Our theme for the month of September is Alphabet Soup. Each writer was assigned a letter and will title their post “___ is for ___.”
When you’re a graduate student, work is a fraught term. At Michigan, I’m a dues-paying member of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), one of the oldest graduate student unions in the country. The union asserts that “the university doesn’t work unless we do”: without graduate students, American higher education would grind to an ungainly halt. Nationally, though, a lot of effort and political will is spent debating whether the research, teaching, and administration grad students do is real labor, the kind that merits wages and benefits and the protection of the law. We’re in training, they say. It’s an apprenticeship.
I have a .5 GSI appointment in the Writing Program, which means I should spend 16.5-20 hours per week on my teaching. GEO asks me to track my time—if I’m working more hours, I can file a grievance. But how do I count the hours spent skimming articles which I later share with a student interested in writing about climate activism? The time spent scrolling Twitter, where I encountered the historian whose threads I used for an in-class exercise on argument? The length of the audiobook for Missoula, which I’ve recommended to multiple students concerned about sexual assault?
Anne Helen Peterson jokes about LARPing your job– live-action-role-playing to look like you’re working, to prove to other people that you’re working, to demonstrate that you are productive and valuable and a good investment for your employers. Part of the joke is the irony that role-playing is a distraction—“Evidencing that I’m doing work instead of, well, doing work”—because the work that you are doing as a writer (in my case, a graduate student) is so hard to measure; it doesn’t conform to business hours or produce tangible results. But we feel like we have something to prove.
Every semester I agonize over last-day-of-class goodies for my students—buying snacks feels like a failure. They deserve my full-hearted presence and thorough preparation. They deserve homemade treats at the end of a hard-fought semester. But I am not paid for caring about my job. I could do it with much less heart—I have seen it done—but I work hard. Perhaps I should be materially rewarded for my endless lesson plan revisions and professional development workshop attendance. Still—I hate the slippage between wage-bearing labor and caring, which feels sometimes like monetizing compassion, expecting cash for my kindness.
I know the mental load, I’ve seen it in a hundred offices and households, and in my own instinct to take on the labor of organizing everyday tasks. I have no office of my own, so I am always working from home—lesson plans, reading—and I am always working on home. I am surprised, sometimes, that the apartment is vacuumed weekly, our insurance updated, car maintained, that I plan a week of novel, nutritious meals and there are no wages and benefits, just work, and more work, and what of it matters? And what am I trying to prove?
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.