employment; the worst they could expect would be “lateral promotion,” or a transfer between two posts of similar rank. There are two systems in the United States where this misguided principle is applied: the Federal Government, and Academia. Both bodies are plagued by the same problems: a lack of accountability at fundamental levels of operation, acceptance (some would argue encouragement) of incompetence and ineptitude, and a predilection for excoriating and ostracizing any of its members who dare to shy from what is deemed “acceptable speech”—i.e., party line.

Unfortunately for us as American citizens, our will has become so far removed from the machinations of our governmental morass that it is nearly impossible for anything barring a coup to influence policy. However, the situation is not the same in Academia. We’ve been led to believe that the situation is analogous, and a lot of professorial smoke-and-mirrors and baiting-and-switching has done the trick on most students, undergraduate and graduate alike. Yet we as students have more power than we imagine. We as students have more power than our professors imagine. Without students, they would have no function. They would be reduced to earning their keep on the lecture circuit, and no doubt many of the ones who had nothing original to say—and we can safely assume that there are a few within the academic circles of America who fit that bill—would find themselves in need of a reality check, as well as a real job.

Why, then, do we persist in our acceptance of the status quo aeterne? Part of it no doubt lies in the stereotypical abusive parent-child dynamic. “As long as we can get our licks in when we get our Ph.D.’s, all of this will be worth it,” students say to themselves. Or maybe it’s just become one of those things that is seen as just another hurdle. Classes, thesis, professorial abuse—it’s all part of the wonderful package that is a collegiate education.

Undergraduates, to some extent, have more rights than graduate students. They are paying to be here. Their money pays the professors’ wages. It pays for new stadia, new buildings, new programs, anything that a university administrator can dream up. Therefore, a few angry parents can command at least some attention, especially in today’s increasingly litigious society.

What of the grad students, though? They are paid employees of…well, whom? Of the university? Of their respective departments? The details are often hazy, and it is easy to see why they are kept that way. Without knowing who writes their checks and to whom they are ultimately responsible, grad students have no recourse to anyone in a position of objective authority. As employees, their loyalty is expected. Contracts are drawn up, specifications laid out, and who among the newly arrived masters’ and doctoral students would dare raise an issue with the entrenched laws of a pre-existing and overarching academic behemoth?

No one’s that brave. The person who is writing this isn’t brave enough to sign his name to this declaration. The person who is writing this declaration isn’t yet free from the fear that academia instills: the fear that voicing opinions that don’t fall into line with the (supposedly) objective but actually repressive professorial dogma might revoke that precious piece of paper, one of the few remaining things of value that our institutions of higher learning have to offer. These words are being written in the hope that one day students won’t have to face that fear.

To those who are reading this: it is time we got rid of tenure. It is time we gave pink slips to the dead weight that, by the grace of an archaic and outmoded policy, has dragged our colleges and universities into an educational sinkhole. It is time we dismantled the tenure track and demanded from our professoriate the same things our professoriate demands from us: creativity, drive, intellectual and academic excellence, and a fervent rejection of the stagnation of any of these rational ideals. If you are a student who feels they have no recourse in the face of professorial abuse of power, then this is for you. It’s time we gave ourselves a voice.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will - Could you be specific with your complaints?

1:44 AM  
Blogger Gryffilion said...

Two specific complaints I have with my time at Virginia Tech are the way graduate students are(n't) paid and professorial plagiarism. In the first instance, a lot of graduate students are brought in with the promise of money, only to find their contract revoked once they've started their degree program. It's a shameful way to do things, and academic institutions ought to be ashamed of such low tactics. In the second case, a lot of professors are more or less allowed (i.e., they go unpunished) for taking students' data and, in some cases, thesis work, appending it to their own publications, and not citing the student in any way. This type of behavior on the part of so-called "mentors" and "advisors" is detestable, and it's a big part of the reason I left graduate school after a year.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Gryffilion said...

(In my case, I didn't even get a contract--I was simply told once classes had started that no money was available to me. It's still a scummy and underhanded thing to do.)

2:47 PM  

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