Saturday, August 5, 2006

Being funded isn't getting paid, and autonomy isn't agency

Yesterday I was going over my dissertation's analysis of UT's funding, which I describe as a complex and dynamic assemblage of social, material and financial relationships, and I stopped to look up "funding" in the dictionary. The OED says it means "to supply with funds, pay (a person); to finance (a position or enterprise)." But each of the historical quotations references government or philanthropy, making it clear it's to be distinguished from regular pay from an employer.

Graduate students in Canada compete for both funding and employment. For example, I was funded by the federal and provincial governments, and by a public university, in the form of scholarships and fellowships. In exchange for these taxable funds I am given a great deal of personal autonomy and I must complete my degree. The final products here are my dissertation and me, a credentialed practitioner, both of which ostensibly serve the public.

When I started my PhD, the $35,000/year SSHRC Doctoral Scholarship didn't exist, and no one enrolled before the programme started can apply for one. My Doctoral Fellowship paid $19,000 a year, but today they pay $20,000. In any case, all award recipients are expected to be engaged "full-time" with their studies, and can only accept "part-time" employment in addition to this funding. All tuition fees are deducted from this amount, and since Carleton doesn't offer lower post-residency fees, I pay full tuition until completion.

The StatsCan low-income cut-off is currently around $19,000 for metro populations - this means that after tuition is paid, I live under the "poverty line". If I'm fortunate enough to get a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship next year then I can expect to earn $30,000 that year. But since I can no longer claim student status I'll be required to begin repaying my student loan. In my case, that's around $900 a month and that means it's entirely possible that I'll be living even further below the poverty line after graduation.

Of course the ideal scenario is to make the transition directly to a tenure-track position, but that's about as likely to happen as me waking up tomorrow with a third breast. As it stands, I have tuition and living expenses covered until the end of August. Teaching one class this term will pay my tuition but not my living expenses; I'll need to find employment in order to finish my degree. And, of course, what now threatens to postpone my completion is exactly what has delayed my progress so far: the desire to avoid poverty.

So, back to this idea that funding is not the same as getting paid. Certain activites, like academic research and art, are more often project-based and therefore well-suited to commission or competition. But these kinds of labour are valued differently (dare I say less?) than "regular" jobs or, as some prefer, "real" jobs. Actually, it's considered to be a bit of give-and-take: you can't tell me what I can and can't do, but I can't expect to be paid as much money as someone you do get to tell what they can and can't do. I'm being paid, so the story goes, with money and freedom.

Now here's the question: does anyone else sense a weird tension here between autonomy and agency? What exactly am I free to do? And what are others free to do to me? Or with the products of my labour?


Blogger institute.of.zombie.studies said...

You will be free to take (when you get the SSHRC funding) a pay cut once you graduate and begin toiling (even more so) as a sessional lecturer making approximately $3,000 less per year than the funding. Although you will be saving that much (and more) by not paying tuition fees you will be paying back your loan. But, you will be able to do those two things you've always wanted to: 1) when someone hurts themself in public, rush up to them and say "It's alright I'm a doctor...unfortunately unless you are having an ontological problem I can't really help, but I do have a cell phone" and 2) "That's DOCTOR to you" at parties and when someone is rude.

Well worth it I think.

Anonymous Craig said...

At York, CGS recipients are currently attempting to organize and be recognized as part of the union - CGS holders are, in general, not permitted to work in addition to their scholarly duties narrowly construed. There is some logic in the position of the university in terms of fairness: why should someone getting $35,000/a also get another $12,000 for being a T.A., tuition indexing (valued at about $1500), and health coverage. (However, it is worth noting that union insiders have exploited their right of first refusal and power of seniority to pull in incomes over seventy thousand a year as doctoral students - nothing like a rich "anarchist" who buys the new Powerbook every three months.) At the same time, it'd be really nice to have health insurance - you know, so if I get sick or hurt myself or if my partner does the same, that we can get the medicine we need. I'm not living a big life by any stretch of the imagination (we have, however, had a string of bad luck the entire year) and, at present, I'm lucky to end the month with $20 in the bank.

(My lack of funds has forced me to have to teach in the upcoming year at Carleton. And the course offered to me was decent, so I don't mind *that* much.)

