David Lance Goines, Poster for UC Berkeley Summer Sessions, 2001.
I used to have a copy of this David Lance Goines poster, advertising U.C. Berkeley’s summer sessions. I took a class on Latin American history during one of those summer sessions. My instructor was a graduate student in the history department, and I’ve often wondered where he ended up.
Berkeley is on my mind this week because UC academic workers (graduate students, postdocs, etc.) are striking this week for a livable wage and better benefits. The strike covers all 10 campuses, and it breaks my heart.
The pay is pitiably low, and the work is hard. Judging from the news reports, grads currently working as TAs don’t make much more than I did when I TA’d (not at a UC, but at an Ivy) around 7 years ago. The New York Times reported one UCLA graduate student’s monthly pay as $2500 before taxes. I’ve managed to wipe the exact amount I was paid out of my mind, but I can tell you it was probably around that amount, which had to cover rent, transportation, food, all of my supplies for grading, equipment, utilities, etc. It truly is not enough. At the end of it all, I ended up in credit card debt. I’ve been reading about people who take on personal loans to pay for living expenses. And at least one anecdote of a student who sells plasma when the money runs short.
The low wages and poor benefits are just one aspect of this precarious existence. The terrible academic job market is another, oft discussed. But another piece–the opportunity cost of choosing to tread this path, from contingent situation to contingent situation–receives far less attention, perhaps because grad students and postdocs tend to be younger. What is this opportunity cost? It is the cost of foregoing years of savings and investments, of not paying into retirement funds(401(ks), IRAs, pensions, etc.), of not being able to afford to purchase a home. The opportunity cost paid by grads, postdocs, and other contingent academic workers is the cost of foregoing a financial future. Asked to starve in the present, they are also asked to give up dreams of future security. While their peers outside of academia are building careers, amassing various kinds of capital, accumulating wealth, they are spending their best years living in an unending, precarious, and contingent present.
Watching the situation in higher education is like watching Chronos eat his young.