I am a graduate instructor at the University of Mississippi, and I live on the brink of poverty.
My story, unfortunately, is a common one. My stipend is $11,500 a year. This unconscionably low salary forces me to seek employment over the summer while attempting to balance an active research agenda. As I strive to meet the deadlines set by my dissertation committee during the semester, I also answer emails from students, plan lessons, grade assignments, meet with faculty, hold office hours, undergo countless rounds of writing revisions, apply for grants and perform a host of other responsibilities.
I invoke the powerful words of Civil Rights Heroine Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I, too, am sick and tired. I’m sick and tired of the annoyed looks I get at the grocery store when my EBT card is declined. I’m sick and tired of plunging half of my paycheck into my monthly rent. I’m sick and tired of turning down professional development opportunities and conferences in my field because I can’t afford the travel expenses, but most of all, I’m sick and tired of a university that so blatantly devalues my labor.
I paint this shocking portrait of the economic reality faced by many instructors and campus workers not to shame any particular department; rather, I do so to highlight the problematic ways university administrators frame academic labor and to underscore the income inequality epidemic that plagues academia.
Those in positions of power who set instructors’ wages either willfully ignore or are blissfully unaware of the array of responsibilities and professional expectations faced by graduate instructors and other campus workers in increasingly demanding fields. I hope it’s the latter, because I cannot imagine a justifiable reason for this level of systemic exploitation.
What university administrators fail to take into account are the numerous hours of “invisible” and academic labor graduate instructors are expected to perform, much of it without pay, in order to succeed in our respective programs. In addition to the aforementioned list of responsibilities, graduate instructors in my field are expected –– if they want a sliver of a chance of finding a job in an absurdly competitive marketplace –– to publish articles in peer-reviewed journals, present papers at conferences and serve on various academic committees.
Thus far, I have performed all of these tasks with enthusiasm and gratitude –– I, like many of my colleagues, am passionate about my research. I cannot put a price on the level of professional development and personal satisfaction I cultivate by performing these tasks.
Do I expect to be compensated for these acts of service to my department, university and field? Of course not. What discourages me is the fact that university administrators, knowingly or unknowingly, refuse to acknowledge and legitimize this labor when they set workers’ salaries.
To the administrators of the University of Mississippi, Chancellor Boyce, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees and state legislators of Mississippi – I implore you. Pay instructors and campus workers a living wage. You have the power to do so. Stop hiding behind generalities and foot-dragging rhetoric, like: “We need to establish an exploratory committee” or “We need to conduct a survey.” Enough is enough. Pay us for our visible and invisible labor, which is vital to the function of this university.
Seth Spencer is a Ph.D. student and graduate instructor in the English Department.