Academic Labor Systems

Indiana University graduate students have been on strike for over three weeks now, demanding union recognition. This had a significant impact on the end of the spring semester at the university, since graduate students primarily work as graders and instructors in undergraduate classes.

Unrelated to the strike, I have ongoing contracts with two Indiana University departments–the Department of History and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. My work focuses almost entirely on graduate students; I offer advising and programming related to career diversity.

As part of this work, I encourage students to research the careers they are considering, so that they can make informed choices about their futures. The current strike got me thinking about the larger labor structures of the contemporary university, and I realized that the moment was ripe to share some resources on the topic with the students.

Below is a short article I wrote for the students. It garnered more attention than my articles normally do, so I thought I’d post it here, for the benefit of graduate students unaffiliated with Indiana University.


Considering the Academic Labor System

I know that labor issues have been have been on many people’s minds this semester. I wish the graduate students well in their efforts to obtain better working conditions and the faculty well in their efforts to support their students.

As part of graduate students’ efforts to educate themselves on graduate student labor issues, I encourage you to consider the academic labor system wholistically. How do large graduate programs and reliance on adjunct faculty support the far-better working conditions of tenured and tenure-track faculty? What are the working conditions of faculty at different types of academic institutions? Understanding the power structure and working conditions of any industry seems to me an important part of deciding if that is an industry you want to be a part of.

If you are interested in learning about working conditions in other parts of the academic system, I recommend “The Cruelty of the Adjunct System,” by Alexandra Bradner, and “Tenured, Trapped, and Miserable in the Humanities,” by William Pannapacker (if you are stopped by a paywall trying to access this article, you can access it online through IU Library, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 10, 2021).

I freely acknowledge that neither of these articles is particularly even-handed; they highlight only the negative aspects of these jobs. Still, I include them here to offer a perspective that graduate students don’t always see when making decisions about what career paths to pursue.

There are positive and negative aspects to all jobs. The key is to take the time to figure out what are deal-breakers for you and what are the positive aspects of work that will go the farthest in making you happy and professionally fulfilled. Then, do your homework to determine what types of work best fit those criteria.