The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Saturday January 22nd

Letter to the editor: UNC administration misunderstands graduate student struggle

On April 13, graduate students received a curious email from Suzanne Barbour, Dean of the Graduate School, with the subject “Ways to Stay Productive.” Having struggled with productivity myself in the last month, I was curious to see what the administration had to offer. It wasn’t very good.

In all likelihood, the remarks from Dean Barbour were meant to be uplifting and motivational — I don’t hold the dean in contempt personally. However, the suggestions in their letter seem to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what graduate students do at the University, and how they’ve been affected by the crisis. To put it more bluntly, it reads as tone-deaf and insulting.

Consider, for example, some of the particular suggestions for increasing productivity: do data analysis, write a review article with an eye towards publication, work on your advisor’s project, and, my personal favorite, “finally finish that manuscript.” These are the suggestions that one would offer to someone who was unproductive because they didn’t know what to do and needed some guidance. It’s the advice an exasperated parent gives to a bored child. 

In case there’s any confusion about the matter, let me make things clear: no graduate student is bored during this pandemic. Nor is the loss of productivity a result of failing to realize that we could be publishing research or writing manuscripts. In fact, virtually everything on the dean’s list is something that we are already busy doing as academics, and that we continue to do even while sequestered at home. 

Rather, the decline in productivity is due to two factors. The first is related to what has already been mentioned, and has to do with the fact that our workload has not decreased even as we’ve implemented social distancing. Not only have we continued with our coursework, taking area exams, defending masters’ theses and hitting department benchmarks, but many of us have also had to transition to teaching online overnight, checking in on our students, and adapting our existing course design. The pandemic has not freed up time for working on an advisor’s proposals; instead, it has taken up more of our time. 

The second factor is that on top of this added work, we’ve become painfully aware of just how precarious our financial position is at the university. Many of us already knew this, but in case there is confusion with this matter, too, let me be explicit once again: most of us live paycheck to paycheck with little financial security. 

This preexisting condition has only been made worse by the crisis. Consider, for example, that in many, if not all, departments, summer funding is a matter of having sufficient enrollment in a summer class. If a class doesn’t fill up, it’s canceled, and the instructor-to-be is given no money. In the past, this has been excused by the fact that we could take a part-time summer job somewhere outside of academia, or serve as an adjunct at a community college. Under the present conditions, this is, of course, impossible. Now, many of us are left worried if we’ll have enough to eat and house ourselves over the summer. 

Similar worries extend to the fall. Many existing fellowship opportunities have already been canceled, research plans have been destroyed, and each one of us is worried that the little funding we have been promised (if, indeed, we have been lucky enough to receive such a promise!) will fall victim to austerity measures as departments try to stay afloat. Many of us are also worried about the security of our jobs as graduate students, and about our prospects in a job market that seems to be melting away overnight. Others are worried about what they’ll do if their visas expire and are forced to leave the country. Each of us is, of course, also worried about our health and the health of our loved ones; given that we still get our health insurance through our workplace, the economic concerns and health concerns overlap. 

These are the concerns that many of us live with and these are the factors that are affecting our productivity. 

In light of that, it’s obvious that what we need is not the comically trivial advice that in order to be productive we should produce more. Rather, what we need are concrete assurances for the security of our funding, our jobs and our healthcare. If the University really cared about how productive we are at this time, the best thing they can do is make those assurances. Secure our funding, secure our healthcare and guarantee our jobs for the duration of the pandemic.

If the university really cares they would look to see what we actually need and what we’re actually asking for. They would work hard to meet the demands of our union as outlined in our letter. And where unable to secure these demands directly, they would fight on our side to make sure that they’re met against those who oppose them. 

So far, there has been little evidence of such a move from the administration. Perhaps this is because those who have been fighting for us have been drowned out by the din of bureaucracy. If this is the case, I want to encourage such people, if they exist, to sign our letter of support and fight with us. 

Pavel Nitchovski

Ph.D. Candidate

Department of Philosophy

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