Reimagining the PhD

To Rethink Community College-Research University Partnerships, Legitimize the Work of Graduate Students Already Taking on the Labor of Relationship-Building

Build Bridges Not Walls

If universities take seriously the needs of first-generation and BIPOC students—not to mention, the needs of graduate students—they might instead compensate and otherwise support the cross-institutional labor of graduate students working as community college instructors.

For many graduate students in the humanities, teaching is the primary way to secure funding and gain valuable experience for the competitive academic job market. The pedagogical training graduate students receive varies widely, but at the University of Washington, I’ve benefitted from the robust instructor training offered by the Expository Writing Program, which prepares incoming graduate students to teach the department’s bread-and-butter courses, i.e., first-year composition. Even so, the first message many new graduate students receive about their funding and teaching appointments generally includes a clause like this one (drawn from orientation materials provided by my former institution, a large research university in the American Southeast):

Permission of the Director of Graduate Studies is required for any employment, whether in the university or outside it, beyond the duties of the associateship.”

In the vast majority of cases, this permission is not granted. The underlying assumption here is that graduate students should be focused on research and teaching at their own institution—work that  amounts to (and often exceeds) the labor of a full-time job. This message was actually deemed so critical by my former institution that it was the only clause delineated twice in the handbook, highlighted in bold at each iteration to ensure that incoming teaching assistants would recognize the seriousness of their contractional obligations to the department. Yet these same graduate students are still encouraged to join professional organizations on campus, to serve on graduate student committees, to apply for research grants, and the like: they just cannot receive compensation. My current department recommends rather than enforces such regulations, but it has become standard practice in humanities graduate programs across the country to circumscribe the extra-institutional labor of graduate teaching assistants.

To examine the pool of adjunct labor for community college humanities programs—particularly those in areas geographically close to larger public or research institutions— is to understand that the target of such policies is community college teaching. Indeed, community college teaching on the part of graduate students is a common practice, understood to serve under-resourced institutions dependent on adjunct labor to account for budgetary constraints. Graduate instructors, for their part, cite inadequate graduate stipends and the need to make ends meet as their underlying motivation for taking on the herculean task of teaching upwards of 80 students across multiple campuses while pursuing graduate study.

As part of my research for the Mellon Collaborative Fellowship for Reaching New Publics in the Community Colleges, I’ve interviewed multiple community college instructors and found the story to be more complicated. Almost every instructor recalls teaching community college classes while pursuing graduate study—but they do so from the vantage point of a current community college position, and thus view this experience as part of their professional development and identity. Some instructors taught at community colleges before returning to graduate school for their PhD, and sought to retain connections to their prior institutions by continuing to teach at community colleges. Still others—particularly first-generation graduate students and graduate students from working-class backgrounds—recalled the vital role that the community college played in their own lives, providing access to both education and mentorship. As one graduate student/community college history instructor relayed to me, “The community college, when I was younger, was one of the few spaces in the rural South that queer kids, queer students, would be able to express themselves in any way … so [community colleges] are an important place for me, and I didn’t want to give up that work.” For these individuals, the prospect of full-time teaching at community colleges following graduate study represents a viable, indeed desirable, option for employment, one which would provide abundant opportunities to promote academic equity and invest in historically underserved communities.

During my conversations with these community college instructors, they reflected on community-based teaching practices specifically tailored to increase access and equity for working class and first-generation students—practices they had honed in the community college context. One instructor, for instance, completely redesigned labor-based assessment practices to encourage criticism of institutional literacies and facilitate “collective knowledge building” in ways that center the existing efforts of local communities, such as a student-led prison abolition movement. These pedagogical practices reflect the aspirations delineated by the institutional mission statements of many universities and community colleges alike, yet they remain occluded and stymied by policies that, at best, turn a blind eye to extra-departmental community college teaching, or, at worst, jeopardize the funding and departmental standing of graduate students who pursue this work.

If universities take seriously the needs of first-generation and BIPOC students—not to mention, the needs of graduate students—they might instead compensate and otherwise support the cross-institutional labor of graduate students working as community college instructors. If we want to endorse community college teaching as a legitimate career path, we must legitimate efforts to diversify one’s teaching experiences beyond the research institution. Including graduate students in administrative and faculty discussions about doctoral training is also critical to move institutions to reconsider assumptions about their students’ professional plans and community positioning. As universities and community colleges seek to identify their shared goals and engagements, it seems those graduate students already working within and across these institutions would be an important place to start.  

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Joe Wilson (he/him/his)

Joe Wilson is a Doctoral Student in the Department of English, as well as a 2020-2021 Collaborative Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics with Rebecca Taylor, who is also a Doctoral Student in the Department of English. He is also Assistant Director of the Expository Writing Program.