It seems ridiculous to me that in order to attend graduate school, nearly everyone has to work "part time" (the T.A.ship *always* takes up more time than you're paid for - but that's capitalism for you). And, further, that we are expected to view this forced, underpaid labour as a blessing and a reward. And, to make things worse, the government wants us to increase graduate enrollments by fifty percent? How is that going to work?

They better up the value of the post-doc. Except as income protection between completing and finding a job, the allure of the post-doc is quickly fading - at least you are't paying six to eight thousand dollars in tuition then.

Anonymous anne said...

gee, thanks kevin ;)

and craig, i really don't see why i shouldn't be able to claim a $35,000 scholarship for my research and another $12,000 for teaching. for working one full-time job *and* another part-time job, i don't see that as excessive financial compensation.

but then again i've never agreed with how well - or poorly - remunerated certain professions are, and i actually support imposing maximum incomes on people regardless of their profession.

in any case, i totally agree that it sucks that my greatest single concern while i attempt to finish my dissertation is how to pay the bills.

perhaps we can take small comforts from conducting loud bitching sessions in the library cafe this fall...

Anonymous glen said...


i have writen about similar issues from down under here (new blog!):
on postgraduate labour:
on the careerist security of noblisse oblige:
and here is a link to an essay "the "Informal Economy" of the Information University" by Marc Bousquet which raises similar issues but from the US:

lastly, I am setting up a postgrad wiki in my capacity as postgrad rep for the CSAA (the australasian cultstud org) and there will hopefully be a page (or a series of pages) for issues relating to what we call postgraduate (or what you call graduate) labour. So if you have any more thoughts on the subject turn them into words and post them on your blog so the wiki can link to it as a canadian perpsective.

Anonymous Craig said...

Anne, my course is in the winter, but I'm often around campus to get books and make photocopies. I expect once CGS runs out, that I'll be teaching "full time" (two full courses) just to pay the bills - I'll have met my maximum eligibility for SSHRC and OGS. Should have gone for a Trudean instead.

There's a difference, I think, between about $47,000 and about $70,000 - the latter is reprehensible. If it were up to me, grad school wouldn't have tuition, it would be paid like a job, there wouldn't be any expectation of working beyond courses and research until the third or fourth year, and, in order to fund this, fewer students would be admitted. Also, faculty participation would be much greater in graduate education in exchange for having fewer students, fewer courses, etc. But I don't write post-secondary education policy.

Anonymous anne said...

glen - thanks for the links! but all in all i find it pretty discouraging to see that this is happening everywhere.

craig - well, you know where to find me come september ;) and i totally understand about having to teach two classes - let's hope you're better at it than i was because it set me back months and months with my thesis progress...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

900 a month anne! that is atrocious... how come you have to pay so much per month? :-(


Anonymous Craig said...

The plan, of course, is to get as much of it done as quickly as possible so that teaching seems like a nice luxury that one partakes in because one is sick of getting those final words together... Highly unlikely, and it will never happen, but still!

Blogger Phil said...

does anyone else sense a weird tension here between autonomy and agency?

Well spotted. I'd spent five years doing a doctorate full-time and paying the bills with freelance journalism - and another year working part-time and paying the remaining bills with slightly less journalism - before I realised that having a Real Job wouldn't necessarily losing freedom to gain security... and that when I was spending my life chasing the next writing gig, I didn't necessarily have all that much freedom to lose.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spent my undergraduate years studying languages and literature, and I also took a minor in music (piano). Those were in some ways the best years I've had so far! I knew I had to make a living, so I went to grad school in economics and now I work for a consulting firm I helped start. All the lit., the piano and the languages...were they a waste of time, because they didn't provide me with a living? No, they are and were and end in themselves! You've been given the gift of being able to study what you want for several years. Now you have to figure out how to make a living. Uncouple those two pursuits! If you get a tenure track job, fine, then you're set for a while. If not, find a living and keep puruing the studies that you love and do so well! I don't think that society is necessarily obliged to give you a job in your chosen area of study.

I decided not to write my dissertation in econ. Eventually, though, I shall go back to literature and languages, but I have children and I don't plan to have them raised by nannies. Meanwhile the knowledge I have and the intellectual skills are still with me and enrich my life. Uncouple!! Best regards, Leah Ingrid MacLennan


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