This Friday, March 30, from 10:45 a.m to 12:45 p.m., Ohio University's English graduate students are meeting on the balcony outside Lindley Hall to hold a grade-in protest. Our demands are simple. We want summer teaching opportunities and the chance to have our voices heard in future English department decisions.
English graduate students, like all graduated students at OU, are in a serious financial bind. Our stipends are lower than those provided by OU's peer institutions and our healthcare subsidies are much smaller as well. With our incomes hovering around $12,000, we find it challenging to make ends meet during the eight months in a school year, but the real difficulty for many of us occurs during the long four months of summer. During this time paychecks cease, job opportunities dry up as the students leave Athens and rent, utilities and grocery expenses persist. In past years, graduate students in the English department were able to defray some of these costs through summer teaching opportunities. This year, however, the English department has chosen to prioritize Group 1 faculty for summer teaching opportunities, leaving only a few leftover classes for graduate students.
This policy change has resulted in heightened anxiety and financial insecurity for many students. The English Graduate Student Organization (EGSO) conducted a survey of the department’s graduate students to better understand their financial situations and their need for summer teaching income. Forty-two percent of students surveyed expressed deep concern and uncertainty about how they will make it through the summer without summer teaching income.
This summer’s bleak situation compounds an already dismal financial picture. English grad students already owe, on average, $35,513 in student loan debt and $3,528 in credit card debt, and they are worried they will have to accumulate more in order to finish their degrees. When ranking their overall financial stress, 79 percent of students said their stress was either a four or a five out of five. Thirty-four percent (more than one in three) ranked the stress at a five out of five. Additionally, 41 percent of those surveyed indicated that they did not have a financial safety net in case of an emergency. Given that grad students are always already in a precarious financial situation, we feel the department should take measures to relieve this strain. This is especially important if they want to keep an OU English graduate degree accessible to students of all socio-economic classes.
Hardest hit among the ranks of grad students are international students. These students have visa restrictions that prevent them from seeking employment off campus. Taking away teaching opportunities for these students greatly increases their financial strife. If the OU English department intends to accept these students, we feel they are under an ethical obligation to assist them in meeting their basic financial needs.
Beyond finances, summer teaching is an important professional opportunity for graduate students. Often summer classes give students the chance to teach courses that might not otherwise be available to them. These opportunities strengthen grad students’ CVs and help them to be more competitive on an increasingly difficult academic job market, thus enhance the English department's reputation and prestige. Taking these jobs away has a corrosive effect on professional development while also harming students financially, as one student surveyed wrote, “I will probably be unable to use summers to focus on developing my dissertation and study for comprehensive exams because I will need to spend time and energy that would otherwise be devoted to them looking for and working a full time job.”
Students are especially troubled by the recent changes in policy because they had no opportunity to offer their perspectives and opinions. The most resounding sentiment unearthed by our survey was students’ anger at the lack of transparency in the department’s decision-making processes. English grads feel we don’t have a voice in the crafting of policy, and ultimately, we don’t feel that faculty respect us as the junior colleagues that we are supposed to be. One student specifically voiced this in the survey, saying “I wish we had better communication here in the English department ... I wish there was a safe space for graduate students to at least inquire into the other resources potentially afforded them without taking the risk they will be seen as unappreciative or unfairly deemed desperate and financially irresponsible. These are normal and understandable concerns we are voicing, and I believe we should at least be afforded a space to (respectfully) voice them.”
The department could start to remedy this situation by allowing an elected graduate student representative to be present in department faculty meetings as a non-voting member, as other departments on campus have done, and by creating more opportunities for face-to-face dialogue between all graduate students and faculty on departmental matters.
With all this in mind, we hope that fellow students and supportive faculty, staff and administrators will join us this Friday as we make our case for financial stability, professional opportunities and the chance to have our voices heard.
This letter is signed by the following English Graduate Student Organization Representatives:
Aaron Babcock, GSS
Claire Eder, GEO
Susanna Hempstead, PhD Rep
Jen Reeher, MA Rep
Derek Robbins, CW Rep